You gotta get close to get the truth. You get too close, you die

Oliver Stone was once quoted as saying “I consider my films to be first and foremost dramas about individuals in personal struggles”. When the writer/director became friends with Richard Boyle, he became fascinated by this crazed photojournalist, who had spent a chunk of his life wallowing in excesses like drugs and alcohol – rather like famous hack Hunter S. Thompson. Boyle had kept a journal describing his turbulent experiences in war torn El Salvador during the early 1980s, the horrors of which would change him forever. Stone was immediately hooked by what he read, turning it into a screenplay in just three weeks. Within a year, following a troubled production which saw Stone at the helm of his first major film, Salvador (1986) was set for release.

When we’re first introduced to Boyle – as portrayed by James Woods in a dynamic performance – it’s difficult to warm to this odious figure. He’s a selfish, conniving drunk who is struggling to find work in San Francisco, as most self-respecting news agencies won’t go near him. He hasn’t looked through a lens in years, so instead dwells on past glories. In the opening scenes, Boyle is thrown out of his apartment for not paying the rent, his long-suffering wife walks out on him and the police are on his back for various motoring offences.

With luck clearly not on his side, Boyle decides to load up his trusted old jalopy and head south, tempting his washed-up DJ buddy Dr. Rock (James Belushi) to accompany him on the trip, with the promise of cheap booze, plentiful dope and women. Boyle has heard that there’s still unrest  in El Salvador and he has some useful contacts down there, including a shady Colonel, so there’s the prospect of some easy freelance work.

When Boyle and Rock arrive in El Salvador they soon find themselves caught up in a Civil War raging between left wing guerrillas and the military junta, over on-going repression that is keeping the people impoverished. Stone creates a sustained feeling of tension from the outset, where hostility and death is never far away – and it’s vividly shot by Robert Richardson. At first Boyle seems oblivious to just how brutal the conflict has become, so when dedicated photographer Jon Cassady (John Savage) takes him to an isolated rocky expanse that has become a dumping ground, it serves as a shocking wake-up call. In a harrowing scene, a sickened Boyle observes bodies of all ages strewn over piles of waste. They’re victims of the Death Squads who are linked to Major Max (Tony Plana), a heinous right-wing military figure with political ambitions.

We start to see a more humane side to Boyle when he is reunited with old flame Maria (Predator star Elpidia Carrillo), a local woman whom he claims to truly love. Maria takes some convincing that he can really become a changed man and settle down – and who can blame her based on his past womanising. This leads to an amusing scene – brilliantly improvised by Woods – as the self-proclaimed weasel visits confession for the first time in 33 years and clumsily begs for forgiveness. Boyle is aware that Maria does not have a Cedula (proof of identity) and as a result is at risk of being shot on sight by the merciless regime – thousands of innocent civilians have already disappeared, so he conspires to smuggle her out of the country.

As the 1980 US elections play out back home and Reagan becomes president, Boyle knows that the ruthless Salvadoran government is receiving millions of dollars from the US in military aid. He’s determined that this deplorable truth is revealed to the American people and such a daring expose may also give him a chance to reclaim some professional integrity – if he can stay alive long enough.

Although Salvador is based on factual events there are, by all accounts, some embellishments along the way. Names have also been changed in certain instances, with the character of Major Max being a thinly veiled version of Roberto D’Aubuisson, the extreme right-ring politician who was linked to many atrocities during that period. Salvador came out soon after a couple of other highly charged political thrillers with a similar theme, those being Under Fire (1983) and The Killing Fields (1984). By comparison, Stone’s film is not quite as polished, hampered by trying to pack too many characters and sub-plots into the narrative, meaning that some are underdeveloped. For instance, we learn precious little about Savage’s character – very loosely based on courageous Newsweek journalist John Hoagland. Instead the film is saddled with a pair of largely unappealing principal characters in Boyle and Rock; Belushi’s character even manages to make Ratzo Rizzo look respectable. Despite these shortcomings, it remains a raw and compelling work, from an uncompromising maverick director.

The Disc

Eureka! have released Salvador in a dual-format edition, including both DVD and Blu-ray versions (the first time on HD in the UK). The 1080p transfer preserves the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and is significantly more detailed than the earlier DVD released by MGM almost 20 years ago. Colours are bright throughout, particularly in the early exterior scenes shot around San Francisco. No discernible signs of damage were observed.

There are two audio options: DTS-HD MA 5.1 or LPCM mono, with both doing a sterling job. Dialogue is well-defined throughout. Optional English subtitles are also available.


An excellent set of extras, consisting mostly of archive material, some of which is ported over from the original 2001 MGM DVD.

Into the Valley of Death (62:52) – This fascinating documentary, directed by Charles Kiselyak, provides plenty of insight behind the film, including how Oliver Stone first came to meet Richard Boyle. To keep costs down, the original intention was to shoot Salvador cinéma vérité style, with Boyle and Dr Rock playing themselves, but this didn’t work – ably demonstrated by some amusing screen tests. No major studio would touch the film, mainly due to its anti-American stance, but UK indie Hemdale came to the rescue. Star James Woods is interviewed here along with director Stone and the real-life Boyle. There are stories of how the accomplished but challenging actor clashed with Stone, together with his co-star Belushi. He also became infuriated with Boyle, who was constantly around on set.

There are some extraordinary anecdotes, for example Stone provided the Salvadoran Government with a phony script in Spanish that made them look like the good guys, when the film would in fact depict the opposite. This was to try and gain their support with making the film, providing military vehicles, but naturally everything didn’t go according to plan. Inherent dangers of working on location in El Salvador became frighteningly apparent when one of the film’s advisors was murdered, forcing a hasty relocation to Mexico. Considering the scale of the project and abundant production troubles, Salvador was amazingly completed on a meagre $5 million budget. The film received mixed reviews at the time and was barely released in the US. It wasn’t until the huge critical and commercial success of Stone’s next film Platoon later that same year, that sparked renewed interest in Salvador.

Deleted / Extended Scenes (27:48) – The original cut of Salvador ran close to 165 minutes, indicating that over 40 minutes were excised prior to theatrical and home releases. Much of the material presented here though seems superfluous and is of poor quality.

A commentary track with Oliver Stone (recorded in 2001) and a rare 1986 audio interview with him that can also be played over the film.

Oliver Stone at the BFI (42:13) – an interview recorded in 1994, following a screening of Heaven & Earth, where the director talks about his career to date and answers questions from the audience.

US Trailer (1:59)

A collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by critic and journalist Barry Forshaw (not available for review).

David P

Updated: Sep 17, 2018

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