Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Salvador (1986)

Fear and Loathing in Central America.

Between 1980 and 1992, El Salvador was ravaged by civil war, a war that pitted left wing guerrilla groups against a right wing military administration that was supported by Reagan's United States government. Reaganite policy was shaped by a fear of left wing prominence in territories like Salvador would mean a spread of communism into the US and so, with this paranoid thinking in mind, Regan sanctioned the repression of the people of El Salvador, and the use of state death squads who would assassinate, massacre and 'disappear' persons or people who proved to be a thorn in the side of their 'progress'. By the end of the war in 1992, more than 30,000 people were still unaccounted for, missing presumed dead.

Gonzo photojournalist Richard Boyle covered much of the emerging conflict and approached Oliver Stone with his unpublished memoirs in the mid 80s. Played on screen by James Woods, Boyle is a jaded and somewhat frazzled loose cannon; a glib veteran of Vietnam and the killing fields of Cambodia (he makes many references to being the last journalist out of the country, long after Sydney Shamberg) he's a wild and crazy guy, accompanied - as if 'on holiday by mistake' by loudmouth San Franciscan radio DJ Doctor Rock (Jim Belushi) -  who the audience slowly sees in a new light as he witnesses first hand the appalling horrors of Major Max's (in reality  Roberto D'Aubuisson) regime. Like the skin of an onion, various layers of Boyle's character are peeled back from wacko slimeball to experienced war correspondent and finally to the empathetic, passionate and caring individual we see at the end of the film.

Is it all true? Well, not really no. Seemingly taking John Ford's desire to 'print the legend', much of Stone's Salvador is a composite that blurs reality with fiction to produce an accurate character study and a vivid indictment on US foreign policy and the savagery of civil war. Scenes which place Boyle at the centre of pivotal points in the conflict are, to put it nicely, using 'poetic licence'. These include not only his eyewitness account of Archbishop Romero's assassination and the battle of Santa Anna, but the utterly fictional creation of John Savage's character Cassady, a photographer killed in action, and Boyle's attempt to sneak his girlfriend Maria into the US. It's a uniquely cartoonish excess which paints its characters colourfully and onto a broad canvas, but it's not the first film that embellishes its tale to get a very real message across and some scenes of utter horror, such as the rape and murder of aid working nuns and the mutilated bodies littering the towns and countryside, remain with the viewer long after and hopefully will force them to consider the actions taken in the name of the supposed free world.

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