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Salvador: The Limited Edition Series Blu-ray Review

Salvador (1986) movie poster Salvador

Theatrical Release: March 5, 1986 / Running Time: 123 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Oliver Stone / Writers: Oliver Stone, Richard Boyle

Cast: James Woods (Richard Boyle), James Belushi (Doctor Rock), Michael Murphy (Ambassador Thomas Kelly), John Savage (John Cassady), Elpidia Carrillo (María), Tony Plana (Major Maximiliano "Major Max" Casanova), Colby Chester (Jack Morgan - State Department Analyst), Cynthia Gibb (Cathy Moore), Will MacMillan (Colonel Bentley Hyde Sr.), Valerie Wildman (Pauline Axelrod), José Carlos Ruiz (Archbishop Romero), Jorge Luke (Colonel Julio Figueroa), Juan Fernández (Army Lieutenant Jefe), Salvador Sánchez (Human Rights Leader), Rosario Zúñiga (Human Rights Assistant)

Buy Salvador on Blu-ray exclusively at Screen Archives

1986 was a momentous year for Oliver Stone. An established screenwriter of such films as Scarface, Conan the Barbarian, and Midnight Express (which won him the Adapted Screenplay Oscar), Stone would cement his reputation as a director with Platoon, a drama based on his experiences in the Vietnam War.
It would open just days before Christmas 1986 to rave reviews en route to blockbuster returns (a domestic gross 23 times the film's modest budget) and a host of Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Surprisingly, that passion project was not the 40-year-old's only film in competition at the 1987 Academy Awards. Salvador, released to theaters the previous spring, had drawn a pair of nominations: James Woods for Lead Actor and Stone and co-writer Richard Boyle for Original Screenplay, a category that pit Stone against himself.

When making Salvador, Stone had two shorts and two features under his belt as director. The features were Seizure (1974) and The Hand (1981), horror movies he would have little reason to be proud of, though each assigned him writing credit as well. Salvador would move him away from that genre and towards respectable politically-charged drama, which would become Stone's bread and butter.

Richard Boyle (James Woods) photographs a dump site used by the inhumane military regime in Oliver Stone's "Salvador."

Salvador is based on the real experiences of co-writer Boyle in 1980-81. A photojournalist who is in shambles both personally and professionally, Boyle (Woods) seems to have peaked with an exposé he published ten years earlier. He brags that he was the last man out of Saigon, but he has little to show for it. The movie opens with the eviction of Boyle, his foreign wife, and their infant son from a San Francisco slum building where the pay phone has a quarter hanging on a string.

An expansive record of parking violations lands Boyle in jail. His friend, pot-smoking rock and roll DJ Doctor Rock (Jim Belushi, still baggageless apart from his surname) bails him out. Boyle finds his wife has apparently gone back home to Europe with their son. Doc, whose own girlfriend has just kicked him out, learns his dog Bagel has been put to sleep. With no reason for either to hang around California, the two take a road trip that ends in El Salvador.

There, almost immediately in fear for their lives, Boyle tries to find some freelance work from his old colleagues and connections in the area. He also reunites with his girlfriend Maria (Elpidia Carrillo). Maria's brother goes missing, an apparently common occurrence down here, where citizens can be executed on the spot for not having their identification papers. Maria doesn't have those, and Boyle tries to get her some, even offering to marry her to keep her safe. U.S. military (who contribute considerable aid to the Salvadoran government) and its ambassador vow to try to help, but there are bigger matters on their minds, with the election of Ronald Reagan stateside and with the unrest here in El Salvador, where presidential candidate Major Max (Tony Plana) orders the assassination of Archbishop Romero, whom he considers a threat.

James Woods credits Boyle's confessional scene, which he improvised at Oliver Stone's behest, for his unexpected Academy Award nomination. As his brother might have had he not died, James Belushi was game to be a comedic presence in a dramatic film.

The politics dramatized in Salvador aren't all that interesting or clear. Where the movie succeeds, though, is presenting such turmoil from the perspective of this mess of a seasoned war photographer.
No one can accuse Boyle of writing a flattering Hollywood version of himself. Woods' protagonist is a fast-talking slimeball who makes and motivates enemies with his every encounter. The onscreen version of Boyle is not without some saving graces. He believes in America and the freedom of information. He even confesses thirty years' worth of sins to cleanse his soul and make himself a more suitable husband for Maria.

Whether looking out for Maria or simply looking for her brother, Boyle displays some admirable virtues. But no one can stand him or claim to truly care for his well-being. His objections to what he classifies as a peasant revolution may or may not strike a chord with you politically. What is more likely to move you is the front row seat the journalist has to history in the making. With a flash of his press badge, Boyle is spared some hassle. Still, his life always seems to be in jeopardy, even though you know he'll live to write this screenplay with Stone.

Grossing an estimated $1.5 million (which ticket inflation adjusts to a still unremarkable $3.3 M today), Salvador was both Stone's first significant directing credit and his last to come without the director having a distinct reputation or attracting his usual fanfare. Following Platoon, Stone was good for a new movie almost every Christmas. Many of them, like Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, and JFK, received high marks and substantial attention from the Academy Awards. The director has seen some of his prestige wear off in recent years, with a string of underperformers, anticlimactic treatment of hot button topics like 9/11 and George W. Bush, and an increasing move from narrative features to political documentaries no one seems to care about.

Salvador lost both of its Oscar bids. The Color of Money's Paul Newman trumped Woods for his long overdue first and only Oscar and Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters bested both of Stone's nominated scripts.

Though one of his lesser-known works, Salvador remains one of the better-regarded films in Stone's canon by those who have seen it. Released theatrically by the disbanded Hemdale Film Corporation, Salvador ended up in the library of MGM, who released it to DVD in 2001 as a Special Edition and contributed that disc to 2004's The Ultimate Oliver Stone Collection, a 12-movie, 14-disc box set distributed by Warner Home Video. Now, Salvador has reached Blu-ray as one of a number of titles MGM has licensed to Twilight Time, a boutique label who limits their output to few online retailers and limited print runs of just 3,000 copies.

Salvador: The Limited Edition Series Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Screen Archives Blu-ray Disc Details

1.85:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), 1.0 DTS-HD MA (English), 2.0 DTS-HD MA (Isolated Score)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: September 9, 2014
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
List Price: $29.95
Blue Keepcase
Still available on DVD ($14.98 SRP; June 5, 2001) and Amazon Instant Video


Smaller films from the '80s are often subject to premature aging, but in the hands of Twilight Time, little Salvador somehow stays immune to such issues on Blu-ray. The 1.85:1 presentation is often very good. For the vast majority of the time, the picture is clear and clean. There are a few shots that look soft or grainy, but these are few and far between. On very rare occasions, you'll notice some wear and tear on the element. On the whole, though, Salvador looks better than you would expect a nearly 30-year-old independent film to look.

The film is treated to DTS-HD master audio in both 5.1 and 1.0 channels. I listened to the default 5.1 remix and was thoroughly satisfied by it. Again, my expectations weren't very high, but the disc easily surpassed them. The strong mix keeps dialogue crisp and always complementary to Georges Delerue's tasteful, dramatic score, which wastes no time before setting the mood over the exciting, blinky black and white news footage behind the opening titles. A decent amount of the dialogue is in Spanish and some of it is translated in clean, sharp, burned-in yellow subtitles, which are also used to identify certain individuals in their introductory scenes.

Oliver Stone looks back at his third film in the 2001 documentary "Into the Valley of Death" and an audio commentary. The real Richard Boyle eyes actress Elpidia Carrillo, looking for love in all the wrong places during the making of "Salvador." Things get pretty wild in this deleted "orgy" scene set in Colonel Figueroa's office that aimed for authenticity.


This Blu-ray retains the video bonus features of MGM's Special Edition DVD and adds a little more.

The first two items are found under Set Up. There is a feature audio commentary by Oliver Stone. He is passionate and screen-specific, recalling the details of production and acknowledging the liberties the film takes. Stone's political ramblings are bound to annoy some, but when he sticks to the movie, he's reasonably engaging, despite some short lulls featuring throughout.

Another way to experience the film is with an isolated score. A standard feature of Twilight Time Blu-rays, this 2.0 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack goes silent when there is no score or when there is source music, which is much of the time. Will many viewers be compelled to rewatch the full movie this way? Perhaps not.
But if Twilight Time likes including this feature, who can complain? Besides, the CD of Delerue's score (which for some reason was included on the same album as his Platoon score) fetches $25 or more used (and as much as $150 new) in the secondhand market, so this mix has value, even if it is often lifeless.

On the video side, we start with "Into the Valley of Death: The Making of Salvador" (1:02:52, SD), a 2001 retrospective documentary. It contains a healthy amount of behind-the-scenes footage of production plus reflections from Stone, the real Richard Boyle, James Woods, James Belushi, and former US Ambassador to El Salvador Robert E. White. Among the interesting revelations: Boyle was going to play himself and took acting classes, Woods wanted no part of visiting El Salvador with either Boyle or Stone, the director contributed to the contentious nature of Woods and Belushi's chemistry, the challenges of the guerilla filmmaking, the confession scene was purely improvised, Boyle's real experiences dramatized, Woods' close call with a blank, and the film's modest reception.

Next up comes a reel of very rough looking 1.33:1 deleted and extended scenes (27:47, SD), some of which were excerpted in the documentary. There are eight scenes altogether and they include some debauchery in Colonel Figueroa's office, a scene of Major Max being advised by a fashionable American woman, a scene of Doctor Rock with a teenaged prostitute (who resurfaces later), a party and a funeral. There's real value anytime deleted scenes surface for an older film.

Salvador's trailer ends with a fairly standard billing block that assigns the "and" credit to John Savage. The Blu-ray's menu adapts the cover art, which barely updates the original poster design.

Salvador's original trailer (1:58, SD) is gladly preserved, albeit in a very beat-up state making you appreciate the feature presentation even further. There's also MGM's 90th Anniversary trailer (2:06, HD),
which could be better but is growing on me after having seen it at least half a dozen times.

Dropped from the Special Edition DVD, unsurprisingly, is a photo gallery of nearly 50 images. Such navigable features rarely make the transition to Blu-ray nowadays.

As usual, the studio uses a simple, static, silent menu adapted from the cover art. The Blu-ray includes a look at the company's complete Limited Edition Series catalog through next month, which thankfully features improved navigation that makes it harder to get kicked back to the menu by mistake. The disc resumes playback of unfinished video.

The final inclusion is found inside the standard blue keepcase. It is an illustrated, full-color, staple-bound 8-page booklet whose main attraction is an essay from Twilight Time's film historian Julie Kirgo. Up to her usual high standards, the article relays information about production and lavishes praise on Stone, Woods, and the supporting cast.

Richard Boyle (James Woods) is determined to acquire identification papers for the safety of his girlfriend Maria (Elpidia Carrillo).


Salvador holds up as one of Oliver Stone's better films. Set against real Central American unrest, this drama may not resonate with you politically, but its unflinching portrait of edge-of-your-seat photojournalism fascinates in no small part due to James Woods' command natural lead performance.

Twilight Time provides a highly pleasing feature presentation plus a good assembly of mostly recycled bonus features. A clear upgrade from MGM's DVD, this release is easy to recommend for those appreciating the film enough to own it in high definition. Everyone else is encouraged to at least give the movie one viewing.

Buy Salvador on Blu-ray exclusively at screenarchives.com

Related Reviews:
Directed by Oliver Stone: PlatoonWall StreetNixonAny Given Sunday | Written by Oliver Stone: ScarfaceEvita
James Woods: HerculesRecess: School's OutSurf's UpFamily Guy: Something, Something, Something, Dark Side
James Belushi: ThiefThunderstruckJingle All the WayUnderdogThe Wild
Michael Murphy: Nashville | Juan Fernández: ArachnophobiaFire on the Amazon
1980s on Blu-ray: Good Morning, VietnamThe Color of MoneyHeaven's GateTop GunFerris Bueller's Day Off

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Reviewed September 27, 2014.

Text copyright 2014 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1986 Hemdale Film Corporation, 2014 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Twilight Time.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.