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Gaining Three Stone: Salvador, Natural Born Killers and Savages

  Salvador in 1986 was director and screenwriter Oliver Stone's third film at the helm, and he believed it was going to be his last while he was making it, in true guerrilla style in Mexico, which was standing in for El Salvador where the story was set. Before this, aside from a couple of obscure shorts, he had directed two horrors, Seizure in 1974 and the bigger budget The Hand from 1981, so judging by those you would never have been prepared for the aggressive politics of Salvador. As it turned out, the next film following on from it was Platoon, drawing on his experiences fighting the war in Vietnam, gathering the Best Picture Oscar and opening up a national, nay, world dialogue on that conflict. Yet the other '86 effort did not have the same effect; it too was Oscar-nominated, but while some distance had passed between Platoon and its war, Salvador's troubles were set in a very contemporary crisis, one that the current United States administration were backing.

That was not what most Americans wanted to hear about, that huge amounts of their tax dollars were going to fund mass murder on an unimaginable scale in Central America, and even when Colonel Oliver North was put on trial for illegally doing so in Nicaragua, he was treated as a hero because the majority of the public believed the end justified the means if the end was the demise of Communism. Hollywood was as guilty of propagating that as any part of the mass media, rendering Salvador a work swimming against the tide, but for those who did see it - and it was by no means a hit in its native land - the effect was electrifying, a righteously furious takedown of all the foreign policy hypocrisy contributing to what amounted to fascist governments destroying countless of their citizens' lives all for the sake of holding onto a power that had become intoxicating in its orgy of violence against those they were meant to be serving the best interests of.

Salvador would have been nothing in particular, just another bleeding heart effort more concerned with how such a conflict affected American journalists (see Under Fire or The Year of Living Dangerously for examples of that underwhelming style), but here you had a film that rolled up its sleeves and got its hands dirty, plunging itself - and the audience - into the atmosphere of a nation ruled by terror. The locals were not merely stick figures for pushing the angst buttons of the foreign leads, they were living, breathing people who in this chaos (and this captured that mayhem with incredible skill) were struggling to survive, and the whole mess was leading even the supposedly noble into revolting behaviour, so imagine what the actually revolting were doing. James Woods was never better as Richard Boyle, U.S. photojournalist and a friend of Stone's, a hustler redeemed by his sense of moral outrage, the perfect conduit to bring the war to life for those outside of it.

The period between Salvador in 1986 and Natural Born Killers in 1994 was Stone's most successful, as after that the hit rate became patchier, but it seemed as if after that latter effort audiences had had enough of his aims for controversy. NBK tried to take on another real-life subject that Stone felt was pressing, that of how the media represented violence, and to do so took a screenplay by then-newcomer and exciting fresh talent Quentin Tarantino, then proceeded to rewrite it to his needs, much to Tarantino's chagrin. The results were enormously controversial, depicting a murder spree in the way of Terrence Malick's Badlands of twenty years before by basing the events on the Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate killings of the fifties, something that was a rarity in that decade but by the nineties had become far more common, and would only increase in frequency as the twenty-first century progressed, but Stone would protest he was not advocating the murderers.

He was criticising a mass media that made such crimes look exciting and addictive to consume as television viewers, which was fair enough, but where Salvador was a story torn from the headlines and looking about as authentic as its subject matter demanded, which rang as true as you could imagine, Natural Born Killers never convinced as anything but a bunch of constructs to lecture the hard of thinking. You didn't need to be a genius to notice the grim glamour news reports, especially in tabloid news, lent to the worst members of society, exploiting a prurience in the audience who lapped up all the bad behaviour, but that would give them a sense of superiority, it wouldn't make the majority think, "ooh, must participate in a massacre sometime soon, looks like great fun on the news!" Indeed, Stone was as guilty as that which he sought to condemn by reducing highly complex motives to pat and even glib finger pointing.

With Salvador, the problems it depicted were important, especially if you lived in Central America where the state sanctioned mass executions were taking place, and Stone was savvy to include a sequence were Woods realised the beleaguered rebels were committing atrocities of their own, as if the violence was a disease infecting any attempt to bring order to the chaos. In Natural Born Killers, on the other hand, his protagonists Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis overacting excessively) were never afforded any real depth, merely totems for Stone's hectoring: when trash TV journalist Robert Downey Jr interviews Mickey for broadcast, the killer's philosophising is as banal as any mass murderer's opinions are, yet Stone treats him as if he's onto something which anyone who listens to his chuntering will twig was simply not the case. This was a big hit, a worldwide talking point, but in '94 everyone was massively overstating its perceptiveness.

Once the actual third millennium had arrived, Stone was still alternating between true stories depicted through his own particular lens and fictions with a message, but audiences were either grumbling that he wasn't as good as he used to be, or that they never liked him anyway. It seemed a very long time since Platoon, Talk Radio and Wall Street, though he did conjure up a sequel to that last item in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps where it turned out few were that bothered about what Gordon Gecko was up to once he was released from prison. Increasingly he grew more interested in the documentary format, interviewing key political figures of the age, though no less controversially as Hugo Chavez and Vladimir Putin were among his subjects, and he made a fictionalised account of the experiences of whistleblower Edward Snowden in a biopic named after the thorn in the side of the U.S. secret services.

In amongst all that, Salvador seemed a very long time ago, when Stone was so vital and engaged; well, he remained engaged, but audiences were not connecting with his work so much as they did in his heyday when he was garnering Oscar nominations and indeed wins almost as a guarantee, and his socially and politically enthralled efforts were connecting with the world. In amongst all that, was 2012's Savages, which in tone was somewhere between the thriller attempt U Turn and the more thematically pointed Wall Street, though again had a middling response, with some of the reaction the worst he had ever received as his diehard defenders were thinning out. It took as its premise a very modern business tale, in that the business was drug dealing, only our heroes were not the evil Mexican cartel run by Salma Hayek, with right hand man Benicio Del Toro's strongarm tactics ensuring she held the top dog position in her criminal field.

Nope, the nice drug dealers were a trio of lovers, though the two boys (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Taylor Kitsch) never actually got it on with each other, they took turns with Blake Lively who is also the only one who has sex with her clothes on. This was presumably intended to be very vital and exciting, appealing to those with a fresh take on the world, but for a start, marijuana was legalised not long after in California which rendered Savages dated within a short period of time, and for a finish, it was essentially yet another action thriller at heart where the decent Americans were under siege from those criminals hailing from South of the Border, just like your average Chuck Norris Cannon flick of the eighties. Not helping was that Lively was kidnapped half an hour in, and the rest of the plot had her boyfriends trying to get her back which was far from interesting when the threesome were so smug. Think on Salvador, where Central America was treated with sympathy and intelligence, and you felt you had seen something galvanising and educating; perhaps that was an indication of where populist political cinema had wound up all these years later.

[Eureka have released Salvador on Dual Format, and here are those features in full:

1080p presentation of the film on Blu-ray (with a progressive encode on the DVD)
Optional 5.1 or uncompressed LPCM mono soundtracks
Optional English SDH subtitles
Feature length audio commentary with director Oliver Stone
An extensive archival interview with Oliver Stone at the BFI
A rarely heard, lengthy audio interview with Oliver Stone from 1986
Into The Valley of Death (62 mins) A documentary on the making of
Deleted and Extended scenes
Original theatrical trailer
A collector's booklet featuring a new essay by critic and journalist Barry Forshaw; extracts from the film's original press-book; and archival imagery
Reversible Sleeve.
Author: Graeme Clark.


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