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Oliver Stone's Problematic Gaze on the Salvadoran Civil War

Erik Ching

 
 

When Oliver Stone set out to make Salvador, his career was at a turning point. He wanted to be a film director, but the first two films he directed, Seizure (1974) and The Hand (1981), were critical and commercial failures. He was forty years old, nearly two decades out of film school, had a newborn son, and the only professional success he had seen to that point was as a writer, which included the script for Scarface (1983). In choosing El Salvador’s civil war as the subject of his next film he was handicapping himself. It was a controversial topic that was going to be a hard sell with viewing audiences. He struggled to get financing, and he incurred significant personal debt to get the project off the ground.

The idea for Salvador came from Stone’s meeting in 1984 with an eccentric U.S. journalist named Richard Boyle. He had covered El Salvador’s civil war off and on as a correspondent, and when he met Stone he was trying unsuccessfully to write a book about his experiences. Stone was drawn to Boyle’s eccentricity, and also to the political dynamics represented by El Salvador. Stone was a Vietnam veteran and his experiences there had turned him not only against that war, but also, more generally, into a staunch critic of U.S. cold-war foreign policy. El Salvador fit his political needs. 

So, Stone and Boyle decided to collaborate on the screenplay for Salvador. When they finished the first draft in 1985, they went to El Salvador to scout possible film locations. In hindsight, Stone admits he was crazy to have thought they could film a movie in El Salvador in the midst of its civil war. The trip only lasted a few days, and, in the end, they filmed the movie in Mexico. Nonetheless, Stone’s description of his trip provides the distinct insights of a high-profile neophyte outsider who had an outsized role in introducing El Salvador’s civil war to the world through the medium of film.

Training in a guerrilla camp in Guazapa, San Salvador. Photo: Giovanni Palazzo/Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen
 
Training in a guerrilla camp in Guazapa, San Salvador. Photo: Giovanni Palazzo/Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen

From the perspective of those of us who study El Salvador and seek to better understand its story on its own terms, Stone’s Salvador is a deeply-flawed film. Historical inaccuracies and Stone’s admitted overdramatizations aside, the main problem is that the Richard Boyle character, played by the U.S. actor James Woods, is the driving force of the film. El Salvador and its civil war are mere backdrops to Boyle’s character and Oliver Stone’s ideological waxings about U.S. foreign policy, as channeled through the mouth of Boyle. All the other characters in the film, most notably the Salvadorans, are flat and simplistic. The only round, somewhat complex character is Boyle, which comes across as an autobiographical conceit, given that Boyle co-authored the script. I think we should take Stone at his word, when he said in a 1986 interview in the Los Angeles Daily News (March 26, 1986), shortly before the film’s theatrical release, “I didn’t set out to make a message movie about El Salvador, I wanted to do a movie about a correspondent.” Salvador could have been set in any developing country that was caught up in the cold-war politics of the time, and the script would have hardly needed changing.

Stone’s description of his trip to El Salvador with Boyle in 1985 in Chasing the Light proves the point. Stone reveals that he knew next to nothing about El Salvador. His main informant was Boyle, whose dysfunctionality dominates Stone’s account of the trip. Through Boyle’s contacts, Stone met some high-ranking officers in the military, and he made his rounds to some other relevant sites and cities. The entirety of his description is only five pages long. A surprising number of scenes in Salvador resemble the descriptions he provides of his few days in the country in 1985.  Clearly, the trip impacted him, or, more likely, that lone, superficial encounter provided him with the only first-hand material on El Salvador that he had to work with. 

At a certain level, we should be grateful that Stone made Salvador. He did so at great personal and professional risk, and despite the film’s flaws, it raised awareness internationally about El Salvador’s civil war. However, Stone’s ambition was to make a name for himself in Hollywood and to build a career as a film director. Understanding the nuances of a tragedy like El Salvador’s civil war, and perhaps allowing it to challenge one’s own preconceived notions, were tangential. Thus, whatever image or meaning comes out of Salvador will forever be defined by those constraints. 

Below are excerpts drawn from Oliver Stone’s memoir, Chasing the Light: Writing, Directing, and Surviving Platoon, Midnight Express, Scarface, Salvador and the Movie Game (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020).

First Impression of El Salvador

Alex Ho [Stone’s prospective film producer] had joined me for the awful flight down, and we found Boyle at the San Salvador airport in his element—“I love this fucking country. No yuppies, no computer checks, you don't need a driver's license. I hate efficient countries!” And yet Richard was arguing that we had the infrastructure here to make the film?

Meetings with High-Ranking Military Officers

Boyle had prepared a bogus two-page treatment in Spanish for our script, intentionally skewed toward the Salvadoran military as the good guys, and picturing the rebels as homicidal communists. The scheme was to get the Salvadorans to cooperate with our production. Boyle took us to meet his old friend Lieutenant Colonel Ricardo Cienfuegos in the Defense Ministry, a public relations character known to the press corps as “Ricky;” who seemed to like the “script” when he read it right there in front of us; he said he'd get us to General Blandon, the chief of staff, for a quick answer. Wow. Boyle was impressing us after all, as he explained to us how, since the military ran the place, the civilian government would bend over. Of course, there was great irony in that the “bad guys” were really the military, aligned with the notorious right-wing death squads and the anticommunist Reagan regime in the US. After we’d gotten the Salvadoran hardware for our production and shot the battle scenes, our plan was to rectify this misperception by going to Mexico to shoot the guerrillas in their battle scenes as the real agents of change. It was a bold plan, very risky, but if it worked, it would be genius. Such was the power of my desire, I frankly must’ve been nuts to think this could actually work.

Meeting the Minister of Tourism

When we met with Blandon, who had a tough reputation, he was most impressed by our newly hired, bilingual, elegantly sexy secretary, Gloria, whom Boyle had wisely taken on for a few bucks. He read the treatment on the spot, or pretended to, and said he liked it, though we needed to get a sign-off from General Vides Casanova at the Defense Ministry. Vides was the kingpin. No one mentioned José Napoleón Duarte, the president, but on a roll, we dropped in on him at the palace, where we were blocked by the spear-carriers and shunted off to the Ministry of Tourism and Commerce. Boyle got Gloria back to work on the phones at our hotel, and she was good, and got us in to see the tourism minister, who was a key guy close to Duarte; he liked the treatment. “Anything you want, we want for you,” he said. “It’d be good for tourism here.” What tourism? The city was dirty and poorly paved. Maybe in the countryside, where the war was raging? But with a strong military in charge, he explained that life here was safe again.

The Director’s Eye

Boyle went back to see Cienfuegos, who now wanted us to check with the air force general about our borrowing some of their helicopters. It was all doable, Boyle told us, he was sure of it. “We just have to work our way through the studio system here. We can pull off an Apocalypse Now helicopter attack on the guerrillas for less than fifty grand!” All this inside our projected $500,000 budget from my US bank loan, which I was presumably going to get. Why not? Alex Ho was quietly cynical but nodded that it was conceivable. I had visions now of an eight-man documentary crew and two vans scooting around the countryside. This script we’d started in December—less than a month ago—was actually coming to fruition! Sometimes when you really want to make a film, you just start, and sometimes it catches up to you.

Word was getting around about us, and we dropped by the political clubhouse of the fascist ARENA party in a well-protected cuartel (a small military fort or village), rimmed with barbed wire. We were warmly greeted by d’Aubuisson's number two, Francisco Mena Sandoval [presumably Stone means Alfredo Mena Lagos]  whose magnetic killer eyes fascinated me—as he, in his way, was fascinated by me, the writer of Caracortada [Scarface]. Finally that film was serving a practical purpose for me, if not in Hollywood. Mena set up our visit to the National Assembly for the next day, and invited us to the inner sanctuary of the ARENA party meeting in five days’ time. Here I could meet “Major Bob”—Roberto d’Aubuisson—the party leader, the highest honor of all. We acquired all kinds of ARENA paraphernalia that afternoon, the Central American equivalent of Nazi emblems, and drank tequila toasts with tough-looking hombres sporting guns in holsters on their hips, slapping me on the back as they acted out their favorite scenes with toasts to Tony Montana—“Mucho colinades!” (Lots of balls!) “Ratta-tat-tat! Kill the fucking communists!” I was “muy macho!”

We drove out to Puerta del Diablo, the “Devil's Door,” a set of cliffs on the outskirts of the city where lovers once rendezvoused and death squads now dumped their victims, a haunting reminder of the truth behind the smiles. I wondered why the Salvadorans were so cruel in their ways of killing, and Boyle, mixing up Mesoamerican cultures, speculated, “Like the Aztecs, you know, when they chopped each other up and made dinner;” We met several foreigners—military advisers, CIA types, various riffraff, and journalists at the infamous Gloria’s whorehouse, where drinking went parallel to any investigation. It was Boyle’s favorite hangout, and for three nights in a row he vanished with one or another of the ninety girls working there. At $30 per girl per night, he managed to blow the $300 we’d entrusted to him as scouting money. Plus the “poppers” (amyl nitrite) and whatever other pharmaceuticals he could procure.

Close to the Action

I gave Boyle more cash, and we drove north in our rented car, closer to the still active rebel areas. At Punto de Oro, the Bridge of Gold, we walked out past government soldiers huge bridge blowing blown in half, twisted cable suspension wires lying useless, the wind blowing through an eerie silence, the sound of distant government artillery bringing back a feeling of war. We drove on across a railroad track over a rickety bridge into San Vincente, home of the 5th Infantry Division. Boyle's old “friend,” a Captain Nuñez, a US Airborne-trained officer, was now in charge of four hundred elite troops—hunter-killer units known as “cazadores”—who told us that thirteen regular troops had been killed the day before on patrol; in Vietnam that was significant, but here, life seemed cheaper. He also told us a train had been blown up further north, leaving thirty civilians dead, and there was heavy fighting in the area. This war was definitely not over in 1985. We went to an air force base, where a Colonel Novoa didn’t remember Boyle and despised reporters, so Boyle assumed his “I hate reporters” routine and flawlessly produced a yellowed clipping from a newspaper article he’d written years before, reminding Novoa one more time of his heroic role “in the great '69 Soccer War against Honduras!” No matter how insane Boyle seemed, there was a method to his madness, because Novoa now liked Boyle and invited us to dinner, sharing colorful, probably highly exaggerated stories with us. We were still waiting on the military honchos in the capital, but, according to Boyle, it was all looking great.

We drove over to La Libertad on the coast, an old surfing spot known in the US, where Boyle had met “the woman of his dreams,” Maria, who’d since taken refuge in Guatemala; often poorer Salvadorans without “cedulas” (proper identity papers) would get in trouble with the authorities and, fearing death from the right-wing paramilitary, would flee the country if possible. The town itself was dreamy—the surf, the little shacks on the beach where we’d lie out on rented hammocks, the seafood, the drooling “Tic Tack” monsters walking around town like zombies, their brains blown on the cheap national rotgut called “Tic Tack”; we also visited an orphanage for some two hundred children run by tough Irish nuns, who remembered Richard’s big heart fondly.

Richard Boyle

I was worried—no further word from Gloria in the capital, no real progress. Mosquitos were hitting on me through the night in my grungy room, where I had no desire to entrust my body to the sleazy sheets. I went looking for Boyle at daybreak and found him with the “secretary” and another hooker and a bottle of cheap rum. I didn’t say a thing; my eyes said it all. As we sipped harsh coffee in the littered square of this ratfuck town, the vultures chewing on whatever they could find, I gave him one more chance, a test of self-control. Three days Show me. No booze—or no film! He promised, but words didn’t mean the same thing to Richard as to me. He’d stay relatively clean for a few days, but as my father said, a man may veer left or right, but always returns to his basic nature in the end, and Richard was a big-hearted, well-meaning alcoholic/druggie/whatever. Could I live with that to get this film made?

 

Erik Ching, a historian of El Salvador, is the Walter Kenneth Mattison Professor of History at Furman University in Greenville, SC.


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