Salvador: An American Take on Civil War

Para la versión en español, cliquea aquí

This week I will be focusing on El Salvador and the differing perspectives on the events of the civil war. As you can see, this film is wholly American because El Salvador does not have a huge film industry. But don’t worry, the next film is a Mexican-Salvadorian co-production!


Salvador (1986) tells the story of real-life journalist Richard Boyle, who after facing eviction and poverty in America, decides to go to El Salvador to cover the civil war. Once there, he finally sees the horrors that the US state has committed and decides to save his Salvadoran girlfriend.

El Salvador’s Civil War

President Molina

By 1972, democracy in El Salvador had reached its end. In a controversial election, the center-right party, the PCN, and its candidate, Colonel Arturo Armando Molina was elected. Protests and an attempted coup followed but it was of no avail. Molina was president however he was insecure about the attempted coup and accusations of corruption. He ordered the military to occupy three campuses of the University of El Salvador from 1972 to 1973 and silenced protests in San Salvador and Santa Ana which led to 37 deaths. example of the new anti-left crusade. By 1976, tensions were high. The PCN killed 50 opposition demonstrators in what would be known as the massacre of the Plaza Libertad and the US facilitated some of this violence.

In order to not seem to light on communism, Carter sometimes gave in to the right by sending military aid and advisors to the Salvadoran military which used death squads. 

FMLN Members

President Romero of the PCN enacted a new law known as the Law of the Defense and Guarantee of the Public Order which gave the state the right to arrest anyone it suspected of being a subversive. Many guerrilla groups formed after two traumatic events in the country. The assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero shocked the country. Initially a conservative, he became a huge proponent of liberation theology when his close friend and fellow priest Rotulio Grande was killed. That coupled with the rape and murder of four churchwomen in November 1980 led the Carter administration to temporarily suspend military aid, but Reagan was a different story. While Carter had supplied less than $6 million in military aid, Reagan and Bush provided over $4 billion. By 1981, violence was commonplace. The El Mozote massacre left 900 civilians dead from US-trained soldiers and by 1982 30,000 were dead and there were almost 600,000 refugees in El Salvador. 

Roberto D’Aubuisson

Though Reagan supported the moderate party, he still sent aid when Roberto D’Aubuisson, the former head of ORDEN, the military death squad was elected president with ARENA, his Neo-Nazi and Trujillo inspired party. By the mid-80s the guerrilla group, FMLN had grown to 12,000 and violent confrontations increased though the UN 1993 Truth Commission found that just 5% of the complaints were against the guerrillas, thus demonstrating that the government’s role in carrying out crimes against humanity were far greater. Even though the late 80s finally saw the return of moderate parties, ARENA did not lose its influence, and the effects of this violence would have reverberations through to today.

Critiquing US Policies


As a person, Oliver Stone was embittered by what he believed to be a wasted youth fighting in the Vietnam War. His anger at the US government’s violent paranoia is palpable throughout his work. One of the greatest achievements of his film is showing how ridiculous America’s reasons for intervention have become. When Boyle gives US officials photos he took during his time with the FMLN, he shows that this guerrilla group is not an international threat. Unlike rumors have suggested, they are not backed by Moscow, they don’t have advanced weaponry, and they are small in numbers. These facts do nothing to the feeling of anger and paranoia that the US government has. The film also exposes the hypocrisy of US administrations whether democrat or republican. One of the last holds of the Carter administration is the ambassador who near the end stands up to the Reaganites but who in the beginning is met with suspicion. When Boyle tries to get his Salvadorian girlfriend a cedula (ID card), the ambassador says that that is impossible. For too long, the ambassador remains willfully ignorant of the crimes of the Salvadoran government and therefore meets these concerns with minimal urgency. Though Stone shows there are stark differences between a Carter administration and a Reagan administration, it is in the nature of the US to allow the dark and empirical forces guide their government.

An Incomplete Portrait of Salvadorians


Stone’s anger at the US government, while moving, often leads him to forget about how the victims of the US’s wrath feel and simply focus on making the government look bad. Because of that, Salvador leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to a full and interesting portrayal of the Salvadoran people. Americans and powerful Salvadorans seem to take center stage instead of the ordinary countrymen and women affected by the war. For example, the major historical events captured in the film are the murder of the American nuns, the murder of John Hoagland (John Cassidy in the film), and the murder of Archbishop Romero. While these are important events, other equally important events like the El Mozote Massacre are not talked about. Ordinary Salvadorian lives are not depicted as having the same level of importance as American deaths or the odd public figure. Even the ordinary Salvadoran characters that are depicted leave something to be desired. When Boyle’s friend Rock and his girlfriend’s brother get arrested, we know a lot about Rock but next to nothing about Boyle’s brother-in-law. Rock is able to get out but Boyle’s brother-in-law does not. We only know the character briefly and the next time we see him, he’s dead. This could have been a really powerful moment of loss for the audience but the fact of the matter is his death is no different than that of a stranger. Boyle’s girlfriend is also incomplete and we don’t understand her motivations for being with Boyle or her motivations for leaving him in the end. At the end of the day, the film serves as a sad story about how the US government hurt Richard Boyle and by default, the Salvadorian people.

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