Cinergía Movie File:


Directed by Oliver Stone, 1986


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Section 1: Pre-screening

Section 2: Film Comprehension and Criticism

    Section 3: Media analysis

Section 1: Pre-screening

Note: Given the transitory nature of internet resources we suggest conducting a search to help answer the pre-screening questions.  Only a few links are included below.

Part I)  Background Links for “Salvador”  

 El Salvador:  War, Peace, and Human Rights, 1980-1994

(English)  The site illustrates U.S. Policy in El Salvador from the Carter presidency through the Bush administration. It demonstrates that as the brutal civil war raged, Washington's cold war concerns ensured massive and continued U.S. support for the Salvadoran government and military against the guerrilla forces of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).  The site explains that now the National Security Archive's collection of declassified U.S. government records are available, and they chart Washington's role in the war, from the conflict's earliest years to the United Nations-brokered peace accord of January 1992 and beyond. An excerpt from the "Woerner Report," a secret Pentagon document produced in 1981 by Brig. Gen. Fred

F. Woerner is available which maps U.S. military assistance to the Salvadoran armed forces, for instance. It points out the release of documents under the Clinton administration that includes documents concerning dozens of critical human rights cases, including the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the El Mozote massacre, the killings of U.S. marines in San Salvador's "Zona Rosa," and the murder of the Jesuit priests in 1989.

Constitución Política de la República de El Salvador, 1982 

(Spanish)  This site provides the political constitution of the Salvadoran Republic and outlines essential components such as human, social and political rights, the function of the state and the formation of the government and political system, and the formation of the local government and elections.  The constitution is broken up into different chapters that explore the topics mentioned above, as well as other essential components.


 FMLN:  Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional   

(Spanish)  This site contains information on the history of the FMLN, documents and legislative information.  It explains its’ political and social information and links are provided to different sub-links.  This revolutionary group served as the base of the guerilla group depicted in “Salvador.” 

War in El Salvador:  photos by JOHN HOAGLAND 1983-1984

(English)  This site provides information on the photographer shown killed in the film “Salvador.”  It explains that in 1979, Hoagland went to Nicaragua to photograph the Sandinista Revolution, and the following year he went to El Salvador in contract to Gamma-Liaison photo agency and Newsweek Magazine. As explained, Hoagland's camera caught the brutal consequences of the war and even captures his own demise, as depicted in the film. The site also mentions President Reagan's National Bipartisan Commission on Central America (Macmillan, 1984) that justified massive military support to El Salvador because of their promise for "democratic reform," yet it also includes critical commentaries concerning this statement.  Related links to information on the war on El Salvador are also provided.   

Salvador (1986)

(English)  This link to the Internet Movie Database provides a wealth of information concerning the film “Salvador.”  Main details of the movie are available such as the director, full cast and crew company credits, and plot summary.  User comments and newsgroup reviews are listed, as well as awards that this movie received.  

Part II:  Pre-screening questions:

  1. When did the war in El Salvador begin and end?
  1. How was the civil war resolved, who aided in the resolution, and was there a victorious party?
  1. How has it affected El Salvador today?  Are there still repercussions?   
  1. How did the economy play a role in the war?  What kind of economy does El Salvador have?
  1. What were the conflicting parties in the war and for what was each fighting?  
  1. In addition to the war between the military and the FMLN, who else was the military targeting and why? 
  1. How were human rights violations used as an instrument in maintaining political power?
  1. What was the purpose of the death squads? Do you think they were effective? Why or why not?
  1. Who is Archbishop Oscar Romero and why was he assassinated? 
  1. What role did the church play during the war and why did the death squads target it?
  1. Who was elected president in Salvador during the 1980’s?  Was there a popular vote?  Which party did this person represent? 
  1. Who was the U.S. Ambassador in Salvador in 1980 at the end of the Carter Administration?  Who was elected as president to the United States following Carter?
  1. What was the role of the United States in the war in El Salvador?  What aid did the U.S. provide, and how was the U.S. related to the activities of the death squads in particular?  Why do you think the United States played this particular role?
  1. Why does the FMLN strongly criticize the U.S.?
  1. What happened in 1981 that embarrassed the U.S. and led to the halt of military and financial aid for one year?
  1. Were more guerillas killed in the war or more civilians when the civil war ended?

Section 2: Film Comprehension and Criticism  

Part I:  Comprehension questions

  1. What year do the events depicted take place?  Which war was depicted, where, and what were the main parties involved in each side of the war?
  1. How would you describe the plot of the film?  Who were the main characters? 
  1. Why did Richard Boyle go to El Salvador, and how was he depicted as privy to information on all sides of the war throughout the film?  Name all the important people and groups he had access to meet throughout the film.
  1. Who is John Cassidy and for whom did he work?  How did his conversation with Boyle at El Playon (the dump site for death squad victims) foreshadow later events as he described the need to get close to the truth when capturing the moment of death, yet not too close or you die?   
  1. What were the significant events and actions that took place at the Main Cathedral in San Salvador?  Why did townspeople do to this place? What were they looking for?
  1. What did Reagan’s speech on T.V. say about his politics in El Salvador when discussing the infiltration into America?
  1. While at the U.S. Embassy, how would you describe the people with whom Boyle interacted?  Who was Colonel Bentley Hyde and how would you describe his character along with his sidekick Jack?
  1. Throughout the film, why were little comments made about Vietnam?  When where these comments made, what was implied and what effect did they have on the viewer?  
  1. What reasons did U.S. officials give in the film for fearing the rebels?  What connection was made between the guerilla group and Warsaw and Castro, for instance?  
  1. What aid did the U.S. provide in the film to the Salvadoran government?
  1. How does the reporter Pauline contrast what Richard Boyle and John Cassidy’s motives in photographing the war?  What does this say about the information we receive from the media?
  1. Who is Major Max and what ideals does he represent?  Where does he receive his political aid?  In consideration to the actual history of Salvador, whom does he possibly represent?
  1. Who is Romero, what does he stand for, and what happens to him?  Why was he considered subversive?
  1. What atrocious event happens to the nuns on the road to the airport?  How was the U.S. implicated in this?  
  1. How was the rebel camp depicted?  What resources did they have in comparison to the Salvadoran government?  Compare the resources of each side.
  1. What important information is exchanged in the scene between Boyle, Col. Bentley Hyde and Jack?  How does Boyle describe the death squads and how do the other two describe the war?
  1. Why do John Cassidy and Richard Boyle hurry to Santa Ana?  What is happening and what do they expect to capture on film?  
  1. What significant decision changes the outcomes of what is occurring in Santa Ana?  As a result, what significant photo does John take and what happens to him?
  1. Describe the ending scenes of the film.  What happens to Maria and her two kids and how does the open ending contribute to the unresolved situation in Salvador?  

   Part II:  Historical Accuracy

  1. How does the film add to an understanding about this historical period in El Salvador?  
  1. How does the film represent main historical characters and groups, such as the Salvadoran government, major Max, U.S. officials and the guerilla group?
  1. Why do you think they were depicted this way, and to whom was the director more sympathetic?  What was his point of view?
  1. The heading in the beginning of the movie claims the events depicted are based on actual occurrences yet character’s names have been changed.  Headings are also offered explaining important figures and their titles, and an epilogue at the end summarizes subsequent events.  How do these tactics allude to an accurate representation of the war?    Do you think the story is true, embellished or fictional?
  1. Which characters were probably based on real figures and which were developed through Stone’s artistic license?  For instance, who did Major Max represent, as well as John Cassidy?  What relation does the title “Commander Marti” of the rebel camp have with the name of the guerrilla group FMLN?  
  1. Did all the events depicted in “Salvador” actually occur within the two-year time period described in the film?  For instance, when did John Cassidy die in the film, and when was the real photographer for Newsweek, John Hoagland, killed?  
  1. How accurate is the assassination of Archbishop Romero during communion? 
  1. In general, most the characters have stereotypical personalities and qualities.  Do the stereotyped figures distort the historical validity of the film?  
  1. Do you think such internal strife existed between the ambassador and U.S. officials existed within the embassy? 
  1. Is it logical that one man, Richard Boyle, was present during all the major historical moments such as scenes at the U.S. embassy and guerrilla camps, the death of Romero, and the speeches of the president elect?  
  1. Where do the events in the film supposedly take place, and where was the film actually shot?
  1. According to the film, how does a lot of the blame point at conservative U.S. forces in relation to the outcome of the civil war
  1. To what purpose did characters such as Maria or Doc serve is the film?  Did they present important historical or cultural information?  

Section 3: Media analysis

Richard Boyle at “El Playón”

In a close up shot of the main protagonist, we see Richard Bolye at work for the first time in months photographing dead bodies at the dumpsite for death squad victims, El Playón, in El Salvador.  The diagonal horizon of the mountain cuts the frame in two, adding to the feeling of angst and uncertainty on Boyle’s dirty face.  While positioned in the center of the frame in extreme focus, we see the other Newsweek photographer, John Cassidy, at work without hesitation in the hazy background.  The pale red handkerchief around Boyle’s neck adds a hint of color to the neutral shades that dominate the still, and also helps him deal with the stench of the bodies.  The close-up of Boyle is enforced by the key light radiating from the center of the frame at an even angle with his body.  As a result, his face and hands holding the camera are illuminated and emphasized.  At this point in the film, the still represents the first time the two photographers have shot pictures together since Boyle’s recent return to El Salvador, and an important conversation takes place concerning the need to capture the moment of death. While Boyle represents the unemployed photographer trying to make it, John is the inspired artist trying to capture that memorable shot that gets close enough to the truth without dying.  It is a scene that foreshadows a climatic moment together when the guerillas attack Santa Ana.       

The rebel camp

Comandante Marti, the field commander for the rebel army, is shown in a medium shot pointing out the areas that the guerillas gained control.  He explains that since they have the northern thirds of the provinces in the West and the East, next the will take the major cities such as Santa Ana and San Miguel.  A bright principal light illuminates his face from the right side of the frame, yet a second softer fill light radiates in front of him and casts his shadow on the map of Salvador.  Only his body and face are in focus, while the rest of the frame is hazy.   Neutral colors dominate this still as the commander looks at Boyle and explains Salvador will fall before Reagan. This scene represents the moment when Boyle and John gained permission to go to the mountains and photograph the guerrillas.  It is the only time in which the rebel camp is shown in the film and in which they are given a voice, and the reference to taking Santa Ana foreshadows their semi-successful attack until U.S. restored military aid to the army and Guardia Civil.

Romero’s sermon 

Captured in a moment of passion and truth, Archbishop Romero is depicted here in the middle of his sermon in the main cathedral.  The close up emphasizes his emotional expression, and even details such the lines in his face are clear.  He hand is raised in the air and he pours his heart out to both the people of the El Salvador as well as the Army and Guardia Nacional.  The background is hazy, drawing attention to his figure and the microphone that carries his message to the masses.  Romero is captured slightly to the left of the frame, with the microphone is centered in the middle.  The key light originates to the left of the still, casting a small shadow on the right hand side of his face and top of his hand.  He white religious robe stands out against that dark brick wall, and his glasses relate to the fact that Romero was a learned man.  In this still, Romero is talking about the rights of the people and compares his small poor town with the rich in Washington that are aiding the Junta in the land reform. In his closing words, he finishes with a strong petition in the name of God to stop the violence and the repression.  It is a scene that preludes his unjust assassination by one of the government’s men in the midst of communion, and sets off a chaotic rush of people fleeing in terror while the military attacks unarmed townspeople.  

War Crimes

Through an extreme close-up of the Salvadoran soldier’s face in the foreground and a medium shot of an armed guerilla woman in the middle ground, the expressions of both enemies are juxtaposed and emphasized.  The low angle shot of the camera provides a unique perspective and adds tension to the situation as the viewer is positioned extremely close to the assassination.  The principal light radiates directly overhead the two individuals and both illuminates them while simultaneously casting their faces in shadow.

The barbed wire in the middle ground contrasts with the dark background, accentuating this image of war.  The chiaroscuro lighting emphasizes the ironic reversal of roles in this still.  In relation to the film, it is the only time in which the guerillas are openly admonished for their actions.  Richard Boyle even declares that the guerrilla soldier is turning into them (a.k.a. the Junta and Guardia Civil), while the young woman responds that in a war these actions must occur.  It also is interesting that in addition to the brief reversal of roles between the guerrilla and the Salvadoran government, there is a reversal of the gender roles as well.       

John’s Last Shot

Through a medium shot, the camera positioned behind John’s back gives the viewer his point of view before his he takes his final memorable picture.  Linear perspective on the town of Santa Ana is provided as the horizon lines lead the viewer’s eye to the plane entering overhead during the battle between the government and the guerillas.  The bright blue sky contrasts with the war torn town, and the natural light from the sun illuminates John’s back and gives clarity and focus to all the details of the demolished street.   This riveting climatic still was prefigured during the scene at El Playón, for as John starts capturing on film the plane flying into the town after the U.S. restored military aid, he finds his own demise in the shot that captures the truth about American assistance in the war.  It serves a reminder to how some photographers want to report the truth and risk their lives doing it, similar to real Newsweek photographer, John Hoagland, who died while working in Salvador.     

Part II:  Media Literacy Questions

  1. Who is the director of the film and who owns the medium?
  1. From whose perspective does the camera frame the events of the Salvadoran Civil War presented?  How is this person a worthy source of facts and information?
  1. Whose interests does this perspective represent and what is the intended message?
  1. Which characters are filmed and emphasized most often? Where are they from?
  1. Whose perspective is not heard and whose is mainly seen? 
  1. Who was the intended audience and what year was it released?  Who was president during this time in the U.S. and was the war was still happening in El Salvador?  
  1. How did the flashing images and heavy drum music create a feeling of tension in the opening scene of the film?  Why were black and white images only used at this point in the film with red lettering for the actor’s names?
  1. How did the director’s use of mise-en-scene create a feeling of angst and uncertainty?  In which scenes did you feel this the most?
  1. Why were most of the important speeches by figures such as Romero, Major Max and the commander of the guerillas filmed in close-up shots?  
  1. How did the dark lit scenes of the Salvadoran government and military contrast with brightly lit scenes at the U.S. embassy?  
  1. Why did the director combine both English and Spanish in certain scenes?  To what purpose did the Spanish language and subtitles serve?  Was it useful that Richard Boyle and other U.S. relief workers were depicted as somewhat bilingual? 
  1. What type of music was used every time the guerilla group was present?  How did this either support or negate their efforts in the civil war?  
  1. What colors were dominant in the film?  How does this relate to the war-torn country?
  1. While the drug related and drinking habits of characters like Boyle were emphasized, how does this image contrast with the actions of the richer well-polished U.S. citizens working in Salvador who lacked the moral human right virtues that Boyle contained?
  1. Why does the camera mainly follow photographers?  To whom was this film trying to commemorate?
  1. Why was a panoramic moving long shot used in the ending scene with the flashing lights of U.S. boarder patrol cars in the distance?  How does the image of Boyle fleeing the country and Maria being captured at the U.S. boarder resolve issues in the movie?  What is Oliver Stone saying about the war in El Salvador by using an open ending?  Is he adding a subversive comment at the end concerning the treatment of illegal immigrants coming to the U.S.?        

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