Oliver Stone and the persistence of false memories, part 1.

16 Oct

1. Throat-cutters in El Salvador.

When I was twelve, I saw Oliver Stone’s Salvador for the first time. The movie follows a handful of American journalists in El Salvador in the early 1980s. James Woods plays Richard Boyle, a real-life photojournalist who ends up allied with both left-wing peasant revolutionaries and the right-wing military junta. Woods plays Boyle as a brave, confused, fast-talking hustler, hopeless in his personal life, drug-addled and often drunk but daring and basically decent. James Belushi plays his bullish drunken friend. John Savage plays a photographer willing to risk his life for the perfect shot. They all end up in El Salvador as the military junta is taking over. It’s quite a movie.

About 75 minutes into Salvador, there’s a scene where Belushi and Woods are ambushed by military thugs. It’s night, the thugs are drunk, and Belushi is killed senselessly, his throat slashed with a knife. I can still see the scene, it’s what shocked me as a child. It’s one of the first times in my life I’ve felt unsafe while watching a movie.

I’ve carried this scene in my thoughts, and have even discussed it with other movie fans.

A few weeks ago, I re-watched Salvador.

And the scene doesn’t exist. It isn’t in the movie.

Instead, it’s Woods who’s attacked, and John Savage saves him at the last second.

He makes it through the movie, despite the terrible hat.

No one dies.

I can’t get over it.

Memory is tricky, unreliable, persistent. I now know that James Belushi lives through until the end. But in my memory, there he is, bloated and sweating, cut down by El Salvadoran government thugs.

My memory of it is so strong, I started looking around for other James Belushi/James Woods films set in Central America, convinced that I had just inserted a scene from one movie into another. It sounds silly, but I’m still convinced that there’s a movie out there, with essentially the same cast and a similar plot, that has Belushi killed. The memory is stuck, even when confronted with the truth.

(The socio-political implications of this are scary as hell.)

So I began to wonder, do I have Oliver Stone wrong, too? Is my opinion of him misguided, based on false memories? Is he actually a great director?

I decided to work my way back through his films. Perhaps I have him wrong.

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One Response to “Oliver Stone and the persistence of false memories, part 1.”

  1. Keith Rhea October 16, 2012 at 12:58 pm #

    I have had similar experiences in re watching movies, re telling stories ( and the listerners say that I have changed the facts). I imagine there must be a place in our brain that acts like a “filter” and events change. It is disconcerting because we like to beleive in certainties and the may not exits. Sort of like a “memory” relativity theory.
    Keith

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