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The argument that politics doesn't make for good entertainment is usually aimed at films critical to the status quo. Englishman Alex Cox takes the side of the Sandinistas, plain and simple. The audacious, often wickedly funny Walker looks at the Contra incursion as only the latest chapter in an ugly history of Yankee adventurism south of the border. Long before the U.S. Marines got involved, the freebooting soldier of fortune William Walker repeatedly invaded Central American countries, and in 1855 succeeded in taking over Nicaragua as his personal fiefdom.
Alex Cox's bloody black comedy channels motifs from left-leaning spaghetti westerns and imagery from Sam Peckinpah epics. His filming style is a weird mixture of period authenticity and witty anachronisms. When an issue of Newsweek appears in 1856, with a color picture of William Walker smiling on the cover, it's clear that Cox is really talking about the here and now. Walker lectures that it is America's duty to use force to bring Democracy to barbaric lands, and then checks his digital watch to see what time it is. Manifest Destiny lives, and it isn't pretty.
Synopsis: 1853. Adventurer and would-be conqueror William Walker (Ed Harris) flees Mexico after a failed attempt to incite an armed insurrection. Due to popular support for his beliefs about spreading Americanism to other countries, Walker is acquitted of legal wrongdoing. His plans to marry and start a newspaper end when his sweetheart Ellen Martin (Marlee Matlin) dies of cholera. Walker then accepts an offer from millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt (Peter Boyle). "Commodore" Vanderbilt sends Walker with sixty mercenaries to overthrow Nicaragua, to secure Vanderbilt's exclusive overland shipping route between the Atlantic and Pacific (there is yet no Panama Canal). Walker's ragtag brigade sails to Nicaragua and blunders its way into a battle, which is declared a victory only after the fact. When the capital falls, Walker allows the president to stay in charge, but takes his mistress, Yrena (Blanca Guerra). Incompetent policies and widespread looting inspire a rebellion, so Walker orders the president shot and assumes his place. Becoming delusional about his role in history, Walker revokes Vanderbilt's license to the overland trade route. Nicaragua and its neighbors unite to rid themselves of the unwelcome gringo dictator.
Alex Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer's Walker directly attacks U.S. policy through broad comedy and absurdist visuals, a cinematic combination that has always played to a select audience. We're told that many of Walker's dozens of whimsical anachronisms (a favorite: a modern Zippo lighter) weren't even noticed. Some audiences were only mildly confused when a helicopter suddenly appears in the last scene.
A fan of violent westerns, Cox has a field day with gory battles and slow motion blood spurts a la Sam Peckinpah. Over-the-top gunplay had long before lapsed into self-parody, and Walker's unending series of assassinations and executions eventually lead to authentic news film of Nicaraguan victims of the Contras being washed for burial. Walker sees the Nicaraguan war as a sick joke that Americans don't want to hear.
Star Ed Harris was a sterling John Glenn in The Right Stuff, his best-remembered role. He's equally convincing as the psychotic William Walker, an American Who Would Be King. Too obsessed with his destiny to formulate a strategy, Walker attacks blindly, drifting through his battles incapable of giving a coherent order. He spouts idealistic rhetoric while his men rape and pillage. He metes out draconian punishments like a good Puritan: "One must act with severity, or perish." But Walker is easily seduced by the beautiful Yrena, who insults him in tender Spanish and dominates him in bed. Living in a delusional state of mind, Walker appoints himself President, betrays his corrupt American sponsor and decides to introduce slavery to Nicaragua. Although the real William Walker escaped to attempt yet another mercenary invasion, Alex Cox's mad conqueror ends his tale with a stylized mini-apocalypse. Upset that his plans have gone astray, Walker burns his capitol city Granada, simply out of spite.
Cox and Wurlitzer populate their political farce with a gallery of oddball performances. William Walker's mercenary 'Immortals' are given funny costumes and quirky personalities, like the bounty hunters of The Wild Bunch crossed with Captain Hook's pirate crew. Joe Strummer of The Clash plays a small part in addition to composing the film's score. Extras were recruited from pro-Sandinista Americans found in Managua, while key roles are filled by actors willing to work in a war zone. Rene Auberjonois is a goofy German sea captain ("I studied strategy under Lubitsch!"). Richard Masur and Peter Boyle have only a couple of scenes as the power-mad Vanderbilt and his key henchman. The under-used Marlee Matlin is Walker's deaf-mute fiancée. Her scenes with Harris are a wonderful parody of movies about Great Men dealing with domestic issues: Matlin's Ellen gestures at the guns and gear strewn about her New Orleans house and tells her sweetheart to clear it all out. Do all aspiring empire-builders have this problem?
Cornelius Vanderbilt offered free steamship passage for anyone seeking a future in the new Nicaragua, clearly wishing to transform the country into an American colony. This brings Walker's no-account brothers (Gerrit Graham and William O'Leary) looking for a free ride. One volunteers to head the treasury while the other imitates Walker's dress and becomes his loyal bodyguard.
The movie abounds with freaked-out details. One shot reveals Walker and his Immortals as the subjects of a parody of the painting The Last Supper. Serving as a surgeon, Walker pauses during an operation to laugh, and taste a piece of something he cuts out of his patient. Pitched battles are scored with Latin Jazz, and the Immortals perform Shakespeare on the steps of Walker's half-built opera house. A surreal C.I. A. agent arrives to evacuate Walker's men, but only accepts those with American passports. Walker's Gonzo approach to its subject found few friends among critics. The film was labeled as propaganda and largely ignored by an America satisfied with the version of reality presented on the network news. Seen in today's political climate, William Walker's rhetoric about America's duty to spread Freedom through force sounds like contemporary speechmaking -- an anachronism in reverse.
Criterion's DVD of Walker is a bright and colorful enhanced transfer that flatters this handsome production filmed on beautiful Nicaraguan locations. Alex Cox and Rudy Wurlitzer share a commentary track. They start by stating that the illegal war against the Sandinistas was actually initiated by President Jimmy Carter.
Dispatches from Nicaragua is a lengthy making-of piece newly edited from thirty hours of videotape shot by Terry Schwartz. Schwarz's camera watches Cox haranguing his cast to march properly and witnesses demonstrations outside the U.S. Embassy in Managua. The film employed 400 Nicaraguans and was a boost to the economy. A Sandinista general visiting the set coaches an extra on the right way to bash a gringo's skull with a rock. Nicaraguan school kids lack writing pens but have big smiles -- they've been taught that William Walker was an American who tried to bring slavery to their country. But they also want to visit the U.S. -- because it's pretty and it has snow!
An impressive photo gallery is included, in addition to a trailer. On Moviemaking and the Revolution is an entertaining, somewhat profane monologue about the filming. The voice is male but the menu says 'by Linda Sandoval', who also authors an essay in the insert booklet. Film critic Graham Fuller contributes another essay, and Rudy Wurlitzer provides notes on the historical background of William Walker.
Hitting the 'A' on Walker on the main menu cues up a short video of director Cox going over the almost exclusively negative reviews for Walker. When one critic finally praises the film, Cox doesn't seem to believe it.
For more information about Walker, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Walker, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson