Walker: Criterion Collection
February 11, 2008
Walker (1987) is an unconventional biopic that effectively burned any remaining bridges Alex Cox had with Hollywood. He took a modest amount of studio money and made a film about William Walker, an opportunistic American who invaded Nicaragua and became its president from 1855 to 1857, instituting slavery which didn’t go over too well with the locals, and he was eventually executed in 1860. Cox wasn’t interested in making a traditional biopic and, with screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer, decided to include the occasional modern anachronism (Walker appears on the covers of Newsweek and Time; a Mercedes drives past a horse-drawn carriage) to give the film a satirical howl of protest against the Reagan administration’s support of the contra war against the democratically elected Sandinista government. This did not endear Cox to his studio backers.
Stylistically, Cox was influenced by the films of Sam Peckinpah as the opening slow-motion carnage so lovingly demonstrates (he even has the director’s name on a grave in a later scene). The film begins with Walker’s (Harris) unsuccessful attempts to colonize the Mexican territories of Sonora and Baja. He is put on trial back in the United States and argues that he was only exercising his God-given right of Manifest Destiny. He believes that expansion of the U.S. is its future and he is merely a patriot doing his duty. His girlfriend, Ellen Martin (Matlin), sees through his posturing and argues that Manifest Destiny is just another way of condoning slavery.
However, powerful capitalist Cornelius Vanderbilt (Boyle) asks Walker to invade Nicaragua and restore order to a country torn apart by civil war so that he can continue to exploit its transportation routes. At first, Walker turns him down but after enduring a personal tragedy, he needs something to fill the void and accepts Vanderbilt’s proposal. Walker recruits 58 men that the press dubs, “Walker’s Immortals,” and heads for Central America. The film documents Walker’s gradual descent into madness as he becomes drunk on power, delusional, believing he is control, that what he is doing in right, even when, in reality, this is not the case.
Cox clearly equates the self-righteous Walker, who sometimes refers to himself in the third person, with politicians like Ronald Reagan who believe that it is their moral right to “liberate” other countries in order to “save them” when in actuality they are exploiting their resources and doing irreparable damage to its people. How little things have changed. Walker is as arrogant and blithely dimwitted as George W. Bush and his pointless mission to liberate Iraq, a country, like Nicaragua, at war with itself and in come the Americans to try and fix things only to make it worse.
Cox sets an absurdist tone and never looks back. This is evident in Walker’s first battle in Nicaragua. As his men are gunned down in the street, he brazenly walks through seemingly oblivious to the carnage going on around him. He takes refuge in a building and plays the piano as bullets whiz around him. It’s a crazy scene but works because of Ed Harris’ conviction. He portrays Walker as a self-important, power-hungry madman with characteristic charismatic intensity.
Cox actually had the chutzpah to make Walker in Nicaragua with the approval of the Sandinista government which demonstrates just how far he was willing to put his money (or rather the studio’s) where his mouth was. The filmmaker adopts a very playful attitude as he gleefully deconstructs the biopic (much as he shredded the spaghetti western and gangster film genres in Straight to Hell) in such an off-kilter way that had never been done before and rarely attempted since (perhaps Kevin Spacey’s take on Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea or Tony Scott’s gonzo take on Domino Harvey in Domino). However, Walker remains a cinematic oddity as he applies the punk aesthetic to the biopic, making a political statement about the abuse of power that is eerily relevant today as it was in 1987.
There is an audio commentary by director Alex Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer. The two men talk about how they took a traditional historical narrative and proceeded to break all of its rules. For example, the main protagonist is an unlikable madman. They praise Joe Strummer’s emotional score and touch upon the mood it creates. They also compare Vanderbilt to Halliburton of today in terms of global power and influence, financing a military expedition for their own gains. Cox is funny and full of energy with Wurlitzer providing his own laconic take on the film.
“On Moviemaking and the Revolution” is an audio excerpt from an extra on the film who recounts their experiences and providing a snapshot of the crazy atmosphere of filming on location.
“Dispatches from Nicaragua” is a 50-minute retrospective look at the making of Walker. It provides the historical context in which Cox made his film. There are all kinds of great behind-the-scenes footage of the filmmaker and his cast and crew hard at work. We see what a logistical nightmare this film was and the challenges of shooting in Nicaragua.
There is another extra where Cox quotes from and responds to the scathing reviews of his film from back when it first came out.
“The Immortals” features two still galleries, one of behind-the-scenes photographs taken on the set and Polaroids of various cast members in costume.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.