28*. WALKER (1987)

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“I was seriously off the rails here.”–screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer, on Walker‘s commentary

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ed Harris, , , , Peter Boyle,  Marlee Matlin

PLOT: Shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt hires William Walker, a mercenary and adventurer fresh off a failed campaign to establish an independent state in Mexico, to take a small army to Nicaragua to join their civil war on the side of the Democrats. Assembling a ragtag band of disreputable men lacking better prospects, Walker takes his army to Nicaragua, where he has unexpected success, driving back the Legitimist army and arriving in the capital of Grenada as a liberator. Initially accepting a position leading the army, Walker grows power mad and seizes the country’s Presidency.

Still from Walker (1987)

BACKGROUND:

  • William Walker was a real historical figure and, ridiculous anachronisms and obvious fantasy scenes aside, Walker describes the general direction of his career. Many scenes were drawn from his diaries and letters and other historical sources. (One major change was the role of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who did not sponsor Walker’s original expedition, but was involved in his downfall.)
  • The practice of American adventurers invading Latin American countries with private armies was surprisingly common in the 19th century, so much so that it earned its own name: filibustering. William Walker was the most successful filibusterer of all time. He somehow took control of Nicaragua with an army initially comprised of a mere 60 men.
  • Rudy Wurlitzer’s previous screenplays included the bizarre post-apocalyptic Glen and Randa (1971), ‘s cult film Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), and the Western Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973).
  • Cox made Walker in the same year as Straight to Hell, a quickie scraped together after plans to film a punk rock concert in Nicaragua fell apart.
  • The movie was filmed while the C.I.A..-backed Contras were waging a guerilla war against the ruling Sandinistas. Cox filmed corpses from a Contra massacre and included the footage in the film’s end credits.
  • Universal Studios gave Cox his largest budget ever, six million dollars, to make what they hoped might be a prestige biopic, or even a hit. They did not expect the deranged, anachronistic, incendiary film Cox delivered, and after poorly-received test screenings they buried the film. Cox never directed in Hollywood again.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It’s tempting to cite one of the many iconic scenes of Walker, rifle in hand, striding confidently in the foreground in his smart Puritan-black suit while mayhem erupts in the background. We instead selected the surreal image of Walker striding confidently across the beach in the background, while in the foreground two of his men are being punished by being buried up to their necks in the sand with a tarantula crawling over one’s head, while their overseer enjoys a Marlboro and Coke.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Smoking during tarantula torture; 19th century helicopter evacuation

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Imagine Aguirre, the Wrath of God directed by (if he was obsessed with politics instead of sex and Catholicism). That’s Walker in a nutshell.


Original trailer for Walker

COMMENTS: Walker drops its strangeness on its viewers gradually. It begins looking like an ordinary Western-themed biopic. The only unusual feature is that the opening battle sequence is scored to hip-swaying salsa music (courtesy of composer Joe Strummer, whose incongruous musical accompaniments are in tune with Alex Cox’s offbeat direction). The next strange moment is also auditory, as Walker and his deaf wife entertain potential financiers while children perform an disturbingly out-of-tune rendition of “Moonlight Sonata” in the background. Eccentricities abound, from the judge who keeps a bottle of whiskey on his bench as he rules to a farting Commodore Vanderbilt to Walker’s wife dying and showing up as a disapproving ghost in the first fifteen minutes. Walker is an unconventional and disrespectful biopic from the start, but Cox amps up the madness as William Walker’s character arc goes into its descent and the would-be dictator sacrifices every principle he claims to believe in, while refusing to acknowledge that his empire is crumbling around him.

Ed Harris, the clean-cut all-American actor who hovered on the borderline between leading man and top-rank supporting actor, gives a performance that, in an alternate universe, might have made him a bona fide movie star. His Walker embodies a particularly American contradiction: the ruthless idealist, spreading the gospel of God’s love for democracy through bloodshed. Walker is very much Harris’ movie: clean and shining, he’s always surrounded by less important, less dapper men, a series of advisors, sycophants and supplicants, whom he usually ignores or treats dismissively. The film’s two women, Marlee Matlin (as the aforementioned deaf wife) and Blanca Guerra (as a Nicaraguan aristocrat who seduces Walker), stand out from the crowd by virtue of their femininity. Peter Boyle serves a dish of ham with relish as the crude Vanderbilt, at one point becoming so furious with his traitorous underlings that he dumps the water from a flower vase onto his head to cool himself off, then whips the men with long-stem roses. Cox favorite Sy Richardson has an efficiently-sketched role as Walker’s black lieutenant, torn between loyalty for his superior and disgust at his pragmatic embrace of slavery, Rene Auberjonois is a slapstick Swedish soldier of fortune who is constantly yelling, thrashing about, and being struck in his wounded arm. Other characters include a journalist and Walker’s two brothers who feel entitled to nepotistic rewards, but mostly the dozens of men who throng around form a blur of flushed faces and competing advice whirling around the impassive Walker—who, no matter his other faults, is impressively stoic and single-minded in his pursuit of whatever goal he sets for himself.

Walker is a blunt symbol of American imperialism: democratic in rhetoric, authoritarian in practice, hypocritical in principle. Cox uses anachronisms—Zippo lighters, helicopters, copies of “Newsweek” with Walker’s face on the cover—to none-too-subtly suggest a parallel between 19th-century colonialism and Ronald Reagan’s then-topical meddling in Nicaragua. When Yrena seduces Walker, she speaks only Spanish, while he speaks only English (apparently not having bothered to learn the native tongue of the land he came to rule). Later, when she address him in English, he responds with a shocked “I don’t understand… you speak…?,” amazed that she can communicate in a civilized language. Walker baldly expresses the movie’s satirical thesis he tells a crowd of locals “You all might think that there will be a day when America will leave Nicaragua alone, but I am here to tell you, flat out, that that day will never happen; because it is our destiny to be here…”—while the city burns and his men are fleeing.

Although many of Walker’s speeches about manifest destiny are taken from historical documents, they still feel more than a bit on-the-nose. This lack of subtlety was one of contemporary critics’ major complaints. Other gripes were about the film’s “cartoonish” nature and gratuitous use of blood squibs. Still, it’s hard to understand the vitriol oozing from movie reviewers of the day towards a movie that looks like a minor gonzo masterpiece thirty-five years later. You might not like Walker (especially if you don’t like weird movies), but did it really deserve zero stars from both Siskel and Ebert? More than anything, the critics seemed to feel cheated that Walker was not just another by-the-numbers Oscar bait biopic. “We aren’t watching a story of Walker — or even the obvious parable of U.S. intervention — so much as a probing of the manic director’s mind,” grumbled Desson Howe. A fair summary, I suppose, but where I depart from Howe is in our respective preferences for historically accurate docudramas versus probing of manic directors’ minds. We get a mind-numbing number of dully conservative variations on the former every year, but few decently-budgeted examples of the latter. Screw subtlety, give me bold, fearless excess! I want surprises and crazy energy; I want to see Walker suddenly inspired to eat a piece off one of his men. I don’t want calm, objective detachment; I want a movie about a sociopath to be as demented as its subject. That, Walker is.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a surreally silly biography of an American adventurer in 19th-century Nicaragua… It’s as gross as it is muddled as it is absurd.”–Rita Kempley, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

“Brutal, trenchant, and unsettlingly surreal…”–Jeremiah Kipp and Bud Wilkins, Slant (Blu-ray)

IMDB LINK: Walker (1987)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Walker (1987) | The Criterion Collection – Includes a scene from the movie and two essays

ALEX COX: THE RETURN OF WALKER – A 2022 interview with Cox about Walker

Walker (1987) | Based on a True Story – YouTube review from “The Cynical Historian,” who dubs Walker “the best inaccurate movie ever”

HOME VIDEO INFO:

Although Walker was a flop, the Criterion Collection saw something there and grabbed the rights for a DVD release. In January 2022, they upgraded that disc to Blu-ray, with some modest visual and audio remastering (buy). Features include a commentary track by Alex Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer, a 50-minutes behind-the-scenes documentary, an audio-only reminiscence by an extra, a 17-minute talk on the origins of the movie by Cox, the trailer, a series of production stills, and the usual high-quality booklet.

The DVD housed a humorous, semi-hidden bonus feature where Cox reads contemporaneous reviews (mostly bad) of the film; this segment is dedicated to (Cox considered his own Straight to Hell to be an unofficial remake of Django Kill). This featurette is included as a standard extra on the Blu-ray.

The movie can be streamed exclusively on the Criterion Channel.

(This movie was nominated for review by “Alex,” who said “Given the recent review mentioning the lack of weird westerns, I instantly thought of ‘Walker’…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

Where to watch Walker

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