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“I was seriously off the rails here.”–screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer, on Walker‘s Criterion collection commentary
DIRECTED BY: Alex Cox
FEATURING: Ed Harris, Sy Richardson, Rene Auberjonois, Blanca Guerra, 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.
- 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), Monte Hellman‘s cult film Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), and the Sam Peckinpah 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 Ken Russell (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. Continue reading 28*. WALKER (1987)