A charismatic American adventurer is on trial, accused of administering his own foreign policy. Instead of backing down, though, he faces his accuser and speaks of the necessity for vigorous intervention. Indeed, he speaks of manifest destiny and declares that, “It is the fate of America to go ahead.”
No, it’s not Oliver North, 1987. Rather, this is an early scene from Walker, a film that tells a true story from the 1850s, when American William Walker went to Nicaragua and bloodily declared himself president. But the parallels between now and then are too ripe not to be acknowledged, and Walker deliriously leaps on them.
But then, the word “delirious” is almost synonymous with the name Alex Cox, the abundantly talented director of Repo Man and Sid and Nancy. Cox takes Rudy Wurlitzer’s script, which follows Walker’s violent rise and his eventual downfall, and turns it into an insane, out-of-control movie that reflects the madness of Walker himself. This movie resembles a spaghetti Western directed with all the bomb-throwing revolutionary fervor of Jean-Luc Godard.
Cox frequently punctures the traditions of period storytelling. Now and then a mercenary will brandish a semiautomatic pistol, or a modern helicopter will fly by; at one point Walker picks up a copy of Time magazine with his picture on the cover, and beams madly, “Didja see this?”
In other words, Cox goes too far; by any conventional standards, he’s heavy-handed. And yet these gleeful anachronisms are in tune with the film’s other excesses, like the exaggeratedly violent shoot-outs that help Walker’s band of men conquer Nicaragua, or the oversized villainy of Cornelius Vanderbilt – in this film a craven capitalist pig if ever there was one – who funds Walker’s trip south.
The funny thing is, all of this wildness conveys an absolutely compelling vision of an out-of-control situation. It’s an inflammable movie, which is just what it should be.
It’s all the more amazing that, in between the jokes and the anachronisms, Walker contains some powerful movie making. For all his florid touches, Cox is capable of great subtlety, such as the early scene when Walker agrees to give up adventuring and stay at home with his fiancée. As they embrace, the lifts his head to listen to the people outside in the street, chanting his name, which his fiancée cannot hear because she is deaf.
And the finale is the burning of Grenada, an astonishing, bravura piece of filmmaking, even if Cox insists on undercutting it with his absurdist sense of humor.
Ed Harris, the superb actor from The Right Stuff and Sweet Dreams, plays Walker with considerable courage, and a willingness to look foolish; his Walker is an idealogue, madman, weasel. Almost everyone else in the movie is ragged and bedraggled, but there is good work by Sy Richardson, as Walker’s sympathetic aide; last year’s Oscar winner Marlee Matlin as the fiancée; and Peter Boyle as Vanderbilt. The inventive, haunting music score is by ex-Clash member Joe Strummer.
The story of William Walker is a remarkable one. Maybe in the future it will be told in rational terms. In the meantime, Alex Cox’s unbalanced, bizarre, and inspired version will have to do.
“History does not smile on pedants,” Walker says, and there’s nothing pedantic about this movie. Perhaps, someday, we can induce Cox to tackle the Oliver North story.
First published in The Herald, December 1987
Glad to hear I liked this movie, which I haven’t revisited. The supporting cast is crammed with fun people: Richard Masur, Xander Berkeley, Alfonso Arau, Rene Auberjonois, John Diehl, Richard Edson, Gerrit Graham, Joe Strummer. And of course Ronald Reagan, in newsreel footage. Cox has had a long and winding road since then, but apparently this studio-backed movie trashed his chances for regular Hollywood work.