“People don’t go to the movies to be enlightened. They go to the movies to have a good time. If some social enlightenment occurs as a result of seeing Walker, seeing the faces of Nicaraguans, seeing the country, getting a feeling for the country, that’s good. Then we’ve achieved something.” – Alex Cox
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 Rudolph Wurlitzer (Two-Lane Blacktop), 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 (Ed 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 (Marlee Matlin), sees through his posturing and argues that Manifest Destiny is just another way of condoning slavery.
However, powerful capitalist Cornelius Vanderbilt (Peter 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. In came the Americans to try and fix things, only to make it worse.
With its Latin American beats, Joe Strummer’s score plays over the film’s opening carnage as people fly through the air in slow-motion and Walker’s men are systematically picked off by overwhelming forces. Shooting on location in Nicaragua and the rather exotic score do a great job of transporting us back in time. The nightmarish minimalism of the music in the scene where Walker’s men are slaughtered while he advances unscathed is incredible and adds to the surreal nature of the scene as the American acts as if he’s merely out for a afternoon stroll while his men die bloody deaths all around him. The film’s show-stopping sequence is the burning of the town that is Walker’s headquarters with Strummer employing a poignant piano sound and a soulful guitar that contrasts the madness of Walker’s actions and the end of his regime. Simply put, what Strummer does on this soundtrack is miles away from anything he did with The Clash and makes one wish he had tried his hand at more film scores.
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 it works because of Ed Harris’ conviction. He portrays Walker as a self-important, power-hungry madman with characteristic charismatic intensity. Cox does some really unusual things in this film, like having an entire scene between Walker and his deaf girlfriend conducted completely in sign language!
Liverpool-born Alex Cox first became interested in the country of Nicaragua when he became fascinated by how the media portrayed the revolution that took place there in the late 1970s. At first, the Sandinista rebels were portrayed favorably and then this changed dramatically. Cox visited Nicaragua in 1984 during the National Election campaign for which Daniel Ortega became president to see if conditions were as bad as the American media had reported. He discovered that this wasn’t the case. He was persuaded to return to the country by two wounded soldiers from the Sandinista Army.
While he was there, Cox saw a sign on the wall of a church in Granada that said it was burned down in the 1850s by the retreating army of William Walker. This intrigued Cox and when he returned home, read an article on United States foreign policy in Central America in Mother Jones magazine, and decided to bring the Walker’s story to the big screen. A history professor from the University of California leant Cox a library card so he could do more research and “the more I read about him the more bizarre this seemed.” Furthermore, Cox realized that “you couldn’t invent a character like Walker. He was much too incredible. He was a complete lunatic: a strong believer in chivalry, a murderer, a pathological liar, a criminal, totally fearless, full of heroic and noble qualities, and mad.”
Cox hired Rudy Wurlitzer to write the screenplay because, according to the director, “he understands American guys and the mad impulse that drives certain Americans to be great men.” He wasn’t interested in making a long, respectful historical drama a la Masterpiece Theatre because Walker “leads a disastrous misadventure. He’s a pretty bad guy. I didn’t think it was possible to approach it in this normal, historical, respectful style.”
Cox was given a budget of $6 million and decided to shoot most of the film in Granada. Amazingly, he got the cooperation of the Sandinista government and the Roman Catholic Church. One of the benefits of shooting in Nicaragua was that the dying economy received a significant boost by the presence of the production. 300 local carpenters were hired to build sets, 6,000 people were hired as extras and the army supplied security guards and a Soviet-built MI018 transport helicopter that was used in the film. One of the conditions of being allowed to film in Nicaragua was that the screenplay was edited by the country’s vice president Sergio Ramirez and the Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal, who were also a novelist and a poet respectively. Both men, along with the Minister of Education, the country’s Interior Minister, and a military commander would occasionally visit the set.
Electricity poles in the plaza were torn down, leaving homes without light. Some families were left temporarily without a telephone because the production needed their lines and the government couldn’t afford to install new ones. The central square was covered with several inches of dirt in order to recreate 1850s conditions. Unfortunately, two people were accidentally killed during production, both in separate vehicular-related incidents. For one of the deaths, the production paid for the funeral and compensated the family. The shooting conditions were difficult because of the many fires that were set by the locals, which made the air thick and hard to breath.
Cox cast Ed Harris as Walker. He was drawn to the challenge of playing someone “who has incredible moral convictions but turns into such an evil person in the name of spreading democracy.” He was also drawn to the script’s politics, claiming to be anti-Contra and anti-intervention in Nicaragua. He saw making a film there as a way to possibly stop the bloodshed. To get into character, Harris led the entire cast on a ten-mile forced march through the Nicaraguan countryside.
Even after filming had ended, Cox stayed in Granada, editing Walker. He said, “I think we have kind of a duty not to just be the rich gringos and come down here and spend eight weeks and then disappear.” To provide the film’s eclectic soundtrack, Cox brought on board his friend and frequent collaborator Joe Strummer. They had worked together previously on Sid and Nancy (1986) and Straight to Hell (1987), contributing songs to their respective soundtracks. The Clash frontman had wanted to compose an entire score to a film and Walker afforded him such an opportunity. After filming his small part in the film, Strummer would go back to his room and record bits of music onto a four-track cassette using an acoustic guitar and a little plastic synthesizer with guitarist Zander Schloss. Both men became influenced by local music played in bars, which was a mix of reggae, calypso and Brazilian music.
The original deal Cox made with Universal Pictures was to give Walker a traditional theatrical release and to that end felt that if he could make a satirical western a la Blazing Saddles (1974), it would appeal to a mainstream audience. At some point, the studio realized that they had a strange film on their hands and began treating it as an art house oddity, giving it a very limited release with little advertising. Walker received mostly negative to mixed reviews with Roger Ebert leading the charge. He gave the film a resounding thumbs down and felt that Cox didn’t “seem to have a clue about what he wants to do or even what he has done. Although the ads for Walker don’t even hint it, this movie is apparently intended as a comedy or a satire. I write ‘apparently’ because, if it is a comedy, it has no laughs, and if a satire, no target.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Walker is a witty, rather than laugh-out-loud funny. Without being solemn, it’s deadly serious … Walker is something very rare in American movies these days. It has some nerve.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen criticized Cox’s direction: “His scenes have no shape, his characters are stick figures, the wit is undergraduate, and his soggy set pieces of slow-motion carnage are third-rate Peckinpah imitations.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, “Cox exposes the limitations of historical drama in Walker with a calculated disregard of its conventions.” Finally, the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley found it to be as “gross as it is muddled as it is absurd.”
In some respects, Walker fuses the pastoral epic scope of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) with Cox’s own irreverent aesthetic. He actually had the chutzpah to make the film 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.
Dafoe, Chris. “Hollywood Knocks on Strummer’s Door.” Globe and Mail. December 11, 1987.
Ford, Peter. “Desperado with a Mission.” Financial Times. August 22, 1987.
Grove, Lloyd. “Hollywood Invades Nicaragua.” Washington Post. August 20, 1987.
Lim, Dennis. “Alex Cox, Revolutionary.” Los Angeles Times. February 17, 2008.
Murray, Noel. “Alex Cox.” A.V. Club. March 13, 2008.
Van Gelder, Lawrence. “Cox to Show Walker Film in Nicaragua.” The New York Times. December 4, 1987.
Yakir, Dan. “For Harris, The Appeal was Political.” Globe and Mail. December 11, 1987.