Probably Alex Cox’s most underrated movie. From the Chicago Reader (December 4, 1987). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Alex Cox
Written by Rudy Wurlitzer
With Ed Harris, Richard Masur, Rene Auberjonois, Marlee Matlin, Peter Boyle, Blanca Guerra, and Miguel Sandoval.
What is it about the American mind that insists on regarding itself as apolitical? It would be easier to understand such an attitude in a country with less political freedom than this one; here it seems willfully self-denying, like ordering a hamburger in a Chinese restaurant. From a Marxist and existential standpoint, being “apolitical” means accepting, hence supporting, the status quo — a political position like any other, acknowledged or not. Yet there is something in the national consciousness that resists such acknowledgment.
Reagan’s appeal has always rested in part on this form of self-deception, which can be traced back to most of his movie roles — the assumption that anyone as bland and as familiar as a favorite uncle can’t be sullied by anything as dirty as politics or ideology. The belated discovery that Reagan’s “apoliticism,” so closely linked with his triumph as Pure Image, chiefly consists of his capacity to do nothing at all, hasn’t eliminated the desire to fill the void with another static, charismatic presence — another movie, in short, to tide us over the many crises to come. And it seems likely that any candidate who is tactless enough to broach politics too overtly will be about as popular as someone who turns on the house lights in the middle of a feature.
It shouldn’t be surprising that our taste in movies tends to run the same way. Insofar as overt politics of any kind in a movie are deemed suspect, Red Dawn gets knocked along with Born in Flames. But in a conservative era like this one, right-wing movies ranging from The Deer Hunter to Top Gun to Fatal Attraction are widely perceived as apolitical, while left-wing movies like Matewan and even liberal ones like Cry Freedom are often chided for “preaching to the converted.”
Even some of our more sophisticated writers succumb to some version of this doublethink. In Pauline Kael’s review of Uncommon Valor several seasons back, one read that, “In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Arabs are casually dispatched — it’s as if the hero were skeet shooting — but the tone is clearly a parody of old-movie conventions, and I wouldn’t call the picture racist. Thoughtless, maybe, but not racist.” What are the implications of this? That racist movies are thoughtful, and that unthinking pictures — the thoughtless variety — have no ideology at all: just like Reagan.
Given such a context, Alex Cox’s Walker, a bracing throwback to the “irresponsible” radically minded commercial movies of the late 60s and early 70s — a movie that wears its politics on its sleeve, and overtly addresses the present–hasn’t got much of a prayer. It turns on the house lights, which is bound to make many of our reviewers livid. But if it weren’t for the (unacknowledged) fact that political films of any kind are now regarded as unseemly in the world of entertainment, it wouldn’t carry half the corrosive charge that it has.
A period movie that was mainly filmed on location in Nicaragua, Walker can be described as a delirious fantasy and black comedy inspired by the real-life exploits of William Walker, an American from Nashville who served as the self-appointed president of Nicaragua from 1855 to 1857. Insisting on an unbroken continuity between past and present and reveling in deliberate anachronisms, the movie presents Walker as a full-scale lunatic — a Nero or Caligula ruled by Manifest Destiny whose delusions and excesses are not at all irrelevant to those of our country in Nicaragua today. In overall thrust, this has no more subtlety than a political cartoon; stylistically, it abounds in explicit echoes of Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, Robert Altman, and Apocalypse Now.
There are plenty of bones that one can pick with this position. Aiming for something visionary rather than reasoned, the film plays fast and loose with some of the historical facts, although it must be admitted that some of the most extreme details — such as Walker, a onetime abolitionist, altering the Nicaraguan constitution to reinstitute slavery in 1856–are solidly based on actuality. More generally, depicting Walker as mad is effective as a rhetorical strategy but something of a cop-out as an analytical tool. To the degree that insanity is a social rather than a medical concept, it makes perfect sense to say that this country is capable of committing insane acts in relation to the world community. But calling Walker crazy impedes rather than sharpens understanding, just as calling Reagan or Oliver North or even Hitler crazy does; apart from expressing the intensity of one’s horror, it explains next to nothing. If we grant the term poetic legitimacy, then at the very least the film should start rather than end with this insight, if it wants to teach us anything new.
Furthermore, as Cox and scriptwriter Rudy Wurlitzer freely admit, they are impressed as well as appalled by the figure of Walker. As with Kurtz in the heart of darkness, or Aguirre, or one of the mad Roman emperors, his obstinate fanaticism is too theatrical not to be compelling in some way; and like Wrong Way Corrigan he is too much of a loser not to command some tokens of our sympathy. It might be added, though, that what makes him sympathetic or compelling doesn’t necessarily make him any more comprehensible, apart from luring us into a movie about him. The movie-made charisma of a Walker, North, or Reagan is precisely what leads us to divorce them from a political context, and if charisma were all that Walker had in mind, it wouldn’t be taking us anywhere.
Fortunately, the film has a lot more on its mind than that. A consideration of how and why it got made in the first place is important in understanding its overall meaning. The movie was provoked by a dare made to Cox by two Nicaraguan soldiers wounded by the contras whom he met in a bar in Leon in 1984; they asked him why he didn’t make a film in Nicaragua, and scoffed at his excuses about the complications that would be involved. Later, after Cox came across a reference to Walker in a magazine article and began researching the subject, he enlisted the novelist Rudy Wurlitzer to help him draw up an outline. On a return trip to Nicaragua in late 1985, Cox and producer Lorenzo O’Brien met with the Nicaraguan film commission and Roman Catholic Church, both of whom provided locations in Managua and Granada, and nine months later they acquired financing from executive producer Edward R. Pressman.
Although the original plan was to shoot half the film in Mexico, the full cooperation of the Sandinista government — which was in no way contingent on any veto power to censor or alter the film, unlike the situation the filmmakers would have encountered in Mexico — convinced them to remain in Nicaragua. The shooting all took place far away from the war against the Contras in the north, but some Sandinista troops under their regular officers served as extras, playing Walker’s local opponents. All the materials needed for the production had to be shipped from countries other than the U.S., and the fact that an American-financed film could be made opposing an American-supported war in the same country where the war was being fought undoubtedly brought an idealistic fervor to the production that infected the crew. The additional fact that Cox was the same age as Walker, 32, when he arrived in Nicaragua with a team about the same size as Walker’s “58 Immortals” in 1855, certainly wasn’t lost on him or Wurlitzer, and the film’s anarchic spirit complicates its explicit anger to make room for such ambiguities and overtones.
Even without the unusual production difficulties of Walker, Alex Cox’s talent is passionately anarchic, for better and for worse. In each of his films to date — including, presumably, the much-maligned Straight to Hell, which I haven’t seen — a plethora of good ideas are dropped and either kicked out of sight or trampled underfoot by excess energy. His short Sleep Is for Sissies was nothing but scattershot ideas competing with one another for prominence; Repo Man began as a tug-of-war between a well-delineated view of a particular underside of LA and a paranoid sci-fi fantasy, with the former eventually (and regrettably) giving way to the latter; and even the relatively contained Sid & Nancy was all over the place with runaway diversions. In Walker, the various elements tend to get plastered over one another, as in a palimpsest, so that few of them are allowed to build or accumulate–except for the fascination with the title character, the intensity of the nonstop violence, and the fiery beauty of David Bridges’s cinematography, which probably makes this the most attractively shot Cox movie to date.
In the case of the witty script, many of the secondary meanings and ironies are concerned with language. Wurlitzer’s novels (Nog, Flats, Quake, and Slow Fade) and previous scripts (including Two-Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and the forthcoming Candy Mountain, which he directed with Robert Frank) are partially grounded in existential notions about language, and much of this sensibility is brought to bear in his handling of Walker’s lunatic myopia. Before he went to Nicaragua, Walker was devoted to his deaf-mute fiancee, Ellen Martin, and mastered sign language in order to communicate with her; for Walker’s biographer Albert Z. Carr, her death in a cholera epidemic in 1848 was a major turning point in his life.
Played by real-life deaf mute Marlee Matlin, who won an Oscar for her role in last year’s Children of a Lesser God, Ellen Martin is depicted as a clear-sighted radical who sees through the dangerous nonsense of Walker’s obsession with Manifest Destiny, and Wurlitzer gets some high comedy out of Walker censoring her brutal remarks to others (conveyed through subtitles such as “Go fuck a pig”) while translating them into euphemisms. Much later, Walker’s relationship with the comparably lucid Dona Yrena (Blanca Guerra), a highly placed Nicaraguan woman in Granada, abounds in similar discrepancies between two language systems out of joint. Even Walker’s own offscreen narration, which eerily alternates between first and third person — it was inspired by Walker’s book The War in Nicaragua, which has the same peculiarity — displays a related linguistic derangement. One only regrets that Ed Harris plays Walker without a southern accent, which surely would have given the latter’s rhetoric more regional flavor; dressed like a country deacon, the character registers in other respects as gentrified Bible Belt.
For Wurlitzer, Walker’s inability to see what is under his nose, which makes his bloody exploits and arbitrary decisions — and the U.S.’s current ones against the Sandinistas — possible, is largely a matter of being trapped inside rhetoric. In a book just issued by Harper & Row also called Walker — containing an introduction by Wurlitzer (with extracts from the screenplay, Ed Harris’s journal, and Walker’s writings), an abridged version of Carr’s 1963 biography, and a lengthy conversation between director and screenwriter — Wurlitzer clarifies this point in terms of current politics: “We don’t have the right to interpret Nicaragua for Nicaraguans. . . . It’s not our business with left governments, right governments, any governments, you know? And we must defend our right to be innocent that way. Our fight not to be sophisticated. We must defend our right not to join that language, to be innocent and to refuse that dialogue.”
“Clearly this is no ordinary asshole,” remarks Dona Yrena in Spanish when she first hears Walker spouting his exalted babble. A well-educated southerner who entered the University of Nashville at 12 and graduated with honors at 14, went on to study medicine in Edinburgh and Paris, abandoned promising careers in journalism and law, and became an American hero for launching a stupid and unsuccessful campaign in Sonora, Mexico, that violated treaty agreements, all before he went to Nicaragua, Walker was a bundle of so many contradictions that the movie has had to scale him down a bit in order to make him graspable at all. Interestingly enough, Ed Harris’s portrayal of him more or less starts where his version of John Glenn in The Right Stuff left off — as flamboyant rigidity, with thoughts so pressing that they seem ready to burst out of his head.
Where the movie cheats a little in relation to the real Walker is in the degree to which it makes him out to be a simpleton. (If only our misguided figureheads were so legible, we might know what to do with them.) When Cornelius Vanderbilt (Peter Boyle) asks him, “Does Nicaragua mean anything to you?” he replies, “Nothing at all,” whereas the real Walker — who may never have actually met Vanderbilt before the latter sent him to Central America to protect his trade interests — had already written enthusiastically about Vanderbilt’s involvement in Nicaragua for the San Francisco Herald. Similarly, while the real Walker invited his two brothers to join him in Granada, the movie Walker is embarrassed and aloof when they turn up on their own initiative, looking for money and glory.
In many other respects, however, the movie stays chillingly close to the record. Most of Walker’s speeches come straight out of the history books, and the treatment of him as an idealist who betrayed nearly all of his own principles — he started out as an opponent of slavery and supporter of women’s rights — is no less authentic. Yet on the other hand, because the movie is ultimately — and for good reason — more interested in the present than the past, its fidelity to history is in some respects beside the point. If the real Walker was so popular in his day that a Broadway show was written about him, it’s logical enough that the movie makes him Time‘s man of the year in 1857, and puts him on the covers of People and Newsweek as well. The mocking use of contemporary Latin pop music and other anachronistic details makes perfect sense in this context, because Walker’s grim sincerity is every bit as up-to-date as Ollie North’s.
After a long period of political quietism and cowardice in American cinema, compounded by the half-truths of movies like Platoon and the quarter-truths of movies like The Color Purple, it is a pleasure to find that three first-rate features have been released this year about the idiocy of the U.S. in the third world, each of them completely different from the other two. Ishtar, the first of these to emerge, hasn’t even been perceived as political; critics who have derided it for not being more like the old Hope and Crosby Road pictures seem to have unconsciously regretted the absence of any accompanying old-fashioned imperialism in Elaine May’s world view. The political orientation of Full Metal Jacket, reflecting Stanley Kubrick’s expatriate status, has confused some commentators as well; but surely no one can have any doubts about where Walker stands. While the standard view of its Ubu Roi extremism would be to call it excessive, it might be worth considering whether what it describes is any less so. And excessive or not, the exhilaration and lyricism of its furious anger and wit are such that they could enlighten us all.