"I'm still not clear on what exactly are your aims."
"The ends justify the means."
"What are the ends?"
"I can't remember."
When "Walker" was released in 1987, many critics pilloried Alex Cox' satirical broadside against American military intervention in Nicaragua as overwrought and unfair. Twenty years and a few "wars for democracy" later, "Walker" seems like a positively sober assessment of American imperialism in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The film very loosely tells the story of William Walker, a 19th century soldier who led his personal army into Latin America in order to "bring democracy" to countries such as Nicaragua. With just a handful of men, he captured the capital of Granada, at first ruling through a puppet president and soon after declaring himself president of the new "republic" of Nicaragua, ruling from 1856-1857. He enacted other democratic reforms such as slavery and ruled with an iron hand until his already-thin army was so dissipated he had no choice but to accept repatriation to America.
Director Alex Cox, working from a screenplay by the estimable Rudy Wurlitzer ("Two-Lane Blacktop"), stacks his deck from the very start. Walker (Ed Harris) is a lunatic who considers himself chosen by God to bring "freedom" to the heathens of Latin America. His primary strength as a military tactician is his total willingness to sacrifice the lives of his men whenever necessary, with necessary not even being a prerequisite. As Walker says, "One must act with severity or perish."
Walker's self-dubbed band of "Immortals" is likewise filled with kooks and killers. Cox has a marvelous ability to create vibrant supporting characters that spring to life even with a bare minimum of screen-time. Rene Auberjonois plays Major Siegfried Hennington, a Swede who proudly claims to have "studied with Lubitsch and von Koch!" and who has a propensity for suffering major trauma to his left arm. Sy Richardson also shines as Captain Hornsby, a menacing presence always lurking in the background.
Though the film has a cast of characters vast enough to make the late Robert Altman proud, this film belongs to William Walker and, by proxy, to Ed Harris who delivers the finest performance of his career. Harris' rendition of Walker as a delusional visionary and madman echoes Klaus Kinski's inspired turn as the deranged Aguirre; Walker also sees himself as "the Wrath of God" and spends more time with his sight fixed somewhere just beyond the infinite than in the present moment. In scene after scene, he marches blithely through a hail of gunfire, his eyes cast towards the heavens; he doesn't even notice when his brother gets gunned down right behind him. He is a man on a mission; he has a manifest destiny to fulfill, and no earthly concerns will stand in his way.
Walker's insanity is so all-encompassing it infects the very structure of the movie. As the film progresses, the narrative begins to rupture. Tiny anachronisms build into ever larger ones. We see Walker's picture adorning the cover of Time and Newsweek (in an issue which also carries a story about "Homosexuality in the Clergy"). At one point, a car zooms impatiently by a stagecoach (remember, this is the late 1850s), and in the end a military helicopter lands to return all American citizens back home.
Cox and Wurlitzer aren't exactly being subtle about the parallels between Walker's invasion of Nicaragua and Ronald Reagan's war against the Sandanistas. You remember the Sandanistas. They were the "terrorists" of 1987. These evil democratically-elected Marxists were going to ally with Cuba to secure a foothold for Communism in Latin America and therefore threaten national security. What's more, the Nicaraguan people deserved to have a democracy just like our own, and it was our solemn duty to provide them with one, no matter what the cost.
This rhetoric should sound all-too familiar to you by now. There are scenes in "Walker" that play out so similarly to events in the Iraq war, they seem downright prescient. Walker explains that he is bringing democracy to the Nicaraguan people, and that he expects to march into Granada where he and his people will be greeted as liberators. Later, when his advisors tell him the country is falling apart around him, he accuses them of being traitors to freedom. It's enough to send a shudder down your spine. It's also a depressing reminder that there's really nothing special about George W. Bush and his illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq. He is simply extending an imperialist policy that has formed the backbone of American foreign relations for more than a century. Today's neo-cons are only the inbred descendents of William Walker with manifest destiny merely being repackaged as a fight against global terror.
A ferociously funny tale of megalomania and nation-building gone horribly wrong, "Walker" seems even fresher now than when it was released twenty years ago. The eclectic, driving score by the late, great Joe Strummer is just the cherry on top of the sundae. This is good stuff.
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This is yet another great digitally restored transfer from Criterion. What else is there to say?
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the English audio. Forced English subtitles support the Spanish audio.
For a single DVD, this Criterion release has some pretty good extras.
The digitally restored film is accompanied by a full-length commentary track with Alex Cox and Rudy Wurlitzer.
"Dispatches from Nicaragua" is a documentary (50 min) by Terry Schwartz. Schwartz shot over 30 hours of film on location in 1987, and just recently cut this documentary. The doc is heavy on behind-the-scenes footage, with a heavy dose of Joe Strummer. Shot on location in Nicaragua with the assistance of the Sandanistas, the production was quite a chaotic undertaking.
"On Moviemaking and the Revolution" is an audio monologue (12 min) by an extra in the film who provides his thoughts on Hollywood, the revolution, and everything. Or at least as much as you can fit into 12 minutes.
"The Immortals" section allows viewers to page through behind-the-scene stills and Polaroid photos from the set.
In what might be a Criterion first, an Easter egg provides access to a short feature (6 min) in which Cox discusses and dismisses the reviews "Walker" received in 1987. Just navigate down to the "A" in WALKER on the Main Menu to play this.
The insert booklet features pieces by critic Graham Fuller, actor and writer Linda Sandoval, and Rudy Wurlitzer.
"Walker" provides a much-needed sense of perspective on the current administration. Though the war in Iraq may have been fought with an unprecedented degree of incompetence and lack of planning, it is merely a continuation of decades of American foreign policy. Bush-haters won't want to believe this, but the new boss is pretty much the same as the old boss. "Walker" was crafted as a stinging rebuke to Reagan and his cronies, but Alex Cox's film has accumulated a depressing sense of timelessness. Put "Walker" into whatever version of a DVD player you have twenty years from now, and it will probably seem just as spot-on then. Ah well, at least it's a damned funny movie too.
Though "Walker" was made in 1987, it feels very much of a piece with the new documentary "War Made Easy, which I have also reviewed. I hope you will check that out too.