absurdist, Alex Cox, American imperialism, anachronisms, anachronistic, auteur theory, bio-pic, biopic, cinema, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Ed Harris, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, Gary Oldman, historical drama, Honduras, Iran-Contra scandal, Joe Strummer, liberation, Manifest Destiny, Marlee Matlin, Movies, Nicaragua, Oliver North, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Peter Boyle, Repo Man, Richard Masur, Ronald Reagan, Rudy Wurlitzer, Sid & Nancy, Straight to Hell, surreal, Walker, William Walker
We now finish up the Sunday double-feature with Alex Cox’s kind-of/sort-of biopic, Walker.
There are, quite possibly, as many different ways to film and present a biopic as there are people to make them about. Filmmakers can approach the subject as dry, historical fact, presenting only the information widely accepted as true. The subject can be approached from a bias, either for or against, with the entire film making a case for this particular reading. The film might even co-mingle elements of fact and fiction, using real people but playing up non-existent emotional quandaries in order to get to the psychological core of the characters. Any of these approaches are valid, depending on the overall intent of the filmmakers, but there’s usually an attempt to delineate (at least to some extent) what sort of biopic we’re watching. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter did not, for example, purport to be anything other than the goof it was: there certainly were no pretensions towards telling “the definitive” version of Lincoln’s life, as it were, just the part where he (apparently) fought vampires. All well and good, as it were.
What if, however, the overall slant of a particular biopic wasn’t quite so obvious? What if the line between real and fictional were blurred, leading the audience to wonder not only what the subject may have really been like but what actual events may have really been like? Depending on the particular director, this tactic could result in a severely disorienting experience, akin to being plagued by an internal unreliable narrator. When the director is Alex Cox, this is all but guaranteed.
Cox is the visionary behind one of the strangest films ever made (and one of my favorite films of all time), Repo Man (1984). He was also responsible for another biopic, Sid and Nancy (1986), which had the effect of unleashing Gary Oldman upon the world at large. Completing Cox’s trifecta was Straight to Hell (1987), perhaps the most bat-shit insane “Western” ever made, other than El Topo. Walker, Cox’s biopic of William Walker, was released the same year as Straight to Hell, and marks the end of Cox’s ’80s hot-streak. Falling somewhere in-between the nearly hallucinogenic insanity of Straight to Hell and the biopic stylings of Sid and Nancy, Walker is a constantly fascinating, if occasionally frustrating, experience, anchored by one massive performance by master thespian Ed Harris.
Walker purports to tell the story of William Walker (Ed Harris), an American “adventurer” who undertook several military incursions into Mexico and South America during the mid-part of the 1800’s. Walker took control of several territories in Mexico before finally being driven out by the government and arrested, tried and acquitted by the U.S. He (briefly) became Commander of the Armed Forces and, later, President, of Nicaragua before being deposed and executed by Honduran forces. These, as they say, are the basic facts. Cox and writer Randy Wurlitzer (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid), however, have a few more tricks up their sleeve than just presenting us with a colorful historic figure. Their minds aren’t on Nicaragua’s past: they’re very much on the Nicaragua of the late ’80s, the one embroiled in that era’s Iran-Contra scandal.
More than anything, Walker is about U.S. imperialism and the dangerous effect it often has on other countries, particularly those we attempt to “liberate.” As a British expatriate remarks when Walker explains his plans to liberate the country: “How peculiar: you must be Americans.” We’ve already seen how Walker’s attempted conquest of Mexico is viewed, if not altogether favorably, as completely understandable and, in a way, desirable: his proclamation of Manifest Destiny earns him a pretty quick acquittal, after all. Walker is allowed to get as far as he does (and he gets pretty far, relatively speaking, for someone with absolutely no actual authority) because, inherently, the American system places high priority on both conquest and “liberation,” often seeing both as opposing sides of the same coin.
While the government might have been a bit “on-the-fence” regarding Walker’s activities, it becomes obvious rather quickly what side Cox takes. Practically from the jump, we’re introduced to that most subtly powerful of filmmaking tricks: the unreliable narrator. In a move that explicitly recalls the grand Michael Caine romp Pulp (1972), Harris narrates the film with an authority that can best be described as “questionable.” At one point, Walker describes how the Nicaraguan people “rejoice” when he has their President executed and takes his place: the image we actually see of the same event doesn’t resemble anything close to rejoicing, however. Rather, we see the people solemnly mourn their murdered leader, covering his body in white roses. This schism is reinforced when the local paper repeats the same sentiment as a headline: it’s pretty obvious who wrote that particular press-release.
Cox stacks the deck against Walker in a number of other, more subtle ways. There’s the oddly messianic way that Walker seems to stride through massive gunfights while obtaining nary a scratch, battles that lay waste to everyone else (friend or foe) that surrounds him, perhaps symbolic of the way in which American foreign policies often set up scenarios in which we emerge unscathed but our enemies (and allies) are obliterated. There are the ways in which none of Walker’s proclamations seem to be taken seriously: he makes a point to say that no excessive “drinking, whoring, carousing or fighting” will be tolerated from his men, even as we see all of this (plus some implied bestiality, to boot) taking place in the background. Walker can’t speak the local language, despite considering himself the leader, and, therefore, can’t actually comprehend what any of the native Nicaraguans are saying (hint: none of it’s nice). Walker spends most of the film dressed like the Tall Man from Phantasm, a get-up which constantly recalls fire-and-brimstone evangelical preachers (which Walker partakes in).
One of Cox’s greatest (and strangest) coups, however, is the subtle, almost subliminal, way that he weaves historical anachronisms into the film. It begins when you catch what appears to be the corner of a computer in one shot: a little strange, since computer’s weren’t exactly around in the 1850’s. Later on, there’s a soldier drinking from a modern (1980’s, at least) Coke bottle and someone else reading a copy of Time magazine that wouldn’t exist for about 70 more years. This all comes to a head in the film’s finale, when an ’80s-era military team, complete with helicopter, swoops in to rescue the Americans from a burning Grenada. While certainly different, the intent seems pretty clear: Cox isn’t so much telling the story of William Walker as he is setting the Iran-Contra scandal in the past. While the times may have changed, he seems to be saying, the scam remains the same.
As a film, Walker is consistently entertaining but falls short of Cox’s magnum opus (that would be Repo Man, in case you dozed off). The acting is always top-notch but I never expect less from Ed Harris. For my money, Harris is one of the most gifted, chameleonic actors in the business and is never less than a joy to watch. He seems to have a blast with the role and provides Walker with some truly interesting quirks and tics. Peter Boyle shows up as Cornelius Vanderbilt and is always larger than life: he punctuates the line “I’m entitled to do anything I want” with the single loudest cinematic fart since Blazing Saddles and nearly steals every scene he’s in. Marlee Matlin has an odd bit part as Walker’s doomed fiancée, Ellen, and Richard Masur shows up as Ephraim Squire, one of Vanderbilt’s lackeys.
Aesthetically, Walker recalls Straight to Hell more than either Repo Man or Sid & Nancy, lacking the grime of the others in favor of Hell’s more colorful palette. There isn’t much in the film that could legitimately be called “beautiful,” although the burning of Granada is conducted in a very dream-like, surreal way that features quite a few astounding images. Other than that, however, the film serves more as a showcase for Cox (and Wurlitzer’s) ideas than for David Bridges’ completely serviceable cinematography. Joe Strummer did the score which, to be honest, is less than noteworthy: I mostly recall the oddly inappropriate ’80s-era smooth sax that kept popping up everywhere more than I do any of Strummer’s contributions…unless he was actually playing the sax, at which point I’ll keep my mouth shut.
Ultimately, Walker is a fascinating, quick-paced curiosity, an attempt by a genuinely head-scratching auteur to fold, spindle and mutilate history, proving the old adage that there really is nothing new under the sun, a fact made even clearer by the closing-credit newsreel footage of then-president Ronald Reagan discussing the Iran-Contra affair. As the poster states: Before Rambo…before Oliver North…there was Walker. Cox posits a bizzaro-world scenario where all three were not only contemporaries but the same individual.