Judge Clark Douglas is too frightened to attempt to make any jokes about William Walker.
Before Rambo…Before Oliver North…
When Walker was released in 1987, the Los Angeles Times named it one of the ten best films of the year, and The New York Times declared, "Walker is something very rare in American movies these days. It has some nerve." Almost every review that followed tore the film into little pieces. Rita Kempley of the Washington Post dismissed the film as an "arrogant farce," while Roger Ebert handed the film zero stars, declaring it, "a pointless and increasingly obnoxious exercise in satire." So is the film a brave and bold piece of relevant political cinema, or is it an exasperating train wreck? Yes.
Facts of the Case
Though I generally have a great deal of interest in U.S. History, I know very little about William Walker, the man at the center of this film. I had heard his name only in passing, and yet Walker was a truly important historical figure at one point in time. After doing quick Internet search, I discovered the basic facts. William Walker was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1824. The early part of his life was spent in medicine and journalism, but his few key years would be spent as a soldier of fortune. In 1853, he tried (and ultimately failed) to conquer Mexican territory in what is now southern California. In 1855, Walker (along with a crew of over 50 men) sailed to Nicaragua. In June of 1856, Walker was elected president of Nicaragua, and in September 1856, he re-introduced slavery to the country in a bid to win the support of the southern states in America. This film is kinda-sorta his story.
When we first meet Walker (Ed Harris, A History of Violence), he is portrayed as a gentle and noble man. He is married to a deaf woman (Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God) who has a way of bringing out the best in him. Tragically, Mrs. Walker dies within the first 20 minutes of the film, and William internalizes his sorrow and rage. He sails to Nicaragua with a band of cutthroats he calls "The Immortals," attempting to create peace and democracy there. Oddly enough, Walker accomplishes precisely that, and then proceeds to put himself in a place of power while methodically abandoning every moral principle he ever set for himself.
The first impression that comes to mind when watching Walker is "this movie is insane." It has that same level of bonkers storytelling and startling violence as Natural Born Killers, and a viewer like me might be tempted to dismiss it for that very reason. But as Walker progresses, for better or worse, you suddenly begin to realize that there is a very significant difference between Oliver Stone's film and this one. Natural Born Killers felt exasperatingly haphazard and random at times, sound and fury signifying not too much of anything in particular. On the other hand, Alex Cox seems to know exactly what he is doing with Walker. The film is directed with a certain mad, inspired fury, but it is heading down a clear course toward an unavoidable finish line.
Many critics complained about the increasingly heavy use of anachronisms as Walker progresses. Such creative licenses with history were not much appreciated in 1987, and many critics seemed to plead for a standard historical biopic. Rita Kempley felt that "Cox finally undermines himself completely by rolling the credits over poignant news clips from Nicaragua—90 seconds of TV realism that prove a thousand times more compelling than 90 minutes of self-important muck." I can certainly see where Kempley and other critics were coming from here, but I simply don't feel that this film would have been nearly as powerful or effective had it been made as a standard historical tragedy. After all, this isn't really a historical biopic, anyway. The L.A. Times was quite correct when it noted that Walker is "a film about American aggression disguised as a historical biopic."
Walker was made during the middle of the controversy surrounding the Reagan Administration's support of the Contras, and it was quite relevant to that specific situation. However, I think that the film's true insight can only be seen in hindsight. Watching this film some 20 years after its release, there are startling and frightening parallels to the current situation in Iraq. History has a way of repeating itself, and the actions and words of William Walker too often sound far too much like the words we are hearing in the news today. Watch this film, and tell me if hearing Walker make the declaration that "we were greeted as liberators" doesn't give you the chills. He plans to set up a successful democracy within a matter of months, and his own greed and self-centered fantasies of Manifest Destiny tear those plans apart…sound familiar?
I suppose that Walker was only meant to be a pawn in the larger political picture of this film, but Ed Harris makes William Walker a very compelling individual with a terrific performance that holds its own in a film full of elements competing for attention. Harris is mesmerizing in the role, playing the part with a kind of frightening serenity and (as Criterion's packaging puts it) "suppressed rage," with a stern sense of self-righteousness suggesting someone like Jim Jones or John Brown rather than the expected blustery madman. No, Harris has that quiet, slow-burning, truly chilling insanity…it's Aguirre, The Wrath of God all over again.
If Harris has to compete for screen time with the sheer story and spectacle of it all, then the rest of the supporting cast doesn't have a chance. There are familiar faces everywhere: Peter Boyle (Everybody Loves Raymond), Rene Auberjonois (Boston Legal), Sy Richardson (Pushing Daisies), Alfonso Arua (The Three Amigos), and others, but they are all simply part of the background fabric, rarely getting a chance to step into the center of attention. Marlee Matlin is quite good, but her role is ruthlessly brief.
But if faces and performances aren't given the spotlight, that's okay, because Cox has his sights set on bigger targets than making an entertaining drama filled with juicy little performances. Intimate dialogue scenes happen as often in this movie as action scenes happen in romantic comedies…that is to say, not very often. The film is set at varying degrees of chaos, which will give some viewers headaches and other viewers epiphanies. There's a surreal quality to the proceedings here. Blood gushes and bullets fly as men on both sides of a battle die left and right. In the meantime, Walker cheerfully sits at the piano and sings, completely unconcerned about the situation. That's how much he believes in his part of Manifest Destiny. It simply doesn't matter what is going on around him, because his purpose is already set. I somehow found myself unsurprised when Walker and his followers break out into a rousing chorus of "Onward Christian Soldier" during the film's finale.
Another incredibly daring element of Walker is the original score by Clash member Joe Strummer. Now, let me offer some disclosure on my feelings about rock stars writing film scores: I generally think it's a bad idea. There is a vast difference between being a good composer and being a good film composer, and on many occasions, rockers seem to create terrific stand-alone soundtracks that only manage to dramatize the film on a very obvious surface level. That being said, I think Strummer's effort in this film is nothing short of superb, filled with excellent themes and unique ideas. It may seem distractingly modern at first, but that is very much in line with the anachronistic elements Walker will begin to inject as it progresses.
Strummer's score has never sounded better, thanks to the superb work Criterion has done with restoring this film. The soundtrack is very busy, between Strummer's music, overlapping dialogue, and tons of sound effects. The mix here is just right, everything blends quite effectively, and nothing gets pushed down for the sake of letting something else thrive. Picture quality is strong, if a bit grainy. The film definitely looks like a product of the 1980s, but it's about as good as you can expect from a film on a modest budget shot on location in Nicaragua.
In terms of extras, this is just about as impressive as single-disc release can get. Criterion has packed Walker with a very engaging batch of special features. First up is a superb 50-minute documentary on the making of the film. The documentary is put together from over 20 hours of footage that have been sitting in a garage for two decades, and the highlights are compiled into a fascinating, coherent examination of making this film. There are some candid interviews and wonderful behind-the-scenes footage. The doc ends with a monologue delivered to the camera by a local villager in Nicaragua. This speech is perhaps the most moving moment of the entire DVD, a genuinely heart-wrenching story. There's another (very expletive-heavy) audio-only monologue from one of the extras on the film in "On Moviemaking and the Revolution."
We catch up with Alex Cox in a six-minute Easter Egg (click on the "A" in the word "WALKER" on the DVD menu). It's a very amusing little piece, featuring Cox reviewing his reviews. He informs us of which ones he approves (mostly the good ones) and disapproves (mostly the bad ones), though he does have a funny tendency to turn criticisms into compliments. "This one says that Ed Harris seems more like a milkman than a revolutionary leader. Well, yes, I think that's a very good thing, an excellent point." Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer also offer up a top-notch audio commentary. Most of the discussion centers on the real-life William Walker and the different approaches they took to telling his story. There's also a good deal of political discussion, as Cox and Wurlizter make a note of how well the film seems to play today in light of the situation in Iraq. It's a smart and interesting commentary, 100% free of gaps. The sound on the film stays down the whole time as these two have a lot to say; one gets the sense this commentary could have easily been twice as long. Finally, there's a batch of colorful behind-the-scenes photos and an excellent booklet featuring the usual essays and other odds and ends about the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Up to this point in the review, I've said nothing but positive things. That's because the film has a resonant aftertaste, it inspires a lot of thoughts in the viewer, and slowly reveals its many qualities in retrospect. However, I must confess that Walker can be a bloody pain to actually sit through, even with a short running time of just over 90 minutes. The film is chaotic and unpleasant, stuffing viewers with information and images faster than they will be able to process it. There are a lot of elements to deal with in Walker, and attempting to wrap your head around everything Cox is doing while you watch the film can be headache-inducing.
But even there, perhaps I'm praising the movie a little too much. I don't mean to indicate that the movie simply has more quality and intelligence than we are capable of handling, because that isn't the case. The truth is, sometimes Walker becomes the very mess it has been accused of being. Cox apparently intended the film to play as a Pythonesque satire on American democracy, but the satirical elements almost always flop. When the movie is aiming for "wickedly funny," it keeps hitting "sloppy and haphazard." Like the very worst Python sketches, Walker can become so busy and loud that the sheer spectacle of things kills any humor. At its worst, Walker starts to resemble Steven Spielberg's disastrous 1941, a big mess of controversial imagery, noise, and silliness that stifles any potential laughs. Rather than chuckling at the insanity of it all, we become transfixed by the large scale.
While Cox most assuredly gets the big picture right, sometimes he tends to do so at the expense of small details. There's a very "rushed" feeling to the movie, an urgency to get the finish line and make The Big Point. One wishes that Cox could have included more scenes with the intimacy of the moments between Walker and the two different women in his life, but one gets the sense that Cox was eager to move things along. While I think it's more important to get The Big Point right in a movie like this, there's no reason that carefully-presented small moments couldn't have co-existed peacefully alongside the throngs of large-scale ones.
For all the flaws, warts, and maddening moments in Walker, this is ultimately a rewarding film that at the very least provokes a lot of thought. Bravo to director Alex Cox for having the insanity to make this film the way he did, and bravo to Criterion for recognizing Walker as a film worth paying some attention to.
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