At the climax of Alex Cox’s Walker (1987), a helicopter descends from the night sky onto a plaza where the colonial buildings are ablaze and an army of mercenaries is disintegrating. The chopper disgorges trigger-happy American combat troops and a CIA man who urges the U.S. passport holders on the ground to get on board . . .
This is not Saigon in 1975 but Granada, Nicaragua, in 1856, and the airlift is an anachronistic deus ex machina. Cox and the screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer conceived their film about William Walker (Ed Harris), the Tennessee-born filibuster who ruled Nicaragua from 1855 to 1857, as a bloody comic opera cum parable to protest the Reagan administration’s support of the contra war against the democratically elected Sandinista government. Assigned to report on the production for the Village Voice, I arrived on the burning set at Granada around midnight on April 28, 1987. The news that the young American brigadista Benjamin Linder had been murdered by the contras near El Cua, in the Jinotega province, earlier in the day had not yet filtered through to the cast and crew. When it did, it sobered the atmosphere and reminded everybody why they were making the film.
There are other time slips in Walker, reinforcing its satirical vision of cyclical history. “If the anachronisms don’t work, we’ll know right away,” Wurlitzer said. “But that’s what decided me to do the script. When Alex and I wrote the outline, we took the big decision to play with time, to see history returning, so that the reality of the film keeps shifting. As soon as we introduced the anachronisms, that opened the door for humor, irony, and surrealism. It was always important for this film to be funny—as well as serious and moving, with a progression into madness and horror.” One of the earliest indications of the messianic Walker’s insanity is his schizophrenic propensity for switching between the first and third person in his voice-over narration. Much of the humor is derived from Wurlitzer’s division of Walker’s army, “the Immortals,” into mismatched pairs of rogues.
The scene in which the Immortals witness a ghostly procession of conquistadores in the jungle never made the final cut. Nor did the one in which they stumble across the wreckage of a crashed airplane. These dabs of the colonial past and future might have been too portentous, as if Cox had been trying to capture the hallucinatory quality of Aguirre, Wrath of God and Apocalypse Now. The U.S. economic embargo was active at the time of the Walker production, and a Soviet tanker, apparently bringing grain and much-coveted toilet rolls, was anchored near the beach at San Juan del Sur. Cox arrived there one day to film Walker’s demise, and he told me he was going to use the ship as part of the scenery. That would have cost the scene gravitas, however. Instead, as the deposed president’s widow, Yrena (Blanca Guerra), leaves the city in a horse-drawn carriage, we see a speeding Mercedes-Benz (Somoza, the Nicaraguan dictator deposed in the Sandinista revolution, was assassinated in his Merc in Paraguay in 1980). Cox also throws in copies of People, Newsweek, and Time with Walker’s face on the cover. America’s history of rapacious intervention in Nicaragua thus becomes fodder for glibly packaged news and entertainment.
Savoring the movie’s temporal dislocation again made me think of the song “The Last Hill That Shows You All the Valley,” written by the cultural critic Clive James and sung by Pete Atkin. “And you’ll see when the rows of dust clouds settle / There are helicopters on the walls of Troy,” James wrote, conflating the Trojan War with the Vietnam War in the manner of T. S. Eliot’s literary borrowings in The Waste Land. When the late Joe Strummer sang the lines “Spanish bombs on the Costa Brava / I’m flying in on a DC-10 tonight” in the Clash’s “Spanish Bombs,” he ironically conflated the socialist idealism of the poet Federico García Lorca, murdered by a Fascist militia during the Spanish civil war, with cheap British holidaymaking in Catalonia. Having titled the Clash’s 1980 album Sandinista!, a taboo word in Mrs.Thatcher’s Britain, and co-scored Cox’s punk romance Sid & Nancy (1986), Strummer became a spiritual partner in the Walker enterprise. Not only did he counterpoint the film’s hyperbolic bloodletting with his tinkling score, which blends Central American ethnic sounds with delicate jazz and blues stylings, but he played against his urban-guerrilla Clash persona as the Immortals’ bearded, bemedaled cook.
A thirty-two-year-old leftist from Liverpool, Cox had studied film at UCLA and instantly become a name director with his cult American indie hit Repo Man (1984), which he followed with the British Sid & Nancy. These are scrappy urban films characterized by ramshackle lyricism and flights into magical realism. Cox first came across Walker in an article about the history of U.S. intervention in Nicaragua published in the magazine Mother Jones. Later, when he and Repo Man producer Peter McCarthy visited Nicaragua to observe the November 1984 elections that brought Daniel Ortega to power for the first time, Cox saw an inscription on Granada’s cathedral stating that Walker had tried to burn it down.
During their trip, Cox and McCarthy met two teenage compas—Sandinista soldiers—who had been seriously wounded in a contra attack. “They asked what we did, and we said we were filmmakers,” Cox recalls on his website. “They asked if we would come back to Nicaragua to make a film. I said, ‘Espero’—I hope so—but that filmmaking costs a lot of money. The compas were not impressed . . . If people like these two lads could overthrow a hated dictator and American stooge, how hard could it be for two gringos to scam some money in the USA, bring it back, and make a movie about Nicaraguan history, Nicaraguan reality?” This was the seed from which Walker grew.
Cox and Eric Fellner, who had produced Sid & Nancy, first tried to finance and film a rock concert tour of Nicaragua in support of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, but the British government frowned on the plan, and it never came to fruition. Instead, they made a modern spaghetti western in Andalusia. Written in three days and shot in three weeks, Straight to Hell (1987) stars one of the hippest casts of all time—including some of the actors and musicians who would appear in Walker—but its thin story about three inept bank robbers on the lam did little to enhance Cox’s reputation, especially as he turned down a Hollywood assignment, ¡Three Amigos!, to direct it. (Still, anyone who has seen Repo Man and Straight to Hell on a double bill might wonder if Quentin Tarantino was in the same room, picking up ideas for Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.)
Sid & Nancy hadn’t been a box-office success, but with Edward R. Pressman coming on board as executive producer and Lorenzo O’Brien as producer, Cox and Wurlitzer’s Nicaraguan project was set up as a Mexican production budgeted at $6.25 million (Universal paying half of this for distribution rights). A month before filming com-menced, the location shifted to Nicaragua, where the film could be made for $5 million thanks to the logistical support provided by Incine, the government-backed Nicaraguan film institute. “It has to be shot here or it isn’t worth doing,” Cox told me at the time.
The film was designed around a demagogue of unusual achievements and persistence. William Walker was born in 1824, the nephew of Senator John Norvell, founder of the Philadelphia Inquirer. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of Nashville at age fourteen and from the University of Pennsylvania with a medical degree at nineteen, subsequently becoming a lawyer in New Orleans, a newspaper editor, and a slaveholder. His fiancée, Ellen Martin (played by Marlee Matlin), died during the 1849 cholera epidemic—in the film, Walker takes up manifest destiny to assuage his grief.
He was a disciple of the Whig Anglo-Saxon racial rhetoric that rationalized American expansionism into Latin America and promoted the use of war to spread democracy to “barbarian” peoples. In 1853 he sought to colonize the Mexican territories of Sonora and Baja California, which he proclaimed a republic under his presidency in 1854. Thwarted by a U.S. economic embargo, he surrendered to the authorities but was acquitted of violating neutrality laws, such was his popularity at home.
Exploiting the rift between conservatives and liberals in Nica-ragua, Walker and his army of fifty-seven freebooters sailed from San Francisco in May 1855. They made landfall near San Juan del Sur, defeated the Nicaraguan army, and took Granada. After a rigged election, Walker became president in July 1856. He repealed the country’s antislavery laws to ingratiate himself with the American South and annulled the charter of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Accessory Transit Company, which monopolized the shipping business between California and the eastern states. Vanderbilt (portrayed as a comic monster by Peter Boyle) determined to destroy Walker and armed a Central American coalition. Walker had already left Granada when his men sacked it in November 1856; he surrendered to the U.S. Navy the following May. He launched two more expeditions in Central America and was eventually executed in Honduras in September 1860.
Whereas John Wayne brought a Fordian bluster to his Republican flag-waver in The Alamo, “the lineage of Walker is Leone, Peckinpah, Kurosawa, and Buñuel,” said Wurlitzer, writer of Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. The huge close-ups of Walker and Vanderbilt show the clear influence of Leone’s spaghetti westerns, but the guiding spirit was Peckinpah, whose grave Walker and his Immortals literally walk over as they advance on Granada (begging the question, Was he turning in it?). The film takes many of its visual cues from Peckinpah’s masterpiece, The Wild Bunch, especially in the use of slow motion to show bodies falling through the air and the devastating effect of bullets on flesh.
More important, however, is Walker’s allegorical affinity with The Wild Bunch. In Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, Richard Slotkin writes that The Wild Bunch problematizes the counterinsurgency scenario of west-erns like The Magnificent Seven and Vera Cruz, because the Bunch, like the American Special Forces in Vietnam between 1960 and 1965, “are outlaws and revolutionaries in style and perhaps sentiment, but in function are agents of despotism.” Harris’s Walker is a similar kind of countermythic hero. He leads his international gringo army to Nicaragua on an idealistic mission “to protect our neighbors from oppression and exploitation,” but oppressing and exploiting is exactly what they do best.
Just as the Bunch’s failure, in Slotkin’s words, makes Peckinpah’s film “exceptional as a commentary on the counter-insurgency project in Vietnam,” so Walker’s lurch into absurdist despotism in Cox’s movie comments on the inevitable failure of the contra mission in Nicaragua. Especially rueful is the shot in which Hornsby (Sy Richardson), Walker’s lieutenant and the conscience of the film, stands in the rain as another black soldier, Kewen (Bennet Guillory), hands back his campaign medal. Posted on a colonnade, next to Hornsby’s face, is the front page of the Granada newspaper, proclaiming, “President Walker Decrees Slavery.”
The Wild Bunch concludes with a frenetic battle and the slaughter of the Bunch. It’s no coincidence that Cox and Wurlitzer decided to conclude Walker by depicting the implosion of Walker’s army in the plaza in Granada, the Central American coalition raised by Yrena having infiltrated the city; the Nicaraguans seize control of their destiny as do the Mexicans in The Wild Bunch. Walker’s Swedish major (René Auberjonois), who seems to have stepped out of a Pythonesque version of an Offenbach opera, orders the torching of the national palace, Cox’s equivalent of a napalm strike. As Strummer’s musical finale kicks in—a sardonic, Morricone-like bolero propelled by a single piano note repeated over and over—Cox unleashes an astonishing series of tracking shots that show what Walker’s ruinous intervention has wrought, while sketching in the ugly fates of the Immortals.
Those still standing hear the helicopter’s rotor blades and see the glare of its lights. At the beginning of the film, Walker was delivered from death in Sonora by divine intervention, but this time he’s going nowhere.
Graham Fuller is film columnist for Interview magazine and contributes to Film Comment, Sight & Sound, and Vanity Fair. He wrote essays for the Criterion DVDs of The Man Who Fell to Earth and A Canterbury Tale.