During the Cork Film Festival last October I had the opportunity of sitting in on a Q & A session with British director Alex Cox. As I sat listening to the various questions about Repo Man, Sid And Nancy, Repo Man, Sid And Nancy, Repo Man … I felt more than a little embarrassed at the narrow view people had of his work. While Repo Man (1984) and Sid And Nancy (1985) deserve their cult status and loyal followers, there is far more to Cox’s oeuvre than these two early works. Both of these films contain his unmistakable anarchic tone and restless pacing but neither film uses these elements to the extent of his next two pieces, the spaghetti western spoof Straight To Hell (1986) and Walker (1987) which is based on a true story in America’s history, that of filibuster William Walker.
From a screenplay by Rudy Wurlitzer, Walker presents us with William Walker (Ed Harris), a qualified doctor, lawyer and journalist who, by the age of 24, sought a more adventurous career. At the request of rubber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt (a cameo by Peter Boyle), in June of 1855 Walker led an army of 58 mercenaries, dubbed ‘the Immortals’ by romantics stateside, into Nicaragua at the invitation of one of the country’s revolutionary factions. Rife with bloodshed, the invasion was eventually a success when his capture of Granada brought an end to the fighting. After being granted recognition by the United States as a new government, William Walker declared himself president of Nicaragua. In the following year however, due to conflict with the man who sent Walker into Nicaragua in the first place, Vanderbilt, and with neighbouring Central American countries concerned by Walker’s success, William Walker was overthrown. He attempted another invasion in 1860, but this proved disastrous. He was executed by firing squad at the age of 36.
Walker is Cox’s most ambitious film to date. Working with the largest budget that he ever had access to (still peanuts for a Hollywood picture), it’s fascinating to see an epic story told in Cox’s nihilistic manner. So often in Walker there are amusing moments mocking the rich and powerful in terms of their vulgarity and ignorance – in a heated discussion about racism, Walker’s dumb fiancée Ellen Martin (Marlee Matlin) tells one of Vanderbilt’s associates to “Go fuck a pig” in sign language, leaving Walker to translate something quite different; Vanderbilt himself is played with over the top gusto peppered with crass language and constant farting; when Walker talks in English about reforms and changes he wishes to make to Nicaragua, Dona Yrena (Blanca Guerra) responds in her native tongue to having a weakness for “Small puritans obsessed with power”. In just about all of Cox’s films there is an underlying contempt and mistrust for authority, for example, the government agents in Repo Man or the corrupt police force in El Patrullero (1991). Walker makes the mistrust of authority its major theme. Walker himself is both the protagonist and the ‘enemy’ in the eyes of Cox.
It is not difficult to see why Cox thinks so highly of lead actor Ed Harris. His performance as Walker is so alluring that one can easily understand why people willingly died for him and his beliefs. Harris plays a similar role in George A. Romero’s Knightrider (1981) where he leads a group of modern day knights (who use motorcycles instead of horses) across America. As in Romero’s film, Harris’s Walker commands loyalty and sacrifice for his cause. Possibly the most chilling scene in Walker is when Walker leads his men into their first battle in Nicaragua, in the town of Rivas. Walker blissfully ignores the bullets flying past him and stubbornly goes forth armed with only his ideals of American expansionism as his men are violently cut down by enemy fire. Eventually Major Henningson (Rene Auberjonois) demands that the men find somewhere to take cover. “For God’s sake why?” Walker asks and only when told does he see the extent of the bloodshed. With a wide-eyed expression he replies “Yes…yes, good idea Major”. Aided by Joe Strummer’s wonderfully eclectic score (much of the scene plays without sound effects), Harris’ performance in this scene disturbingly exposes the character’s festering insanity. Like Garrett in Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973), also written by Wurlitzer, Walker is ultimately, if unconsciously, seeking his own destruction.
Possibly Cox’s most daring move with Walker was to draw explicit parallels between America’s current foreign policy towards Nicaragua and Walker’s invasion of that country. His account of William Walker’s bloody invasion of Nicaragua in the 1850s was all too-clearly a comment on America’s then involvement in the terrorist war between the Sandinist National Liberation Front (FSLN) and the Nicaraguan people in the 1980s. Initially the United States had helped the FSLN (or Sandinistas) with economic aid when they came to power in 1979. Once their communist ties became apparent, this aid was cut off and President Ronald Reagan approved covert CIA operations against Nicaragua: the Contras, a terrorist organisation opposed to the Sandinistas, were led, trained and funded by the CIA. So began a bloody civil war which lasted nine years with the Contras carrying out such atrocities as murder, torture and kidnapping (it is believed 8,000 Nicaraguans were slaughtered during President Reagan’s first term alone). Cox’s response was to document an incident in America’s history as a reflection and comment on current times. Screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer’s book tie-in with the film’s release carried the subtitle “The True Story of the First American Invasion of Nicaragua”.
To emphasize these similarities between past and present Cox took Wurlitzer’s script and peppered the later stages of it with anachronisms: Walker’s face appears on Newsweek; empty Coca-Cola bottles lay next to the heads of two prisoners who are buried up to their necks in sand; and in the film’s finale, a helicopter carrying heavily-armed US troops lands in Nicaragua. Although he believes otherwise now, Wurlitzer complained at the time that these touches would alienate the audience and indeed they did. Those interested in the subject matter were not quite ready for such elements and found them bewildering, perhaps Monty Python-eqsue. Cox now feels that he should have introduced them at an earlier point in the film, so they would not have seemed so jarring to the audience. It could also be argued that introducing the anachronisms so late in the picture succeeds in adding to the sense of self-destruction.
While his later work, from the gritty, realistic El Patrullero to the surreal delights of Revengers Tragedy (2002) all contain the same zest for out-of-control anarchy as the earlier films, they do so in a more restrained, calculated way. Unlike in Walker, these elements do not necessarily turn inward, back onto the films themselves. Walker on the other hand seems to revel in its own self-destruction. Not only does Walker’s increasing insanity affect all those around him, it also appears to affect the film’s structure which begins to loosen and chaotically breakdown. This self-reflexive narrative chaos reaches a climax in the finale as soldiers from neighbouring South American countries lay siege and attack Granada. The town burns to the ground while Walker’s men, seeing what each of them has become, begin killing each other. Meanwhile Walker takes to eating the wounded, executing prisoners and delivers a speech about how America “will never abandon the cause of Nicaragua”. As the town burns, people lie dead and the attacking army advance while a US military helicopter with armed troops arrives to airlift all American citizens out of danger. The remaining ‘Immortals’ produce their passports as television crews film the situation. Walker is left behind. An epilogue, set three years later, depicts William Walker standing on a beach in Honduras. The scene is peaceful. All that can be heard is the sound of the sea until the peace is broken by the sound of gunfire – a firing squad finally bringing death to Walker.
Walker seems content to alienate those who do not accept Cox’s punk sentiments while offering a wild tour-de-force for those who do. But judging from Cox’s own comments on the film, both in print and in discussion with me, one wonders if he realises just how off-putting this film could be to a mainstream audience. At least Straight To Hell (modelled on Giulio Questi’s feverishly demented Django, Kill…If You Live, Shoot! ) later found something of a cult-following due to its eccentric casting of musicians (Joe Strummer, The Pogues) and ‘cult’ film types (Dennis Hopper, Jim Jarmusch). Walker, on the other hand, seems never to have found an audience. While the film’s political sympathies upset enough people at (both) the studio that financed it and among the general public to have kept it from being much of a success, it is ultimately Cox’s treatment of the subject matter which has kept this film seemingly suppressed. “The liberals hated us for the outrageous humor of such a sacred subject,” noted Wurlitzer, “and as for the conservatives, well, you know, they would hate us in any case.” What is so amazing about Walker is that it got made at all. It’s a film condemning capitalism funded by a capitalist studio. Since it was filmed on location, its production money went straight into a country that the United States was currently at war with. It is not surprising that to date Walker is the last picture Cox made within the Hollywood system. “It’s very hard to see” commented Cox “and especially now I actually think there might be a market for it in the current geo-political environment but it’s a sort of anti-American movie and it’s an anti-capitalist movie and we are not allowed to be anti-American or anti-capitalist. It’s owned by a large American corporation so how that circle gets squared I don’t know.”
With thanks to Maximilian Le Cain.