Agitprop is not usually big box office, because usually the time it is needed most is when people have the least interest in hearing it. After the success of Sid & Nancy and Repo Man, director Alex Cox was poised to be the hottest young turk in Hollywood, but after his cultish misfire Straight to Hell, he decided to get more contrary and difficult and make a film about the lingering consequences of America's involvement in the social unrest in Nicaragua. Working with screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (Two-Lane Blacktop), Cox made Walker in 1987, when the U.S. government's support of the rebels attempting to overthrow the Sandinista government was still a hotbed of lies and controversy. Needles to say, the Me Decade wasn't interested.
Walker is the story of William Walker (Ed Harris), a renaissance man who abandoned safe, lucrative jobs as a doctor and a lawyer to pursue adventure in support of a puffed-up faith in democracy. After he failed to foment a revolution in Mexico in the mid-1800s, Walker, who often referred to himself in the third person, was convinced to go down to Nicaragua to secure an overthrow of the nation's government on behalf of industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt (Peter Boyle). Vanderbilt cared nothing about democracy beyond it being a means for him to secure exclusive rights of trade through Nicaragua; that means was a tool to secure Walker's service. Such are dirty deals made in the American system.
As a character, Walker is a complex mixture of personal pain, pride, and conviction--a perfect concoction for an actor with Ed Harris' stoic intensity. His decision to take Vanderbilt's assignment comes after he loses his fiancée (Marlee Matlin) to cholera, and so jumping back into battle is as much to hide from his grief as it is a righteous cause. He also rejected God on her deathbed, so his moral posturing has lost some of its gravity. Not that he expresses any of this. A reserved man, he keeps his thoughts bottled up and conducts himself with a self-possessed rigidity. He is a walking, breathing embodiment of Manifest Destiny, strutting imperiously through gunfire and chaos without being harmed. Parts of Walker's journals are used as voiceover, often as ironic commentary to the action. He was the greatest of spin doctors, turning the bleakest situation into propaganda.
Wurlitzer and Cox establish a darkly comic tone for their satire. The filmmaking style of Walker is just shy of crossing the line into gonzo territory. Cox uses several incongruous elements to achieve a sense of irony in the picture. This notably includes former Clash-frontman Joe Strummer's peppy, Latin-flavored score, which pairs mariachi horns with slow-motion death and destruction. The most talked about incongruity, though, is the introduction of anachronistic elements. We see the wealthy businessmen of the region reading Newsweek and Walker's face on the cover of Time. At the climax, the modern world comes crashing into the old one in all of its mechanized glory, changing the fate of William Walker in one dramatic swoop.
I think you'd have to be a dunderhead to miss Cox's point: the Reagan administration's campaign to interfere in Nicaragua is part of a long history of U.S. interference in that country. In the 1850s, the people rose up and eventually kicked us out, and this was exactly what was happening again in the 1980s. America's cockiness was no match for the will of the people, and democracy did not mean foreign rule. Walker's ultimate fate is also part of a larger pattern of U.S. backed dictators that grow mad with power and get abandoned by the people who put them in its seat. In order to maintain control of the nation, William Walker betrays each of his principles one by one, and with each restraint that gets lifted, the world around him declines deeper into madness. By the end, it's beginning to look a lot like Apocalypse Now, something that was likely intentional given that Cox begins his closing credits with a clip of President Reagan insisting comparisons between Nicaragua and Vietnam to be baseless. Sarcastic juxtaposition, anyone?
Though many of today's cable news pundits would have us believe that history is vindicating Reagan in all things, more rational minds will show the advantage is Alex Cox's. Just as history will also likely not be in George W. Bush's favor for leading America into virtually the same swampy morality of greed with his campaign in Iraq.
But just because Alex Cox is right, does that make Walker any good? I'd say the answer is yes and no, but mostly yes. The film received a pretty horrendous critical drubbing in 1987, and I'd say unfairly. The film does have its faults. There are times when it feels like the director is in less control of his picture than he should be, and it comes dangerously close to veering off the edge. If you'll indulge another reference to Apocalypse Now, in much the same way the insanity of the war he was portraying infected Francis Ford Coppola, so too does it feel like Cox is getting lost in the carnage of Nicaragua. Just as William Walker couldn’t keep a firm grip on his army, the final film suggests Alex Cox found Walker a slippery fish.
Even so, as I said, the answer is mostly yes, the film is mostly good. Walker remains as potent a blast of political anger twenty years later. Its reemergence on DVD for this excellent Criterion edition has come at just the right time, too. Given all the madness around us, maybe a bloody, anarchic allegory will restore a little lucidity to the arena.
One can only hope.
For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.