*. Then, and then, and now. 1855: William Walker’s conquest of Nicaragua; 1987: Alex Cox’s film Walker; 2007: the recording of the Criterion Collection’s commentary track for the film, featuring Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer.
*. And here’s what the two had to say about then (when the film was made) and now (2007). Cox: “I think people were more inclined to be activists in those days. I mean these guys, these actors came down to Nicaragua because they wanted to make a statement, they wanted to say we’re behind the people of Nicaragua and we’re not behind our government.” Wurlitzer: “That’s true, and there was still a residue of Vietnam too, you know, that was lingering in the collective consciousness in those days. This is like the tail end of the Vietnam disaster.”
*. The next generation would be determined to rid the collective consciousness of this residue of Vietnam, kicking what was called the “Vietnam syndrome” (defined as a nervousness about getting involved in foreign wars that might turn into quagmires). Then, as Cox explains, it was precisely because this generation had forgotten Vietnam that they recreated it in Iraq.
*. William Walker, meanwhile, was a name known to only a handful of historians in 1987. And, despite the notoriety of this film, I don’t suppose many more people have heard of him today. Selective amnesia is a constant in any culture.
*. The military had learned its lesson too. Just as they controlled the media coverage of the 9/11 wars to a far greater extent than in Vietnam they also knew the value of bringing Hollywood on board. If you were going to make a war movie about Iraq (or wherever) you were probably going to need some help from the army to do it. Good luck being critical of the military when you’re that compromised.
*. But all that was still to come. In 1987 Hollywood could still make an anti-war film. Or just barely. Both Cox and Wurlitzer were outcasts at the time, and Walker wasn’t going to get them back into anyone’s good graces.
*. That said, I had a hard time believing it was a movie that met with as much opposition on its release as they make out on the commentary. At least that’s the way I felt until I dug up Roger Ebert’s contemporary review, in which he gave it one of his no-star ratings. I guess the anachronisms really did bother people. Ebert called it a “travesty” (twice!) and said that if it was meant as a satire he didn’t know what the target of the satire was. Really? Not one of your finer moments, Rog.
*. Another way of looking at then vs. now is in the way war is filmed. Walker‘s battle scenes are very much in the Peckinpah tradition, with the spins and twists of bodies dancing to bullets in slow motion. Today the language of battle is borrowed entirely from video games, where everything seems to move much faster than in real life. In today’s war films death is something anonymous and abrupt. The enemy are only a score of kills to be tallied.
*. I like how Cox consistently works the margins. Walker’s wife (played by Marlee Matlin) literally has no voice and can only sign her contempt for the businessmen in the smoke-filled room (a contempt that Walker deliberately mistranslates). Later we’ll see something similar in the way the Nicaraguans have their real feelings for Walker put into subtitles (“this is no ordinary asshole”). Hornsby (Sy Richardson) is a central character but is someone pushed increasingly to the margin as the film proceeds, his big scenes often playing like moments just out of frame. His criticism of Walker becomes mere sniping from the shadows, and he is finally disposed of in what seems like an afterthought.
*. Ed Harris’s Walker is a fascinating creation. After the death of his wife the brakes come off his monomania, the sense he carries with him of his own greatness. He is less the poster boy for American imperialism (as Wurlitzer calls him) than its embodiment. He is the grey-eyed man of destiny but selfless. “Walker’s goals involve a higher purpose than the vulgar pursuit of personal power.” He says so himself.
*. His referring to himself in the third person prefigures the annoying habit of today’s celebrities to do the same and suggests the same pathological dissociation. For what is such a creature of destiny but a tool of that same destiny, a vehicle for the spread of American ideology? As Walker recognizes, and tells the people in the church at the end, he may die but more Americans will come. He is only a drop in the tide.
*. It’s correct to have Walker deliver his final speech in a church from a pulpit. Manifest destiny is an article of faith, and at the end of the day Walker is a political fanatic, sustained by his sense of the rectitude of his cause. Not necessarily his own rectitude, mind you, but that of his mission.
*. Harris’s performance I think nicely captures this. He has the blank look of an android or alien and his actions underline the paradoxical passivity of such a hero. Since he is only a representative of a larger, inevitable historical force he allows himself to be swept onward by fate, walking through battles indifferent to his own safety. In much the same way he can casually dispose of principles like being against slavery if that is what the situation requires. He is not leading but being led by larger forces. He cannot be compromised because he is only embracing fate.
*. After its poorly-received initial run Walker has gone on to gain a bit of a cult following, despite being a film that runs against the various currents, political and artistic, that I’ve mentioned. The main reason being that it’s a well made movie, but also because it’s political message has stayed relevant. The final CIA airlift was meant to recall the fall of Saigon, but on the commentary track Cox insists that “this is Fallujah.” Walker’s sermon on the inevitability of America’s expansionary destiny is still a message for our time, whether you think of it as a warning or a promise.