The undiscovered surrealist satire Walker, directed by Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid & Nancy), begins with the caveat “this is a true story”, even though some of the wild anachronisms the viewer is about to witness indicate otherwise. In Sonora, Mexico, in 1853, William Walker (Ed Harris, youthful and charismatic) is on a mission to free the country from dictatorship. By “freeing” what Walker really means is murdering those who resist in the name of religion and patriotism.
Harris, his blue eyes practically burning with intensity, is reminiscent of Robert Mitchum’s insane preacher Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter as he informs his men that they are trapped in Sonora. Only an act of God can save them now. Miraculously, a desert sandstorm begins to blow dirt everywhere, and the Americans are given enough cover to retreat to the border. Walker seems touched by God.
Upon his return, Walker’s fiancée Ellen (Marlee Matlin) lets him know that she is fed up with his being a public figure and his crusading for manifest destiny (the scenes between Harris and Matlin are played out in sign language, adding a nice intimacy). When Walker is acquitted of infringing on the rights of Mexico (which was then a neutral power), he is summoned, much to Ellen’s chagrin, by Cornelius Vanderbilt (Peter Boyle), one of the most powerful, influential men of the time.
Vanderbilt wants to take control of Nicaragua, and he wants Walker to go there to assuage and stabilize the turbulent Civil War-divided country. Vanderbilt already owns the over-land path to the Pacific Ocean that runs through the nation, and he wants to be able to utilize it without incident. He offers Walker the job of President, as though his money gives him the authority to make decisions for another sovereign country. It’s the infant stages of the corporate takeover of America, and it’s nasty.
Essentially, what Walker is swayed by is absolute power over this small country. He prizes American ideals more than his own life. Vanderbilt spins the mission as one that will bring democracy to the war zone, indicating that Walker will be not only a ruler, but also a savior.
Ellen is suddenly, fatally, struck by a cholera epidemic, and Walker, with nothing to anchor him to reality any longer, begins a swift descent into madness and delusion. The scene where Harris, grief-stricken, signs over Ellen’s casket, is stunningly played by Harris with just the right amount of rage, insanity, and all-consuming grief.
Broken, he heads for Nicaragua, where he lays down the rules to his rag-tag group of soldiers: no drinking, no sex with the local women, and no swearing in public, as mandated by the Lord. The pious Walker, though, has no real control over these wild men. They immediately begin acting like buffoons. Walker simultaneously executes those who dare to dissent.
Beautifully shot, with expert set design, Cox’s film recalls, in many ways, director Robert Altman’s maverick, ramshackle mise en scène in McCabe and Mrs. Miller with its depictions of primitive pioneer towns and the frenetic, overlapping dialogue. It also invokes, as Walker’s men traipse through the florid jungles, another surreal war epic, the 1979 Francis Ford Coppola masterwork Apocalypse Now. In fact, Walker’s deluded megalomania echoes the insane Colonel Kurtz, right down to the vacant, soulless stare.
As the crew encounters exotic birds, snakes, and relics, Walker, believing himself to be divine and impervious to harm, sees the “liberation” of the Country as “righteous”, rather than political. He instructs his men to not concern themselves with government business and to just fight. It’s hard to not draw a parallel to the current war in Iraq, especially when Walker’s men become sitting duck targets for the insurgent army, which doesn’t appreciate the United States’ presence there.
Blood begins to flow freely down the dirt roads. Walker, unarmed, survives the hail of bullets, is clearly unhinged as he shoots his own men for simply questioning his authority. The film’s battle sequences are ruthless and chaotic, invoking Sam Peckinpah’s legendary Westerns.
After he wins his first battle, Walker survives an assassination attempt, and his belief that he cannot be harmed grows out of control, along with his ego. Harris’ eerily vague countenance works well in these later, thematically-complicated scenes that mix political intrigues, sexual humiliation, religion, and fanaticism.
Walker gets word that Vanderbilt has been abusing his trust and taking advantage of him by not paying him enough. He arbitrarily decides to revoke the magnate’s permit to use the path to the ocean, mainly out of spite, even though it would mean sanctions on food and supplies, as well as money. One of Walker’s men earnestly begs for answers, “I cannot help but notice, sir, that during the time we’ve spent with you, you’ve betrayed every principle you had, and all the men who supported you. May I ask why?” Walker, stone-faced, replies simply “No, you may not.” For him it is a matter of the end justifying the means.
Furious at the news of Walker’s ham-fisted plot, Vanderbilt chooses to launch a full-scale attack on his former employee. “No one will remember Walker,” he says. “No one will remember men who lose.”
Cholera begins to sweep Nicaragua, and Walker sits like a dilettante enjoying his European-style theater troupe. Vanderbilt’s sanctions cripple Walker’s cardboard government, so Walker, betraying another of his alleged principles, decides to institute the policy of slavery to aid his rule. This doesn’t sit well with the contingent of African Americans who work for Walker, nor does it go over well with the Nicaraguan people.
By the end of the nightmarishly bloody coup, Walker has very few supporters who still trust him, if any. His closest allies fold, one by one. His grip on reality gone, Walker instructs his men to burn down the entire town. As his minions skulk through the streets, shooting anything that moves, we are reminded that despite their hubris in matters of democracy, Americans don’t always know what’s best for other nations. This is a timeless, sobering reminder that following a power-mad despot can get you into a lot of trouble, and likely killed.
The bravura finalé shows what kind of fate is in store for people who think they can escape a bullet, and as the credits roll, and footage of Ronald Reagan talking about the Sandinistas creeps across the screen, Cox seems to implore us to think that present-day Iraq, Vietnam, and Walker’s Nicaraguan coup are only a few of the examples of the injustices visited upon the innocent people of these countries the US sees fit to invade and destroy. It’s a nasty, repetitive cycle.
Billed as a satire, Walker definitely remains relevant today, especially as we approach an election. The narration is smart and often funny, providing a nice counterpoint to the sometimes cartoonish carnage. Still, there is something missing from this surreal film, which at times feels rushed or hastily culled together, as well as jam-packed with allegorical ideas and a lot of half-baked concepts. It’s a messy patchwork of a film that just never totally finds a focus.
The anachronisms are piled on in the film: costumes from different periods, modern language, music by Joe Strummer, and characters reading magazines like People and Newsweek in their horse-drawn carriages. Even the disc’s packaging is evocative of this feral pop art sensibility, with its Warhol-esque depiction of the title character and its punk rock aesthetic.
A 46-page booklet is included to give the viewer a much-needed historical context. It also includes production stills, photos, and excerpts from Harris’ journal, kept while filming. It’s not very often that I would buy a DVD based on its artwork, but Criterion is beginning to change the way I think about that with their recent stellar packaging.