Walker is the best movie Oliver Stone never made. In fact, if Stone had made it, the critics probably would’ve been a whole lot kinder to it:
“BOMB…Juvenile, intentionally anachronistic comic history….A self-indulgent mess.”
– Leonard Maltin
“Some bad movies are in no hurry to announce themselves, but Walker declares its badness right from the opening titles with gushers of blood …. Walker is played in the film by that fine actor Ed Harris, who is done in by the script, the direction and certainly by the agent who negotiated his presence in this travesty … a pointless and increasingly obnoxious exercise in satire by Alex Cox, the director, who doesn’t seem to have a clue about what he wants to do or even what he has done …. This movie’s poverty of imagination has to be seen to be believed.”
– Roger Ebert, from his no-star review
Some of Maltin’s and Ebert’s comments could just as well be applied to Natural Born Killers. Shot on the cheap ($5 million) in 1987, and barely released by Universal soon thereafter, Walker was the fourth feature directed by Alex Cox — a talent who burned so brightly with Repo Man and Sid & Nancy, only to plummet into obscurity with Straight to Hell and Walker: a one-two death blow to a promising career. Well, first of all, Straight to Hell really isn’t all that bad. If nothing else, it may be your only chance to see Dennis Hopper, Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, Jim Jarmusch, and Courtney Love in the same movie. (Courtney struck me here as a rowdy, funny actress long before anyone had heard of Hole or Nirvana.) Second, as I’ll soon argue, Walker is one of the ballsiest, most original movies of the ’80s. Yet these two films are credited with killing Cox’s career — in the 19 years since Walker‘s release he has not been very prolific, completing only five features.
One thing you notice right away — aside from the gushers of blood (did the MPAA just not bother to see this movie?) — is that Walker is among the most un-American movies ever released by a Hollywood studio. The presence of American actors — Ed Harris in the lead, Marlee Matlin (briefly) as Walker’s deaf-mute fiancee Ellen Martin, Richard (The Thing) Masur, Peter Boyle in a crudely funny two-scene cameo as Cornelius Vanderbilt — must have led most critics to expect the usual biopic. What they got was an unstable comedy-drama veering back and forth between tragedy and frat-boy humor, between compassion and ironic detachment, with a sensibility distinctly British by way of Latin-American magic realism. “A self-indulgent mess”? That’s the easy way out of the challenge Walker presents to the complacent American viewer. The film is a “mess” only in the sense that American history is a mess — a bubbling brew of self-righteous puritanism and bloodlust.
The movie sketches in the basic facts about William Walker, a son of Nashville and very much a Renaissance man in keeping with the preoccupations of his time (pre-Civil War); he was a doctor, lawyer, newspaper publisher, and eventually the self-anointed president of Nicaragua. With the help of Vanderbilt, who wanted a stabilized Nicaragua so he could run his trade through it, Walker and his cadre of freebooters took the country by force. In pictures, he looks like something of a wimp — recessive features, wide gray eyes — but looks can be deceiving, and Walker soon revealed a spine of steel. He was just as unyielding as that implies, too, but he was willing to fudge his moral stance a bit. Once a fierce advocate of women’s suffrage and an opponent of slavery, Walker did a neat 180 on the slavery issue when he realized he needed the support of the American South. To his ragtag army, Walker was a feared, admired, loved, hated daddy-god, a Boy Scout enforcing strict rules of behavior (no raping or looting). To observers back home, Walker began as a fervent filibuster and wound up as a joke — a fuck-up with more balls than brains, a wannabe who bit off more than he could chew. At the time, Harper’s Weekly chided him not because of what he was trying to do (i.e., perpetuate the Manifest Destiny by overpowering foreign countries) but because he failed at it. For two years he ruled Nicaragua; in 1860, at age 36, he was executed in Honduras. He’d fucked up one time too many. He was shot down dead, and then shot again, and then shot in the face.
Walker takes the William Walker story and nudges it ever so slightly into farce — gradually at first, then more obviously, with blatant anachronisms (a car, a pack of Marlboros, copies of Time and Newsweek), and finally degenerating into complete chaos along with Walker’s grand plans. In effect, Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer self-destruct their own movie in order to be true to Walker’s story. The first time I saw it, I thought, “You gotta be kidding.” I found the ending hyperbolic and ridiculous. But Walker rewards repeat viewings — it’s very much an acquired taste — and if it nags at you as it did me, you may find things in it that you missed before. Structurally and stylistically, the movie is actually fairly conventional (its bloodletting owes a lot to Peckinpah); formally, it takes major risks that, I believe, pay off. The anachronisms are like little twinkles; after the first ones, you start looking for others. In this movie’s bizarro world, the present doesn’t mock the past; the past mocks the present.
The movie’s fierce detractors must have been so disgusted that they weren’t even willing to concede its strokes of genius, which begin with Ed Harris’ quietly gonzo performance as “the grey-eyed man of destiny.” Harris is actually more masculine than the real Walker, but he compensates with a rather prissy and puritanical turn — which makes his occasional bursts of rage or gory violence (at one point, he shoots one of his own men several times in the face, point-blank) that much more shocking. If you think Ed Harris is creepy as the relentlessly virtuous space cadet John Glenn in The Right Stuff, or as the scarred gangster in A History of Violence, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet: Harris’ restrained performance here is all the more frightening because he lets us see how much insanity Walker is holding back. We get a glimpse of it here and there. It’s not pretty. Towards the end, there is an impromptu operating-table session, and …. Well, once again, did the MPAA actually see this movie? (That it slipped by with an R rating is fairly surprising.) In any event, Walker is full metal Harris — one of our most intense actors at his most intense.
Walker is also artfully directed. When Cornelius Vanderbilt has his sit-down with Walker, his butt-ugly face fills the entire frame — I can only shiver at the thought of what that must’ve been like on the big screen. The effect is to suggest — none too subtly, but this is a film that paints with bold splashes of color — the in-your-face, invasive tactics of Manifest-Destiny America and its corporate entities. The finale, which at first glance might strike you as absurd, is actually rather powerful; the explosions count for something, and when we get a brief scene of Walker’s younger brother James — dressed in sepulchral black like his older brother, and coldly taking up arms during the burning of Granada — we realize that the horror of Walker’s influence will continue. It’s at moments like this that Cox’s achievement seems great. I think the movie needs to be longer, though — it clocks in at a neat 95 minutes, and it seems to skim too much. An additional 15 or even 30 minutes wouldn’t have killed the film (which bombed no matter how short it was).
It’s not as if Walker came and went without a trace. Two tie-in items, if you can find them, will add to your appreciation of the movie (if you can find a rental copy, or can buy it on eBay). One is the Perennial Library paperback Walker, edited by screenwriter Wurlitzer and containing excerpts from Albert Z. Carr’s elegantly written The World and William Walker. The other is the soundtrack, composed by the late, great Joe Strummer, the former Clash-man who went on to do the incidental score for Grosse Pointe Blank. Strummer’s score for Walker is a mixed bag of influences, but the one that’ll stick with you — it has the nagging persistence of a John Carpenter theme — is a track entitled “The Brooding Side of Madness,” and that’s exactly what it sounds like; you’ll know it when you hear it, and you’ll keep knowing it when you keep hearing it in your head for the next month or so.
The images that go along with the music will stay there, too, and so will the ideas. Three years before Walker met his maker, Harper’s Weekly wrote, “Force is the necessary forerunner of civilization. The brute mind of the savage or the heathen must be reached by the manifestation of power — the only god he worships …. We believe it is best that [Walker] should succeed, and we wish him success.” To what extent do we still believe these things?