(USA/Mexico/Spain - 1987)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Ed Harris, Marlee Matlin, Richard Masur, Rene Auberjonois, Xander Berkeley, John Diehl, Peter Boyle
Genre: Comedy/Western/Adventure/War
Director: Alex Cox
Screenplay: Rudy Wurlitzer
Cinematography: David Bridges
Composer: Joe Strummer

Refusing to hide comfortably in the past, freewheeling maverick cult director Alex Cox makes his biting political satire about mid 1800’s filibuster William Walker into a critique on the United States’ neverending meddling in Central America. Made during Ronald Reagan’s support of the Contras, Cox’s historic western biopic is such an unveiled indictment of the U.S.’s God given right to spread sham democracies that are actually exploitational dictatorships only benefiting American businesses that Reagan is actually shown on TV. As usual, it’s a far more impressive turn than he gave in King’s Row.

The rich and famous are relentlessly mocked as vulgar and crude morons whose privilege allows them to get away with anything. That said, one interesting aspect is Walker is at once the “hero” and a contemptible representative of all that’s dangerous, nihilistic, and shady about the powerful. Ed Harris is brilliant as the subdued eponymous madman, believing the heroic p.r. his own newspaper trumps up for him, for instance calling him a man of destiny, and hiding behind the veneer of being the people’s champion. Walker speaks in cliches that are meaningless to him, and ultimately betrays every person and principle he’s ever been associated with.

Cox starts the movie off seriously then breaks down every aspect of the film’s structure as Walker loses his grip on reality, including several purposeful anachronisms. The anarchic tone is far better suited to faux liberation and democracy than Cox’s punk rock based favorites Repo Man and Sid & Nancy, but where Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer see absurdity as the only way to present such horrific arrogant psychotic racist lunacy, the movie can come across as little more than a series of pot shots. The biggest problem is too many actors, particularly Rene Auberjonois, just ham it up, undermining the politics by making it too cartoonish to take any of the message seriously. In the end, for better and worse, it’s very much a Monty Python movie.

Walker is a hilarious film, and one can’t help but think of even more recent invasions when we hear Walker utter such gems in the midst of battle as “Now that we have a plan I feel sure that there will be a successful outcome”. Walker is Alex Cox’s most ambitious film, and in a way the most amazing thing is that it got made at all. Not only was it funded by a Hollywood studio (Universal), but as it was shot on location, U.S. money was pumped into the economy of a country we were at war with (as opposed to the usual war profiteers who set up shop abroad).

Walker also has its merits as a western, something of a companion piece to Cox’s spaghetti western homage Straight to Hell. Here the model is Sam Peckinpah, which makes sense as Wurlitzer also scripted Peckinpah’s vastly underrated Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. Former Clash frontman Joe Strummer bases his soundtrack on Bob Dylan’s work in the aforementioned Peckinpah classic, but also blends several styles into the now Latino base. It’s not as good as Dylan’s, but quite effective.


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