DVD Reviews for 2/22: Walker Hard--The Alex Cox Story
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/22/08 14:46:19
One of the most underrated films of the 1980's gets a second chance on DVD this week, along with a group of Iraq-themed films that you skipped seeing theatrically last fall, a couple of Oscar contenders, a look at a true American icon and a newly-on-the-market pop tart doing the direct-to-video horror thing.
If you are an emerging director whose initial works have struck a chord with both critics and audiences, there are any number of career paths that you can follow. For example, you can immediately sell out your artistic principles by taking on a number of enormously lucrative for-hire projects that demonstrate none of the qualities that made your early work so memorable in the first place. On the other hand, you can cling to those principles like grim death and refuse all offers sent your way in order to work on your own willfully obscure personal projects. Then again, you can always try to find a way to negotiate a healthy balance between the two by working on films that allow your artistic sensibilities to flower within the framework of commercially viable subject matter. In the case of the cheerfully iconoclastic filmmaker Alex Cox, let us just say that he decided to choose an alternate path for himself. In the wake of the resounding critical and reasonable commercial success of his first two film, the wild cult classic “Repo Man” (1984) and the powerful Sid Vicious biopic “Sid & Nancy” (1986), he found himself anointed Hollywood’s Next Big Thing and was in a position to more or less get any project that he wanted to make off the ground just on the basis of his participation.
Taking full advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he spurned an opportunity to direct “The Three Amigos” and somehow convinced Universal, arguably the most conservative of the major movie studios at that time, to give him a few million dollars to go down to a war zone in Central America in order to make “Walker,” a film that would utilize dark humor, savage violence and self-conscious anachronisms in order to simultaneously tell the tale of an especially shameful, if little remembered, chapter of American history and point out the unmistakable parallels between those long-ago events and America’s then-current meddlings in the exact same region a little over a century down the line. Inevitably, once the studio finally got a look at what they had paid for, they drastically scaled back their distribution plans and merely dumped the film in a handful of theaters. At the same time, critics–the kind of people who you would think would have known better–were horrified by the violence, humor and flippant attitude and either wrote the nastiest reviews imaginable or ignored the film entirely. Inevitably, no one showed up at the few theaters that the filmed played in (the mass audience was too busy basking in the goodness that was “Three Men and a Baby” at the time) and Universal quickly yanked from distribution, stuck it on their most out-of-reach shelf and pretended that the entire thing never happened. As for Cox, his reign as the Next Big Thing came to a crashing halt and he would go on to carve out an interesting career as both an independent filmmaker and a film commentator for British television but, with the exception of a brief and ill-fated period when he was slated to co-write and direct an aborted version of “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas,” his career as a big-time filmmaker would never recover from his involvement with the project.
“Walker” told the little-remembered story of William Walker, an ambitious American renaissance man who dabbled in medicine, journalism, politics and the law before fully embracing the notion of Manifest Destiny that swept America in the 1850's in a series of moves that would see him become the President of Nicaragua from 1855-1857. After an abortive attempt to invade Mexico and seize Sonora as an independent republic, the film opens as Walker (Ed Harris) is hired by American tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt (Peter Boyle) to go to Nicaragua and bring stability to the region so that his shipping concerns can continue without interruption. With a rag-tag bunch of misfits, miscreants and refugees trying to avoid the yoke of slavery, Walker amazingly manages to pull the task off and installs himself as the president of the country. Alas, his overwhelming ambition and lust for power soon gets the better of him and leads him to abandon all of his core principles (formerly a devout abolitionist, he would eventually bring introduce slavery into the region as a way of gaining support from powerful people in the southern United States) in his desire to expand his horizons. Eventually, he is overthrown and winds up on the wrong end of a Honduran firing squad but, as a end credit montage of America’s misadventures in the same region a century later reveals, the notion of the United States meddling in the affairs of Nicaragua would not die with him.
If that final montage had been the only time in the film that Cox explicitly compared the historical past with the then-present day, it is likely that the film wouldn’t have outraged as many people as it did. However, Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (an all-time cult favorite for his contributions to “Two-Lane Blacktop” and “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid”) made the bold decision to underscore the parallels all the way through with a number of deliberate anachronisms deployed bring the past and present together–as the film progresses, we see modern cars and bottles of Coca-Cola representing the outstretched tentacles of American capitalism in the region, copies of “Time,” “Newsweek” and “People” that breathlessly report on his activities without questioning the motivations behind them and even a CIA helicopter that arrives during the climactic burning of Granada in order to bring all U.S. citizens home in a sequence that designed to fuse together the fiction of the burning of Atlanta from “Gone With the Wind” with the fact of the fall of Saigon. In theory, this may sound like an exceptionally ham-fisted way of comparing the two eras but in practice, it plays beautifully–instead of rubbing your nose in these anachronisms, Cox deploys them in such a deft manner that you don’t even notice them at first. More importantly, it helps him to more effectively make the point that nothing really changed between the 1850's and the 1980's.
Most of the negative critical response to “Walker” came from people who were unable to wrap their heads around these anachronisms and it is too bad because if they had been able to put these complaints aside, they might have noticed that the film had more to offer viewers than ersatz issues of “Time” magazine. They might have noticed how Cox manages to beautifully balance the tone between surreal humor, exciting action (despite the relatively low budget of the entire enterprise, the various battle scenes are shot with the kind of bloody balletic grace normally associated with the likes of Sam Peckinpah or Sergio Leone) and a genuine sense of rage, anger and sorrow towards the plight of the Nicaraguan people at the hands of outsiders who refuse to stop meddling in their affairs. They might have noticed the stirring music composed by former Clash member Joe Strummer–an incredible melange of musical styles that was one of the best film scores to emerge in the 1980's. Most of all, they might have noticed the volcanic lead performance by Ed Harris as William Walker–something about this role must have touched something deep within him because it resulted in a forceful and finely detailed portrait of a steely-eyed messianic madman that remains the most powerful performance of his entire career.
As you can probably guess, the stories behind the making of “Walker” are just as fascinating as the one captured in the film and fans will be delighted to know that not only did the people at Criterion manage to convince Universal to give it its long-overdue DVD release, they also managed to cobble together an impressive collection of supplemental materials to tell those stories. For starters, Cox and Wurlitzer have gathered for a insightful and detail-packed commentary track in which they discuss the history of the film and the adventures they had in bringing it to the screen. Next up is “Dispatches from Nicaragua,” a newly produced and absolutely fascinating hour-long look at the film’s production that has been culled from hours of never-before-seen behind-the-scenes footage. “On Moviemaking and the Revolution” is an 11-minute audio monologue in which one of the film’s extras discusses the making of the film from his particular perspective two decades after the fact. In addition, the disc also includes a couple of photo galleries, a copy of the trailer that Universal made to try to sell the film to audiences before giving up on it and a booklet that includes appreciations from critic Graham Fuller and actress Linda Sandoval as well as excerpts from a book on Walker that was released as a tie-in to the film that includes bits of the screenplay, commentary from Wurlitzer and bits from the diaries of both Ed Harris and the real William Walker.
The only supplement that doesn’t quite work is a brief video in which Cox goes through a collection of the largely negative reviews that greeted its release. The idea isn’t a bad one in theory but Cox dwells more on minor details (he lambastes anyone who mentions the phrase “blood-spattered” and takes Roger Ebert to task for a headline that he most likely didn’t write in the first place) in a way that comes across as more petty than informative–this might have been better as a text-based supplement in which we could read in full what the naysayers were saying back then. However, that is the only weak spot in an otherwise exemplary set that is a must-have for fans of the film (such creatures do exist) and die-hard Cox cultists and definitely worth at least a rental for anyone looking for something to watch that is off the beaten path. “Walker” may have had a long and bumpy ride but it is finally getting the ending that it deserves–one of the most criminally underrated and undervalued films of the 1980's has now become what is sure to be one of 2008's best DVDs/
Written by Rudy Wurlitzer. Directed by Alex Cox. Starring Ed Harris, Richard Masur, Rene Auberjonois, Peter Boyle, Miguel Sandoval and Marlee Matlin. 1987. 94 minutes. Rated R. A Criterion Collection release. $39.95
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