Alex Cox’s Walker (1987) tells the true story of William Walker, an American colonel who led an invasion of Nicaragua in the mid-1850s and ruled the country for two years. Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer present this historical episode as a nightmarish comedy, advancing a farcical tone that mocks Walker’s hubris and, by extension, the manifest destiny that’s guided American missions in other countries for the past two centuries. The film is also forthright in its condemnation of the U.S. government’s then-current exploits in Nicaragua. At the time Ronald Reagan was backing contras to overthrow the revolutionary government, which had deposed the Somoza dictatorship in the late 1970s. Walker emphasizes the connection between American missions in Nicaragua in the 19th and 20th centuries through a bold use of anachronisms—the characters drink Coca-Cola, ride in helicopters, and read about themselves in Time and Newsweek.
Walker opened in December 1987 to generally negative reviews, with critics condemning the film as heavy-handed, naive, and overly violent. (One exception was the Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum, who wrote, “[W]ith political cowardice in commercial filmmaking so prevalent, one can only admire this movie’s gusto in calling a spade a spade, and the exhilaration of its anger and wit.”) Its reputation has grown steadily since then, however, and today it looks like one of the key films of its era. Next Friday, September 8, Chicagoans will have the opportunity to revisit Walker on a big screen when the Music Box presents it on 35-millimeter. Cox will be in attendance to answer questions and, presumably, tell stories about shooting the movie in Nicaragua during an ongoing civil war. In anticipation of the screening, I corresponded with Cox via e-mail to ask him about the legacy of Walker and his thoughts about political filmmaking past and present.
You shot Walker in Nicaragua during a time of armed conflict. Were you and the cast and crew ever afraid for your safety?
I am afraid of nothing except nuclear war. I don’t know what the cast and crew feared—getting in trouble with the American government? We were far from the war and very well cared for both by the Sandinistas and by the Nicaraguan people. If you live in fear you don’t achieve very much, or anything.
How did you come to meet and collaborate with Rudy Wurlitzer? Had you been a fan of his novels before you worked together?
I had read Quake, but what really impressed me was Rudy’s script for Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. It is still the most political western ever made, and a great western as well.
How did you become interested in American imperialism? Did this interest in geopolitics predate your filmmaking career?
We live in it. It is the water in which we swim. I come from England, a satrap nation of the United States. So I am naturally drawn to nations which don’t grovel quite so much when the empire calls.
Joe Strummer’s score is one of my favorite aspects of Walker. Could you describe your relationship with him, specifically what he brought to this film?
Joe was a beautiful person who had experiences you and I couldn’t imagine. What was it like to be in the Clash, the best band since the Beatles and, as their publicists observed, the Only Band That Mattered? How did he and Jones and Simonon deal with that? We worked on three films and I deferred to him entirely, having no musical talent. That said, the score of Walker owes a lot to Zander Schloss, Joe’s collaborator, guitarist, and coauthor of several songs.
When Walker was first released, the reviews in the U.S. press were generally negative, but the film’s reputation has grown since then. How were you impacted by the initial response to the film? Also, do you feel vindicated by how responses to the film have changed?
The studios blacklisted me for making Walker. Roger Ebert and his fellow creep critics working for the man, as usual. I won’t feel the least vindicated until Universal and MGM and Fox pay me all the money they owe me for Repo Man, Sid and Nancy, and Walker. And I am not holding my breath. It’s good that—thanks to the Criterion DVD—the film is marginally available, at last. But where’s the Blu-Ray? Where’s the DCP?
One of the most audacious aspects of Walker is the presence of anachronisms. How did they enter into the film?
They were Rudy’s, my, and [producer Lorenzo O’Brien’s] idea. We thought they were important because we were making a film about a contemporary political and moral problem, not a museum piece.
Did you have any cinematic influences in mind when you were making Walker?
Pat Garrett, Kurosawa’s Ran . . . steal from the best!
You like to cast musicians in your films. In addition to Strummer and Schloss, Walker also features Dick Rude and Spider Stacy. Do you direct musicians differently than you direct other actors?
Musicians, actors, ordinary humans, dogs, lizards . . . either they can act or they cannot!
Speaking of actors, I believe Ed Harris gives one of his greatest performances as Walker. Could you discuss your working relationship with him?
Ed put a lot of effort into the role and gave an extraordinary performance. I think he has never given a better one. He tends to be stereotyped as the master villain—perhaps, unfortunately, as a result of Walker. But he is a most interesting actor.
How would you describe the landscape for political filmmaking in the 1980s? Do you think that landscape has changed in the intervening decades?
Things are much worse now. You know that already. Two decades of Marvel Comics and DC films and 16 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hooray for Hollywood!
Are there any current political conflicts that you would like to make movies about?
What difference would it make? Who would distribute such a film?