Sunday, April 26, 2009

Review – Walker

April 26, 2009

Walker – U.S., 1987

Alex Cox’s 1987 film Walker is several films simultaneously. It is first and foremost a historical film about an American who briefly ruled Nicaragua from 1855 – 1857. It is also a tragic love story, a comment on the corruptive nature of power, and a political commentary on the Reagan administration’s invasion of Nicaragua in the 1980s. Opinions vary as to the success of combining these three distinct story lines into one film. In their 2007 DVD & Video Guide, Mick Martin and Marsha Porter gave the film three stars and wrote that if viewers are interesting in something “out of the ordinary,” they should give Walker a shot. Roger Ebert, on the other hand, gave the film a grand total of zero stars and essentially called the film a mess. However, visitors to his website have seen fit to give the film three and a half stars, and the film currently has a ranking of 6.3 on the Internet Movie Database. The Criterion Collection recently released the film on DVD, and since they only release “important classic and contemporary films,” one would assume that they view the film with some esteem – providing of course that the word “important” modifies both “classic” and “contemporary.”

Walker begins in 1853, and the beginning of the film finds a man named William Walker (the always reliable Ed Harris) trying to spread democracy and American influence in Central America. His efforts are in danger of going for naught. As his men are gunned down one by one, Walker prepares for the inevitable: defeat and probable death. He thanks his men for the bravery they’ve shown, adding that only an act of God can save them now. He’s in luck, for heaven shines on him in the form of a sandstorm that allows him and his remaining men to sneak back across the border to safety. Despite his failure, Walker is hailed a hero; a corrupt jury even acquits him of violating the United States’ treaty with Mexico. Later we meet Walker’s fiancée Ellen Martin (Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin), a deaf woman who is repulsed by talk of manifest destiny, a term she equates with a quest to spread slavery across the continent. She’s not wrong in her assessment.

Walker soon finds himself torn between the normal life he plans to have with Ellen after their marriage and the call of duty. It seems that another Central American country is in chaos and needs the United States’ help winning the democracy its citizens so richly deserve. Walker is asked to be the one that brings the American way of life to Nicaragua, and if he can set up a canal that would enable a certain Cornelius Wanderbuilt to have access to both U.S. coasts, that would be nice as well. It is an offer he eventually accepts.

Ed Harris plays Walker as a man of good intentions. He is respectful of the Nicaraguan people, instructs his men to conduct themselves properly, and aspires to bring stability and peace to Nicaragua. We’re led to believe that Walker is a respected man back in the states, so it comes as a surprise that his men – many of whom joined the expedition after being shoved on a boat and shown the barrel of a gun – blatantly disobey his orders time and time again, even after Walker has several of them executed for insubordination. Harris plays Walker straight; his men, on the other hand, are portrayed in a much more comical way, which is odd considering that there are few moments in the film in which they are actually laugh-out-loud funny. In one extremely strange moment, Wanderbuilt even pours water on himself because two businessmen have angered him.

And then there are slightly odd references to the modern world. Soldiers smoke Marboro cigarettes and drink Coca-Cola. Walker knows he has the support of the American people because he’s featured on the cover of Time Magazine above the caption “Nicaragua’s Liberator.” Towards the end of the film, there’s even a brief appearance by the United States’ modern-day army. However, exactly what the filmmaker is intending by showing these images is never completely clear, a fact that Cox seems to be acknowledging when he includes footage of former president Ronald Reagan in the film’s closing credits.

Despite a virtuoso performance by Ed Harris and a story that contains many interesting historical details, Walker is ultimately a mixed bag. I was truly fascinated by the character of Walker. His scenes with Ellen reveal a gentle, romantic man who is willing to give up his adventurous lifestyle for the one he loves. In addition, Walker is a man of contradiction. He leads men into battle, but never seems overly concerned with their safety. He is a man who believes that America has a moral right to protect its neighbors from oppression, even if the liberator becomes the oppressor in the process. However, few of the other characters are given enough screen time for them to leave any lasting impact. In addition, the film seems to want to say something about then present-day America. However, the effort seems inappropriate in a film about a real event that not many people know enough about. Someday a director will make a film that truly enables viewers to understand the role that the United States has played in South America and Central America throughout history. Walker tries hard to be that film, but only partially succeeds. (on DVD from the Criterion Collection)

2 and a half stars

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