Director Alex Cox will attend a screening of “Walker” at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive on Saturday Oct. 6
Director Alex Cox will attend a screening of “Walker” at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive on Saturday Oct. 6

The United States has always fancied itself master of the Western Hemisphere. From the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 through the Reagan Doctrine of the 1980s and on to the present day, Central and South American countries have frequently found themselves the unhappy victims of “gringo meddling.”

In 1853, an ambitious Yankee adventurer named William Walker embarked on a mission to bring American-style freedom and democracy to the people of Nicaragua. Having previously established the short-lived Republic of Lower California in northern Mexico, Walker was determined to repeat the process in Central America — and he succeeded, albeit temporarily.

Walker’s strange but true story is the subject of director Alex Cox’s satiric 1987 biopic Walker, screening at 6:00 pm on Saturday, Oct. 6 at Pacific Film Archive as part of the Archive’s current series ‘Rebel Without Applause: The Films of Alex Cox.’ As a substantial added bonus, Cox will be in attendance for a post-screening interview with former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman.

Ed Harris plays the title character, a brilliant young man (he graduated summa cum laude from university at the age of 14 and studied in Paris and Edinburgh) hired by tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt (Peter Boyle) to liberate the people of Nicaragua and, by happy coincidence, clear a path for Vanderbilt’s commercial ambitions. Harris portrays the 29-year old Walker as an all-American social democrat with a deep streak of messianism; undeterred by the ridiculous ambition of conquering an entire country with 50 mercenaries, he quickly achieved his goal with “the boldest of hearts and the loftiest of intentions”.

Indeed, his intentions were quite lofty — and frequently at odds with those of his sponsor. Despite paying lip service to democracy, Vanderbilt was only interested in one thing: the construction of a canal from the Caribbean to the Pacific. Expressing his character’s true feelings, Boyle explains that “Nicaragua is a fucked up little country somewhere south of here. This worthless piece of real estate controls the overland route to the Pacific. I want that country stable. I want it done now.”

And it was done, but eventually, Vanderbilt’s crass ambitions became a threat to Walker, who, after appointing himself President of Nicaragua, claimed to disdain “the vulgar pursuit of personal power.” Shortly after revoking the tycoon’s license and commandeering his ships, Walker came to a swift and sticky end: deposed from the presidency, he was executed in Honduras in 1860.

Reminiscent of the political spaghetti westerns of the late 1960s, Walker is an absurdist classic steeped in grime, grit, dirt, and blood. Screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer’s dialogue is diamond-sharp, and the film is buoyed by an excellent supporting cast, including an all too brief appearance by Marlee Matlin as Walker’s anti-imperialist fiancée and (among others) Joe Strummer, Richard Edson, Rene Auberjonois, Spider Stacey, and Ten Pole Tudor. Location footage shot in the same colonial-era towns that Walker once conquered and ruled lends the film the ring of authenticity — as long as you can overlook such intentionally anachronistic features as helicopters, computers, and news magazines.

In 1987 the United States was still trying to replace Nicaragua’s Sandinista government with one led by the so-called contras. There was no better time for a film such as this, but alas, no one wanted to know. Walker was a disaster at the box office, grossing only a quarter million dollars against its $5m-plus budget, and Cox’s Hollywood career never recovered.

A quarter century later his film remains a powerful and wickedly funny indictment of imperialism and liberal interventionism. Walker’s timeless message is best expressed during a brief scene towards the end of the film, in which the conquering hero tells one of his men the ends justify the means. And what, inquires the soldier, are the ends? Sadly but tellingly, Walker can no longer remember.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...