Sunday, March 15, 2009
One of the funniest jokes in Alex Cox’s Walker comes in the very first minute, when the words “This is a true story” flash in bold red letters on the screen.
That’s not to say this film is pure fiction. The plot is based on the exploits of William Walker, an American filibuster who travelled to Nicaragua in the nineteenth century and became self-declared president of that country from 1856 to 1857. But it takes a lot of cheek to label as a “true story” a film set in the 1850s but containing cars and helicopters, as well as Time and Newsweek (both of which didn’t exist until after World War I).
With such perverse anachronism, Cox throws off the musty mantle of historical drama and reaches for something far more colourful and unique—less a comment on history than a burlesque of it, Cox picks up on a neglected episode of American history and turns it into a savage parody of the nation’s history of ill-conceived foreign interventions, evoking both Vietnam and the American government’s support of the Contras in Nicaragua during the 1980s (the primary target of this 1987 film’s sharp-edged political rage). Even though this is ostensibly a “true story,” Cox’s goal is to put those quotation marks around the phrase and undermine the much-abused authority of received narratives and the historical record.
This schism between what we are told and what actually happens is the foundation of the film, and the distortion and corruption of language is rampant throughout. Walker narrates the film in a dry tone that belies its self-aggrandizing intentions—the voiceover rarely matches what appears on screen. When Walker and his crew arrive in Nicaragua, he merely notes that they “landed,” even though we can see his ship in a flaming wreck on the ocean and his men lying soaked and exhausted on the shore with whatever meager supplies they could salvage. Walker’s modestly optimistic description of their arrival elides the calamitous landing implied by the film. Later, after defeating his opponents and essentially conquering the country, Walker and his men ride into Grenada where the voiceover declares, “We were welcomed as liberators.” The town square is conspicuously empty.
Walker’s sense of self-importance is one of the film’s primary targets of humour—he even occasionally slips into the third person as he speaks. Well played by Ed Harris, Walker is a rigid, pious authoritarian amid a rabble, cutting an imposing figure as he strides purposefully through his ramshackle army. One of the most striking scenes in the film has Walker brazenly marching down a street as gunmen ambush his squad. As bodies fall around him, Walker ignores the carnage and continues undiscouraged because, as he notes to one of the wounded soldiers, advancing is all he knows how to do.
Combining confidence and folly, Walker quickly moves from being a comical figure to a frightening one. When the brawling, degenerate band of rogues that make up Walker’s army are mockingly described as his “immortals,” it at first feels like a poke at the loftiness of Walker’s Manifest Destiny talk and his paltry means, but the word’s associations with imperial emperors soon become disturbingly real.
As the self-installed president of Nicaragua, Walker turns into the power-drunk, penny-ante tyrant of a tiny nation beset by poverty, disease, and civil unrest (feel free to draw present-day parallels if you so desire). But his talk never swerves from his original rhetoric of democratic liberation, even as he claims absolute power, murders his opponents, and in a final fit of imperious rage, sets fire to Grenada. Unflaggingly confident of the purity of his purpose, Walker rationalizes or simply ignores the constant corruption of his ideals, perhaps reaching the greatest depths of his own personal moral debasement when he forsakes his abolitionist past and re-instates slavery in Nicaragua in an attempt to elicit sympathetic support from the southern states (an event that is true to the historical record, although the fact that one of Walker’s closest aides in the film is African-American is very likely invention). And yet, Walker maintains he is a liberator, bringing freedom and equality to the country. When his mistress argues that they must stave off revolution in Nicaragua because they are both aristocrats, Walker recoils in disgust and haughtily declares, “I am a social democrat.”
Call that hypocrisy or plain old American schizophrenia, but either way Cox goes for the throat and doesn’t relent. This is truly a funny film, but also an angry one, and it ranges wildly from broad farcical swipes at Walker’s pomp and folly to the somber and disturbing footage of victims of war in Nicaragua that plays over the credits—a manic tone that is likely based in the peculiarities of the film’s production. Although financed by American money and distributed by a major studio (Universal), Walker was actually filmed in Nicaragua. Granted, production was removed from the actual fighting occurring at the time—this isn’t front-lines reportage, after all—but there were Sandinistas on the set and bloody conflict at the other end of the country. Surely that would alter the mood of any production set.
Maybe that is why the film’s digressions from historical accuracy and leaps in logic and tone feel so right and so necessary to the telling of this story. When a helicopter comes down at the end of the film and airlifts American citizens from the burning chaos of Grenada, Cox echoes the fall of Saigon and creates a continuity of American imperialist ventures all within this one largely forgotten historical episode. When Walker’s deaf-mute girlfriend tells off a pro-slavery advocate of Manifest Destiny by signing the phrase, “Go fuck a pig,” Walker translates her objection into polite, neutered terms—dissenting arguments are suppressed, and the film’s clearest voice of reason cannot be heard.
Moments like these may feel outside of historical logic, but what is history in this mess of lies? The film ends with footage of Ronald Reagan saying American troops will not be sent to central America, followed directly by images of American troops in Honduras, right on Nicaragua’s border, conducting “manoeuvres.” There’s honesty for you. Who wouldn't be skeptical of historical fidelity in light of such perversions of the record? Far better instead to highlight the story of corrupted, delusional power that recurs again and again, the history behind the history. Maybe that's why despite all the anachronisms and absurdities Walker somehow remains a true story—or at least truer than most.