William Walker was a freewheeling filibuster of a distinct class. Alex Cox’s biopic Walker – branded A TRUE STORY at the outset – features Ed Harris in the title role of the American adventurer whose ideals and morals become muddled. Journeying to Nicaragua in the 1850s, Walker and his band have democracy as their glorious intention. What happens, of course, is something else entirely, and Walker comes to resemble more of a tyrant than anything else.
First, though – wait, was that a helicopter? And a computer? Isn’t this 1850? It becomes increasingly clear throughout Walker that Cox has little regard for historical accuracy, and blatant anachronisms like Walker on the cover of Time and Newsweek pop up all over the place. Cox’s sense of humor is very often visual, as seen again and again in the visual gags running through his first feature Repo Man, and in Walker the intentional inaccuracies certainly do provide laughs. But they have a point, too, and that’s to draw a parallel between Walker’s crazed methods in Nicaragua in the 1850s and American efforts in Latin and South America in the late 1980s.
Whether you enjoy this political narrative bent or not is probably dependent on your own political views. Walker didn’t fare well at the box office upon release in 1987, and Cox never returned to studio filmmaking again. While it doesn’t necessarily come across as heavy-handed, the comparison and damnation of American foreign policy is poured on pretty thick.
Rudy Wurlitzer writes William Walker beautifully, though, and the contrast from Walker to each man in Walker’s miscreant band of somehow-loyal followers is also well done. Straight off the bat the gang – for they certainly could be called no more than a gang – are shown to be unable to even comprehend Walker’s orders that violence should stop and common laws of hygiene be adhered to. “What’s hygiene?” one man asks just before the gang erupt into a murdering spree in the middle of a village. There’s some of the Glanton Gang from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian in here, making Ed Harris’s Walker the indomitable Judge Holden, the terrifying hawker of war and death.
Soon, though the men latch onto Walker’s lofty ideals more as an excuse for violence than anything else, the “true north” of Walker’s vision begins to stray. “Some of the men are confused as to just what it is we’re fighting for,” one man confides in him. “I know and they know that the liberals are our friends and the conservatives are our enemies…but to tell you the truth, sir, I can’t tell them apart. They all seem the same to me.”
“That is no concern of yours, nor of the men,” Walker advises. “All you have to remember is that our cause is a righteous one.” Later, Walker dictates to another man trodding in his footsteps that the ends justify the means. The man tiptoes after Walker as the landscape around them seems drier and drier. “What are the ends?” he asks, to which Walker immediately replies, “I can’t remember.”
So again, the political aspect will either heighten your appreciation of Walker or it very well may sour it, depending on whether you find Cox to be earnest or overbearing in the depth of his unsubtle satire. I submit that the character of William Walker alone, shorn of all the directorial “slight of hand” on Cox’s part, is one that can’t be ignored. “Clearly,” as another character remarks, “this is no ordinary asshole.”