Anarchists and adventurers

Insisting that America was once again 'standing tall', Ronald Reagan crushed Walter Mondale at the presidential elections in November 1984, winning every state in the nation except Minnesota and the District of Columbia. One left-wing British filmmaker who was then a rising star in Hollywood, Alex Cox, chose to avoid the Republican celebrations by heading south to visit Nicaragua during its first democratic elections. Since 1981, Reagan's efforts to overthrow the left-wing Sandinista government had made Nicaragua the focus of his campaign to 'roll back communism' in Central America. The CIA and private American bodies had spent millions of dollars training and supplying the opposition militia, the Contras. Beginning in 1983, the National Security Council's Office of Public Diplomacy had conducted a multi-million-dollar propaganda initiative inside the United States, projecting an image of the Contras as democratic freedom fighters in the mould of America's Founding Fathers and the Sandinistas as evil members of a Soviet outpost.37 The 30-year-old Cox had risen to prominence in 1983 with Repo Man, a black fantasy about the car repossession business that outrageously satirised American consumerism and indirectly played on current nuclear war anxieties. Its follow-up, Sid and Nancy (1986), which recreated the tragic late 1970s love affair between Sid Vicious of the punk rock group the Sex Pistols and his American girlfriend Nancy Spungeon, confirmed Cox's nihilistic reputation.38 Cox travelled to Nicaragua in late 1984 to find out for himself whether there was any truth in the American news media's allegations that the Sandinista government had recently turned the country into 'a totalitarian dungeon'. Having quickly concluded that such charges were mere propaganda, in Léon, Nicaragua's former capital, Cox was challenged to make a film about the country's recent bloody history by two soldiers who had been wounded fighting the Contras. A month later, back in the United States, Cox came across a tiny reference in the radical Mother Jones magazine to one William Walker, an enigmatic adventurer from Tennessee who had ruled Nicaragua in the 1850s. Cox had never heard of Walker, but after a week's research concluded that he was 'a great idea' for the big screen. Walker's exploits had made him famous in the United States in the years before the Civil War, and the object of adulation in a supremely confident nation convinced that its duty was to dominate the Western Hemisphere. With appropriate treatment, Cox believed Walker's life could serve as the basis for an original and powerful condemnation of the Reaganite approach towards Central America and of US Cold War militancy in general.39

In the early-to-mid-1980s, several Hollywood films had focused on the politics of Central and South America. A few had even highlighted US subterfuge or support for death-squad government-terrorists in the region. Mention has already been made of Costa-Gavras' Missing, released in 1982. This was followed, in 1983, by Roger Spottiswood's Under Fire, a drama that focused on the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution and the assistance given by the CIA to the death squads of the Somoza regime against the rebel Sandinistas. Two years later, Haskell Wexler's Latino (1985) looked at the Nicaraguan War through the disillusioned eyes of a Chicano Green Beret from Los Angeles sent to train Contras in the jungles of Honduras. In 1986, Oliver Stone's Oscar-nominated Salvador suggested the CIA had been involved in the notorious murder by rightist military thugs of El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980.40

Despite their criticism of recent actions by the US government, movies like Under Fire irritated Cox intensely. In his opinion, their liberalism ultimately allowed Americans to blame 'the system' rather than themselves and, in the case of Under Fire, arrogantly even suggested that 'heroic' American journalists had won the revolution for the Sandinistas. Cox had the comic-book style of Red Dawn and the Rambo series in mind for his film about William Walker - albeit with a darkly humorous, punk-like twist. He believed this mode would not only help him to reach a broader audience, but would also compete with Hollywood's Red-baiters on their own ground.41 To help him bring an obscure nineteenth-century figure alive for late twentieth-century cinema-goers 'beyond the art houses of Wilshire Boulevard', in early 1985 Cox hired the American scriptwriter and avant-garde novelist Rudy Wurlitzer. Like Cox, Wurlitzer saw the war being fought by the CIA-backed Contras in Nicaragua as a direct continuation of the kind of US interventionism in Central America practised by William Walker a century earlier. He and Cox believed that Walker's actions typified Washington's racist approach to foreign affairs, one that was still driven by a Puritan fundamentalism and Anglo-Saxon

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