Cox's outline and Wurlitzer's script drew on an unusual range of research material, including Nicaraguan poetry, correspondence between Franklin Roosevelt and the Somoza family in the 1930s, and Walker's own account of his adventures published just before his death. Wurlitzer's script painted a portrait of Walker as an ideologue of Manifest Destiny whose sublimated sexuality accounted for his will to dominate but who ended up being used as a semi-witting stalking horse for larger strategic and economic interests.43 Though happy with the bulk of Wurlitzer's script, Cox felt that the links between Walker's antics and modern-day US policies needed to be made more explicit. He therefore imposed various contemporary images and took the script into a surreal past-future domain, creating a world in which the present - Walker's future - in the form of computers, mass-merchandised cigarettes, and, most strikingly, helicopters keeps invading Walker's reality. Wurlitzer complained that these touches would only alienate the audience, but his warnings were ignored.44
As director and screenwriter exchanged draft scripts, progress was made on the wider production and financial fronts. It is a measure of the greater space which had opened up for Cold War dissent in the American film industry by the 1980s that Cox got not only the backing of an experienced mainstream Hollywood producer but also a distribution deal with a major studio. Edward R. Pressman had been producing in Hollywood for nearly two decades, during which he had worked on a diverse range of films, including Terrence Malick's evocation of aimless anger in 1950s suburbia Badlands (1973), and John Milius' violent sword-and-sorcery tale Conan the Barbarian (1982), which helped make Arnold Schwarzenegger a screen star. While working on Walker, Pressman also produced Oliver Stone's exposé of corporate greed Wall Street (1987). Pressman hoped that Walker would have an impact comparable to that of Platoon (1986), Stone's Oscar-winning liberal critique of Vietnam, and succeeded in securing half of the film's production money (roughly $3 million) and a lucrative distribution deal with Universal Pictures, whose president, Tom Pollock, had once been his attorney. Pollock and Sean Daniel, Universal's production chief, saw great commercial potential in the cult status achieved by Cox's Repo Man, and hoped Walker could emulate David Lynch's recent surreal crossover hit Blue Velvet (1986).45
In December 1985, Cox and co-producer Lorenzo O'Brien made a location-scouting trip to Nicaragua. The Peruvian-born O'Brien, who had made a documentary about the military junta in power in his home country when a student at UCLA in the 1970s, established contact with the Nicaraguan Film Commission and the Roman Catholic Church, which agreed to provide unique locations in the capital, Managua, and the historic city of Granada.46 These initial contacts soon blossomed, to the point where the Nicaraguan government itself adopted the film as a useful propaganda tool. For generations of Nicaraguans, William Walker had served as a graphic symbol — the gringo malo — of the many US occupations of their country. To the Sandinistas, therefore, a movie about Walker provided an opportunity to consolidate its recent electoral successes (the movement's leader, Daniel Ortega, was made president in 1984) and to generate sympathy overseas for its cause in the civil war. Consequently, members of the government, including Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal and Vice-President Sergio Ramirez, gladly commented on the screenplay. 'If this penetrates the commercial market in the United States', Ramirez told the New York Times in March 1987, 'it is going to open some eyes and change some minds.' When shooting began, Sandinista troops and officers played native Nicaraguans and other Central Americans. Official permission was given for the removal of telegraph poles from the streets of Granada to accentuate historical realism, and for the loan of a (blood-stained) Soviet-built helicopter.47
Filming took place over eight weeks between March and May 1987. The cast was made up largely of unknown actors, many of whom had collaborated with Cox on his earlier productions. The exceptions to this were Ed Harris, who played Walker, Peter Boyle, who played industrial magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt ('the "big engine" of American free enterprise', according to Wurlitzer), and Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin, who made a brief appearance as Walker's deaf fiancée, Ellen Martin. Harris and other members of the cast and crew agreed to work for a substantially reduced fee partly because they supported the film's political viewpoint.48 Walker's idiosyncratic soundtrack was the work of Joe Strummer, the former leader of British punk band the Clash. Like several other British and American rock musicians in the 1980s — including Jackson Browne, Billy Bragg and U2's Bono — Strummer had been campaigning against US interference in Nicaragua for a number of years.49
Walker opens in 1853. William Walker - adventurer, religious zealot and political visionary — leads an expedition of liberation into Mexico, which ends in defeat in Sonora. Back in the United States, Walker is tried for violating Mexico's neutrality, but exonerates himself with a ringing speech about the mission of the American people to liberate the Western Hemisphere from oppression. Now a national celebrity, Walker accepts an invitation from Cornelius Vanderbilt to lead an expedition to Nicaragua, which is in need of 'democracy' and is ideally suited for a canal to open up trade routes to the Pacific. Walker returns from his meeting with Vanderbilt to find that his fiancée, Ellen, has died, but despite his anguish begins loading his men — fifty-eight mercenaries dubbed 'Walker's Immortals' — and supplies for Nicaragua.
On landing in Nicaragua, Walker is met by two collaborators who are generals of the country's liberal party. The American then lays down the law about how liberators should behave, reinforcing this with three executions. An ambush as they head for the capital, Rivas, leaves many Immortals dead, but they eventually, if chaotically, triumph over the 'rebels'. Walker sets up a puppet government, and becomes romantically involved with Yrena (Blanca Guerra), who secretly hates him for deposing and executing her lover. Walker then announces sweeping reforms, but his reign soon degenerates into brutal dictatorship. He also alienates Vanderbilt by entering into an alliance with other businessmen. Slavery is instituted and as Walker's followers fight over the spoils, an insurrection is fomented by Yrena and other conspirators, helped by Vanderbilt's cutting off Walker's supplies.
After a failed attempt on his life by Yrena, Walker orders the destruction of Rivas. As the town burns, and his men go on a last rampage of shooting and killing, US military helicopters arrive to rescue the Americans. However,
'Bringingpeace, democracy and liberty': oblivious of the bloodbath his mission has unleashed, a craved William Walker (Ed Harris, in suit) leads his Immortals through the streets of Rivas. Walker (1987). Universal Studios.
Walker, who is now clearly insane, elects to stay and makes himself president. The closing scene shows Walker being executed by firing squad in 1860 in Honduras. As the credits roll, television footage juxtaposes pictures of Ronald Reagan in Congress and US troops on 'defensive manoeuvres' on the Honduras-Nicaragua border with the bodies of Nicaraguan civilians murdered by the Contras.
Walker's bare outline belies the film's anarchic tone and politically jarring style. Three areas stand out in this respect. The first is Walker's anachronistic humour. By populating the world of the 1850s with Coca-Cola bottles, Mercedes-Benz sedans, computers and television journalists, Walker on the one hand consciously frustrates audience expectations about the historical film genre, and on the other tells viewers that the doctrine of Manifest Destiny remains an axiom of modern-day US foreign policy. Cox and Wurlitzer's original ending actually made the connection between past and present US incursions into Nicaragua even more explicit. In this scenario, Walker was to be whisked out of Rivas by the CIA aboard the US helicopters and then make a speech in modern-day Florida at a fundraising dinner for the Contras, flanked by anti-Castro Cubans and pro-Reagan celebrities like the Reverend Jerry Falwell and Charlton Heston. This ending was dropped on the advice of Ed Pressman, who argued that it would make Walker look 'a State Department asshole' rather than a Napoleonic figure, and the speech was moved instead to an earlier cathedral scene.50 Cox later regretted not having sprinkled his film with even more contemporary objects from the start instead of from half-way through (baseball bats, TV dinners, even plane wreckage all appear in draft scripts), which would certainly have lent it greater continuity.51
The uneasy marriage of nineteenth- and twentieth-century images is accompanied by the disjunction between image and sound, in which voice-over narration, dialogue, and non-diegetic music are contradicted by the mise-en-scène. This serves to heighten the satirical tone of the movie and to sharpen its criticism of the Americans'behaviour. For instance, Walker opens with upbeat Latin music that is wholly at odds with the images of violent death and destruction during a battle in Senora. The slow-motion displays of bloodshed in this and later battle scenes, complete with semi-comical spaghetti-Western-style sound effects, deliberately ape the work of Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa, and are meant to bring home to 'the carnage-addicted, Rambo-loving American audiences' (as Cox labelled them) the violent nature of US interventionism. (In an early script, one of the Immortals was called 'Captain Schwarzenegger', in honour of the muscle-bound star of the mid-1980s hits The Terminator and Commando)52 Throughout the film, Ed Harris's lofty voice-over narration is repeatedly undercut by actions on screen. Thus, when the voice speaks of cultural reforms, we see natives being flogged. When it proclaims the virtues of regenerating a nation, we see Walker's motley crew of mercenaries boozing, brawling, stealing from natives, and assaulting females of more than one species ('The colonel says it's a democracy', shouts one Immortal, as he climbs into a sheep pen and lowers his trousers).
Walker's obliviousness of the consequences of his dictatorial actions, together with the Immortals' depravity, reflected Cox's penchant for the bizarre and grotesque. This tied in with his assertions that absurdist humour was more likely to shock the audience into action, and that Walker ultimately typified the madness that went hand in hand with notions of cultural and racial superiority: 'a guy completely out of touch with reality, who thought he was acting on Christian principles but who blinded himself to the fact that he was slaughtering the people he came to regenerate'.53 Cox thought carefully about how to present Walker and his cohorts for maximum political impact. Prior to filming, one correspondent warned Cox that his script depicted Walker as too 'wacky' and that it overlooked the Immortals' misplaced idealism. Consequently, the script encouraged the audience 'to dismiss the story as an aberration rather than to recognise it as a stereotype'. Certain parts of early versions of the script highlighting Walker's zany personality were ultimately cut by Cox — his obsession with insects, for example. At the same time, the final print further heightened the Immortals' vulgarity. For instance, immediately after setting foot in Nicaragua, instead of marching past a number of bare-breasted women in the river without breaking ranks, the Immortals run amok. Doubtless seen as gratuitous by some viewers, such scenes in the filmmakers' eyes functioned as a commentary on the psychosexual character of American puritans who subordinated women and peoples of colour, and ascribed capitalist exploitation of Third World people to institutionalised racism and sexism.54
Walker opened in the United States in December 1987. Rarely can a political film three years in the making have enjoyed such a timely release. In response to newspaper revelations, in November 1986 Ronald Reagan told stunned Americans that, unbeknownst to him, elements within his government had been selling arms to an avowed enemy, Iran, in exchange for the release of US hostages held in the Middle East. Worse still, part of the profits from the arms had been diverted to provide military assistance to the Nicaraguan Contras during a period when Congress had explicitly outlawed any such aid. Reagan conducted a damage-limitation exercise by dismissing the National Security Council Director, John Poindexter, and his aide Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, a Vietnam veteran who had run a multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign for the Contras among conservative Americans. Despite this, during the summer of 1987, joint Senate and House special committees conducted nationally televised hearings on the Iran-Contra affair. These hearings aroused as much public interest as Watergate. The evidence of official intrigue and deception severely weakened Reagan's personal standing, and wholly contradicted Washington's claim to be running a morally revitalised foreign policy.55
With the Iran-Contra scandal having put Nicaragua and the dirty underbelly of US Cold War strategy at the very centre of national affairs for most of 1987, Walker looked an odds-on box office hit. For one thing, the parallels between the scandal and the film amounted to a publicist's dream: the privatisation of diplomacy and war, the role of soldiers of fortune, and clandestine acts in exotic locations. However, in the event the Iran-Contra affair probably seriously undermined the film's takings. Walker had attracted a considerable amount of interest among American film critics before news of the Iran-Contra connection surfaced. After November 1986, political journalists then joined the fray, looking for a novel angle on US-Nicaraguan relations, and helping to make the film an even greater subject of controversy. During shooting, liberal newspapers like the Los Angeles Times ran lengthy location reports on Walker, linking the film to their own long-standing anti-Contra propaganda campaigns. Other magazines more to the political right, such as Newsweek (an issue of which appeared in the movie) and Time, noted the Nicaraguan government's enthusiastic support for the project and consequently condemned the film as blatant Sandinista propaganda.56 Ever the opportunist, Cox responded to these barbs in typically aggressive fashion. By openly comparing
Walker with the 'criminals' Oliver North and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Elliott Abrams — 'all white guys coming down to small countries thinking they can do anything' — Cox sought to highlight the relevance of his movie for the public, and to express his anger at the fact that, like Walker and Vanderbilt before them, the perpetrators of the Iran-Contra scandal would most probably get away with a slap on the wrist.57
In an atmosphere of increasing constitutional crisis, one that might even result in a presidential impeachment, Universal executives regarded such statements as ill-advised and inflammatory. Having allowed the filmmakers a relatively free hand in the early stages of the project, on seeing the rushes the company's executives and the marketing agents began to get cold feet. Walker, they protested, was meant to be a liberal interpretation of nineteenth-century adventurism. Cox's version was diagnosed as far too alienating, both politically and stylistically. If Cox expected any support from Ed Pressman in the face of these severe criticisms, he was deluded. Pressman had already succeeded in politically toning down the film's ending at final scripting stage. During the shooting phase, he then grew exasperated by what he saw as Cox's wildly extravagant approach to moviemaking.58 Consequently, Universal took the decision to stifle Walker by limiting both publicity and theatrical release. The film opened in only eight American cities in December 1987. On the west coast, in Los Angeles, the movie was released on only two screens, where it played for just three weeks. During this period, the Los Angeles Weekly ran only one advert for the film. On the east coast, in New York, Walker could be found on only three screens, where it played for a month. This was a dismal showing for a film which had cost $6 million. Universal then forbade Cox to take Walker to the Havana Festival, the foremost film market in Latin America, and the company's international subsidiary, UIP, delayed a Central American release.59 Cox reacted angrily to what he saw as blatant political censorship. He even ventured a comparison between himself and the way dissident filmmakers had been marginalised in the Soviet Union.60 Whatever truth there was in this, the fact was that the Englishman had slipped up badly. Walker was never likely to appeal to a broad cross-section of the film-going public due its nihilistic format. As a film buff, Cox should have known that its postmodern historical narrative would be unacceptable to a public brought up on realistic representations of the past. Wurlitzer had hinted at this when complaining about the addition of anachronistic touches at the scriptwriting stage. Many people who saw the film simply did not find it entertaining. With a few exceptions, the trade press in the United States had nothing positive to say about Walker. Variety called it a 'virtual fiasco', BoxOffice 'very weird'.61
Walker generated more than its fair share of heat in the political press, but there is no evidence that the film changed people's minds about US policy in
Nicaragua. Predictably, some newspapers on the left sang its praises. 'If . . . Walker's metaphorical message makes a fraction of the eventual audience think more closely about what their tax dollars are paying for', said the New York Village Voice, 'then Cox's extraordinary vision of history returning will have reaped a rich dividend.' Newspapers on the right, on the other hand, lambasted Walker for being gratuitously anti-American and pretentious. More significantly perhaps, some who were hostile to the Contras applauded the movie's message but were either bewildered by its surrealism or alienated by its heavy-handedness. The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, for one, witheringly described the film as 'a wasted opportunity' and a 'bloated excess'. Hollywood's best-known liberal, Robert Redford, announced that he would direct and star in his own film about Walker, to set the record straight (this never materialised).62
In Nicaragua itself, once released, Walker played to packed houses in Managua, but even here pro-government newspapers objected to its excessively violent content and satirical tone. Walker just might have succeeded at the box office as an 'alternative' film, despite Universal's lack of support, if it had been more aesthetically accessible to a liberal audience. The fact is it was not. The movie earned a pitifully small sum — $257,000 — and taught Cox that the greater freedom which unorthodox foreign filmmakers had to criticise American Cold War policy during the 1980s came at a price. Walker effectively finished his Hollywood career.63
Was this article helpful?
If you have ever wanted the secrets to making your own film, here it is: Indy Film Insider Tips And Basics To Film Making. Have you ever wanted to make your own film? Is there a story you want to tell? You might even think that this is impossible. Studios make films, not the little guy. This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay.