Walker‘s opening montage takes place during a 19th-century battle scene in Sonora, Mexico, with ragtag soldiers and peasant revolutionaries mowed down in a torrential rain of bullets, flown through the air in cannon blasts, and eating dust as they land in bloody piles. Any sense of glory or horror in this graphic carnage is made absurd and ironic by Joe Strummer’s peppy salsa soundtrack, which seems more befitting for a hacienda party. The charismatic antihero, William Walker (Ed Harris), who will go on to stage the first American invasion of Nicaragua, boastfully writes in his journal about his heroic actions (he consistently refers to his glorious self in the third person) and those of his men. As the world erupts in chaotic death all around him, he retains the plucky optimism of the American individualist and the tight-assed prissiness of a puritan saint, and when he steps outside to join the few surviving men-at-arms who swear to fight with him to the last, he orates that their situation isn’t good, and because they’ve run out of food and ammunition, it seems that only an act of God can save them. As if in response, raindrops fall from the sky, a mighty windstorm stirs up great clouds of dust to cover their escape back across the border into America, and before he returns home, Walker blows a kiss to God above. Cut to: a courtroom scene where he defends the “God-given right of the American people to dominate the Western Hemisphere. It is our moral duty to protect our neighbors from oppression and exploitation. That is [our] manifest destiny.”
This prologue in many ways sets the tone for the rest of cinematic anarchist Alex Cox’s film, which abandons all clichés of the traditional bio-pic in favor of outlandish magical realism. Cox had previously directed the surreal punk classic Repo Man, during which this British director living in Los Angeles playfully satirized American society and L.A. subculture. The freaky-funny car-repossessing heroes lived by their own outlaw rules outside of the mundane, consumer-based mentality that demands conformity. (In that film, one particularly irritating bit player is singled out as being hypnotized by pop culture as he annoyingly sings the “Feelin’ 7-Up” song over and over again like some kind of automaton.) The world-weary leader of these merry brigands, played by Harry Dean Stanton, swore he’d rather live on his feet than die on his knees. So too did Cox, whose movie was a rallying cry for the new wave. Walker is the dark, neurotic flipside of Repo Man, where the antiheroic title character is not interested in any form of individual self-expression other than a single-minded pursuit of fame and glory.
It’s easy to see why Cox would be drawn to the historical figure of Walker: a swaggering anomaly, who continually makes vast declarations and proclamations about being anti-slavery and pro-democracy, in favor of universal suffrage and bringing American values to South America as a way of raising up the poor and needy. He’s the kind of guy who really would have said, in our modern day and age, that to solve global strife he’d buy the world a Coke—and indeed, in this period film, corporate logos make fleeting appearances. A bottle of Coca-Cola and a pack of Marlboros rest next to two prisoners-of-war buried in the dirt up to their necks, and Walker fawns over his heroic visage on the cover of Newsweek. His rhetoric gradually distorts into a mad worship of his own obsessive power and maniacal, micro-managing control over a foreign land. This is the evil, duplicitous neighbor of the heroic Repo Men, where individualism becomes obscenely mindless of anything other than personal gain. Walker continually cloaks his evil (even from himself) in sanctimony, claiming to make the world safe for “God, science, and hygiene.”
These are all qualities Cox not only loathes but also aims to cinematically mock in his madcap way. Walker is quite a hilarious movie for much of the time, almost ecstatic in its over-the-top weirdness. An example of how he deflates the rich and powerful: The man funding Walker’s trek into the South American struggle, Cornelius Vanderbilt (brilliantly played by Peter Boyle), perhaps the wealthiest man in the United States, is an overgrown child delighted by his own farts, and he throws tantrums during which he dumps the water from a vase over his head and beats his lackeys with the overturned flowers. Scenes play out as desperately manic, on the verge of steamrolling out of control, with bold, comic-bookish camera angles inspired by a slew of eccentric spaghetti westerns. A romantic spat between Walker and his mute American girlfriend (Marlee Matlin) is played out almost entirely in crude sign language (“Go fuck a pig!” is one of the subtitles), yet made somehow endearing by a lush, emotionally pleading violin concerto.
What grounds Walker is that in addition to the director being an incorrigible prankster, he is also dead serious when it comes to moral judgments on power and international politics. The film was shot in the late 1980s, right in the middle of an illegal U.S.-sponsored war against Nicaragua and remains topical today as a scandalous portrait of nightmarish American arrogance in the name of expansion and gobbling up resources. The film is equally cutting in its evisceration of Christian values in the name of mass violence, and of Western self-willed ignorance of other cultures. Walker, when he’s finally had it with the Nicaraguans trying to oust him, orders his men to burn the town, starting with the museum and hall of records. The American sense of erasing history is absolute, and when Walker’s God complex takes over and he goes so far as to declare himself President of Nicaragua, Vanderbilt decides to crush him as easily as one would swat a fly. “No one will remember Walker,” the millionaire seethes, “since no one remembers those who lose.” This grim epitaph happens long before the climax, so we’re allowed the rise and fall of Walker to take place in slow motion, episodically, and maniacally.
All throughout his Nicaraguan adventure, Walker decimated cities and rolled in his brigand army of Immortals composed of greedy mercenaries and opportunists. Cox takes on battle scenes in the style of Kurosawa, played out in grand scale wide shots and allowing the sound to drop out completely (except for a Joe Strummer piece that unwaveringly, crazily hits the same couple of piano keys in a single-minded, frenetic triple-time rhythm). The troops come marching in and the world is engulfed in flames around them. On at least three occasions, bullets go flying through the air wiping out Walker’s unlucky men (and some of them realize too late that following their blond-haired, gray-eyed “man of destiny” is only going to lead them to their graves), but Walker marches straight through the hell, unflinching, excited, and even turned on by this feeling of power. He’s the Robert Duvall character in Apocalypse Now who loves the smell of napalm in the morning, but since the movie around him is essentially a moronic philosophy, all of the air gets taken out of that epic grandeur.
We can’t forget the actor who plays Walker, a despicable Ahab. It’s a career high point for Harris, who was coming off of a string of memorable secondary roles. At the time, one of his best known performances was probably his goofy turn in George A. Romero’s Creepshow, where he has a scene in which he does a robotic white-guy dance and his head starts jerking up and down as if he were a marionette and someone was spastically yanking on his strings. In Walker, he continually goes for offbeat choices, and though the trademark Harris intensity is all present and accounted for (and terrifying), he doesn’t try to make himself look like a tough guy all the time. His voice cracks and moves into a higher pitch, and his smirking mug twitches in anxiety right after he blasts us with rage. Imagine if the space station controller in Apollo 13 started gnawing on his fingernails after mightily intoning, “We haven’t lost a man in space yet and WE’RE NOT GONNA LOSE ONE ON MY WATCH!” That’s the dynamic performance Harris gives here, and it’s perhaps even more of a truthful vision of egotistical, death-tripping madness than Klaus Kinski in his unforgettable portrayals in Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, The Wrath of God because Walker is ultimately, despite his Oliver North good looks and ramrod-straight all-American posture, a pathetic figure born to lose.