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HTF DVD REVIEW: Walker



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#1 of 4 Matt Hough

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Posted February 16 2008 - 01:13 AM


Walker
Directed by Alex Cox

Studio: Criterion
Year: 1987
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 94 minutes
Rating: NR
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
Subtitles: SDH
MSRP: $ 39.95

Release Date: February 19, 2008
Review Date: February 16, 2008


The Film

3.5/5

The infamous William Walker was someone I knew nothing about, so despite director Alex Cox’s protestations to the contrary that his 1987 film Walker wasn’t meant to be a biography of the nineteenth century soldier-doctor-lawyer-writer, it certainly served as one for me. Obviously wishing his film to be a pointed political satire of the then-administration’s policy with the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, Cox’s satiric thrusts are heavy-handed and obvious; it might have been a better idea to have made a standard biography and infused it with subtle though well deserved satiric swipes at the outrageous lies and posturing that were going on politically in 1987.

Ed Harris portrays the legendary William Walker, a soldier of fortune who’s importuned by millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt (Peter Boyle) to go to Nicaragua in 1855 and take the country over establishing a foothold there for Vanderbilt so he can control the Atlantic-Pacific gateway and possibly gain power in neighboring countries and thus control all of Central America. Walker, a clumsy, ineffectual military leader (as we see in an embarrassing near-defeat in Mexico which he blames on others) stumbles to victory and does indeed gain control of the country. But the Nicaraguans resent the American maintenance of Manifest Destiny and endeavor to take their country back. Thus begins a two year battle of wills for control of the territory.

Walker is aided in his quest by a group of friends and soldiers played by some of Hollywood’s strongest character actors: René Auberjonois as Major Henningson, Xander Berkeley as Byron Cole, Sy Richardson as Captain Hornsby, Keith Szarabajka as Timothy Crocker (whose few scenes with Harris were for me the highlights of the film), and Richard Masur as Ephraim Squier. And there are two important women in his life as well: Ellen Martin (Marlee Matlin), a feisty California woman impatient with the weak posturing fools around her and the mistress of the Nicaraguan president, Doña Yrena (Blanca Guerra).

Harris gives a valiant performance saddled as he is with the somewhat poorly and inconsistently written (by screenwriter Ron Wurlitzer) character of Walker, alternately wise and petty, probably insane and definitely petulant, incompetent, and yet outrageously entitled. The best of the supporting players are Berkeley whose reasonable advice to Walker always leads him in the right direction and the touching Szarabajka who one wishes could have played a greater role in the events of the film. Marlee Matlin came to this movie directly after her Oscar win in Children of a Lesser God, but her role here offers her only a couple of scenes with her one-note character.

To steer his film away from any accusations of a standard biography, director Cox tries all manner of outrageous tactics such as introducing scores of anachronistic items into the frame (Coca-Cola, automatic weapons, Marlboros, Newsweek, Time, and People magazines, a modern automobile, helicopters), having Joe Strummer score the film using such clashing music styles as rumba, country, salsa, jazz, among others, and lacing the dialog with acres of profanity more than a decade before the introduction of Deadwood. When those things pop up and take us out of the movie, they make his film preposterous all right, but the satire gets somewhat lost amid the ridiculous air such shenanigans establish. I did enjoy the staging of an ambush scene early in the film, and two frame compositions late in the Granada sequence (the street fire and in the church serving as a hospital) echo directly shots in Gone With the Wind with the burning of Atlanta and the hospital scenes there.


Video Quality

5/5

The film’s 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio is delivered by Criterion in a superb anamorphic transfer. Sharpness is as good as standard definition gets, and colors are rich and solid (though some might feel that the flesh tones are just a bit too red). Blacks are outstanding throughout, and edge enhancement is non-existent. Lots of fine object detail make the film look almost new, and I saw no evidence of dirt, hairs, or other debris to mar the pristine image. The film has been divided into 16 chapters.

Audio Quality

3/5

The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track is basically adequate, but it’s a film that really needs and deserves a surround experience. Often, music or sound effects obliterate dialog, and I had to go back to catch what was said. There are no age artifacts with the track; it’s just too simple an audio mix to fit the complex nature of the storytelling.

Special Features

3.5/5

An outstanding audio commentary by director Alex Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer accompanies the feature. The two men don’t stop talking for a second of the commentary and cover every possible aspect of the filming. Their pride in their work is obvious, and they defend their artistic decisions made during filming throughout the track.

“Dispatches from Nicaragua” is a superb “making of” documentary filmed during the actual shooting in 1987 by writer-director Terry Schwartz. Everyone from extras to wardrobe people contribute to the 4:3 film enriching the movie by showing how it was done on such a low budget. It runs 50½ minutes.

“On Moviemaking and the Revolution” finds actor and second unit director Miguel Sandoval reading from his wife Linda’s journal which she kept during the filming. As an extra on the set, she was privy to some things that those higher on the production list might not have been aware of, and the tone of the reading is both enthusiastic and somewhat angry. The audio track runs 14 minutes.

“The Immortals” is two sets of pictures related to the production. The first group is comprised of 39 behind-the-scenes stills taken during the production of the movie. The other is 53 Polaroid snapshots of the actors in their costumes and make-up.

“Walker 2008” is a silly extra: director Alex Cox reading excerpts from the three positive and countless negative reviews the film received in 1987. I’m not quite sure what the point of doing this is since the film still divides people right down the middle into those who love the film and those who can’t abide it. This runs 6 ¼ minutes.

The enclosed 44-page booklet contains both stills from the film and daguerreotypes from the period, an appreciation of the film and career of Alex Cox by film writer Graham Fuller, more excerpts from Linda Sandoval’s journal, a map of Central America showing the locations for the events in the film, and Rudy Wurlitzer’s collection of new print items of the period mixed with Ed Harris’ journal excerpts to paint a portrait of the filming experience.

In Conclusion

3.5/5 (not an average)

I neither loved nor hated Walker. I did find some of the satiric effects rather heavy-handed and ineffectual (the use of actual 1987 news footage from Central America which plays over the end credits seems a little desperate, as if we weren't bright enough to make the connections without it), but I appreciated the real emotion and genuine outraged concern the filmmakers instilled in their vision of this combination biography and social commentary.


Matt Hough
Charlotte, NC

[ Walker ]

#2 of 4 PaulDA

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Posted February 16 2008 - 04:34 AM

Some major historians who focus on feature films (as opposed to film historians who study the history OF film) are big fans of this film (Robert Rosenstone, who was a consultant for Reds, is perhaps the biggest fan of this film among historians) and I encountered several articles on it during my thesis research in grad school. It is praised by them as an iconoclastic historical film that does not stick to conventional narrative structures and avoids the "costume drama" label such historians usually ascribe, often disdainfully, to more conventional fare. I've not had a chance to see it but I may now pick it up in its Criterion release, particularly in light of the extras (I'm currently researching several historical feature films for a journal article that focuses on the usefulness (relative though it may be) of director commentary and documentary footage of filmmaking as historical resources). I'm glad to read that the picture quality is very good, as it will make doing the research that much more enjoyable.
Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes time, and it annoys the pig.

#3 of 4 Richard--W

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Posted February 16 2008 - 04:17 PM

Quote:
Originally Posted by PaulDA
Some major historians who focus on feature films (as opposed to film historians who study the history OF film) are big fans of this film (Robert Rosenstone, who was a consultant for Reds, is perhaps the biggest fan of this film among historians) and I encountered several articles on it during my thesis research in grad school. It is praised by them as an iconoclastic historical film that does not stick to conventional narrative structures and avoids the "costume drama" label such historians usually ascribe, often disdainfully, to more conventional fare. I've not had a chance to see it but I may now pick it up in its Criterion release, particularly in light of the extras (I'm currently researching several historical feature films for a journal article that focuses on the usefulness (relative though it may be) of director commentary and documentary footage of filmmaking as historical resources). I'm glad to read that the picture quality is very good, as it will make doing the research that much more enjoyable.
Which journal? Professional historian here. Although I like Walker, it's not the best choice for your project. The film makers try hard, but their grasp of historical context is not keen. Few film makers know how to apply an historical methodology to cinematic narrative. It can be done if they're willing to learn. There aren't a lot of films with historical intelligence. Here are some that come immediately to mind:

1969 Burn! with Marlon Brando
1970 Tora! Tora! Tora!
1974 The Missiles of October (teleplay)
1979 Heartland
1980 The Long Riders
1982 The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez
1989 Glory
1993 Gettysburg
2003 Gods and Generals
2007 The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford

If I think of others I'll post them.

Examples of how to do it wrong: Midway, Young Guns 1 and 2, Tombstone and Wyatt Earp, and Gore Vidal's Lincoln.

#4 of 4 PaulDA

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Posted February 16 2008 - 05:51 PM

I haven't submitted it to a specific journal yet as it is in early stages and I'm not sure which direction the final essay will take.

The historian whose views most closely align with my own about historical feature films is Robert Brent Toplin. His Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood is quite good (as is his earlier work History by Hollywood). Historical feature films have a particular set of constraints and should not be judged by the same criteria as more traditional forms of academic historical presentation (I could go on at length here, but it is late). My own approach to historical feature films is to view them as a supplemental and complimentary form of historical presentation and to teach my students critical viewing skills (just as I teach them critical reading and evaluative skills when dealing with printed sources). It is a fact that well over half of a typical student's historical knowledge and perception is shaped by visual media. Consequently, I often select films (or excerpts--depends on how much time I have within a course), even "bad" films, and use them as teaching tools. I've had a lot of success with Black Robe (I consider that one a good historical film), The Patriot (full of object lessons of the dangers of "presentism"), Le Retour de Martin Guerre (among the best films in terms of characters acting appropriately for the time they are portraying), Elizabeth (excellent at illustrating how present--at least in terms of when it was made--preoccupations shape artistic choices within historical feature films) and a number of others.

Rosenstone, as well as Sumiko Higashi, are fans of films that break down traditional linear narrative structure (which is why Walker is among their favourite historical feature films), but I believe they go too far in attempting to be too iconoclastic. They don't (Rosenstone especially) give sufficient allowance for the business realities of filmmaking. The kinds of films they deplore make a lot of money, whereas the kinds of films they like are usually box office, and often critical, disasters (as Walker was, in mainstream eyes). Toplin's views are more practical and understanding of the collaborative nature of filmmaking. Moreover, he doesn't fall into the all too easy and unproductive practice of excessive "nitpicking".

In any event, I've gone on far longer than I intended (and my pillow beckons me Posted Image ). And while Walker may not ultimately suit my research needs, I am still interested in seeing it since it appeared to be a touchstone for a number of historians interested in films and figured in my research tangentially in grad school.
Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes time, and it annoys the pig.