Directed by Alex Cox
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 94 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: February 19, 2008
Review Date: February 16, 2008
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[ Walker ]