Walker (Cox, 1987)

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This would make a great double feature with Elaine May’s unfairly maligned and pitch perfect Ishtar. Alex Cox’s western/satire revolves around the exploits of William Walker (Ed Harris), an American army officer who with the backing of Cornelius Vanderbilt (scary as hell Peter Boyle) “liberates” Nicaragua in the 1850’s (from whom we are never sure). Vanderbilt wants the shipping lanes which link the Atlantic and Pacific, using Walker’s arrogance and military savvy to take over the country. Any parallel to 1980’s Reagan/CIA, or even present day Iraq? Well, just in case you weren’t sure, Cox turns his subtly savage western into an all out farce as his main character in turn shifts from savior to dictator. What begins as an allegory to current American foreign policy quickly folds history onto itself, introducing modern day references into the past setting. Cox incorporates current publications, i.e. Time and Newsweek, then distant machine gun fire from advancing rebels, and finally a helicopter with Marines carrying M-16 rifles. Walker’s extreme progression into madness, brutality, and all out murder creates a connection with Cox’s present day targets (Reagan, Oliver North, Big Business) shifting the film into a fascinating, delirious, and complex re-writing of history. Walker constantly speaks of greatness and the future, but like an act of god, the future pays him a direct visit, shoving his actions and their consequences into full historical focus. Cox never retreats from this bizarre and hypnotic vision of history repeating itself, finally displaying over the end credits a television set screening the actual invasion of Grenada cut with Reagan et al. denying it would happen. Walker overflows with ideas about modern political accountability, the danger of ultimate power, and the role of religious exploitation throughout. It’s only flaw (albeit a consistent one), is that the film is so relentless, so bloody at times, the extreme nature of the world created overwhelms the allegories being presented. Which is Cox’s ultimate point; that satire and subtle references might not be enough for viewers when so much is at stake. Rulers and governments who acts so savagely toward other countries (ex: Manifest Destiny) deserve an equally brutal cinematic incarnation and response. Ed Harris’ sporadic third person narration about the character he is playing says it all – that the history being represented is both then and now, absurd and horrific, a distant memory and a current event.

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