In Central America of the 1850s, there was a man named William Walker (Ed Harris) who was determined to make a difference to people's lives by bringing American democracy to the world less blessed with such political advances. He had not been very successful on his last mission to Mexico, but was gaining the reputation of a man of great bravery and integrity among the folks back home, and his deaf mute fiancée Ellen Martin (Marlee Matlin) was a popular society figure. She wanted him to settle in the United States, but wealthy businessman Cornelius Vanderbilt (Peter Boyle) had a proposition...
It's safe to say director Alex Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer's highly politicised film of Walker's adventures in Nicaragua was a complete disaster on its iniitial release, as after all at the height of the Ronald Reagan administration few wanted to hear about the U.S. government's meddling in its neighbour's affairs, certainly not in one of the countries putting up the money, as this was a Universal picture. To point out that American foreign policy was responsible for the deaths of many innocents and the destabilising of authority all in the name of protecting business interests, among other things, amused few.
Especially as the way Cox set about the actual historical story was as a raucous satirical comedy crossed with a farcical Sam Peckinpah tribute, although apparently nobody thought to tell Harris as he played it eerily straight throughout, making Walker a man so convinced of his principles and his self-justified sense of doing right that he doesn't notice he is betraying not only those high ideals but the lives of those who relied upon him. If this is to be believed, he regarded himself as one of the great men of his time, sure to go down in the history books as such, which made it all the more ironic that if it were not for this film, hardly anybody would have heard of him at all nowadays.
And even then, with the film only scraping a small cult reputation, most would still struggle to identify him as he only ruled Nicaragua for a couple of years before being ousted, much as he had ousted his predecessor. If you wanted subtlety, you were in the wrong place, for Cox and Wurlitzer approached this by figuratively bellowing "Plus ça change!" in every frame, underlining as much as they possibly could the parallels between the Nicaragua of the 1850s and the Nicaragua of the 1980s. To render this even more blatant, they introduced anachronisms aplenty, gradually at first but then with a heavy hand so that by the end the country has gone to the dogs to the extent that the U.S. Army sends in helicopters to pick up their citizens.
If this was a comedy, it had a rictus grin as it dawned on them that there wasn't much too amusing about what was afflicting the ordinary Central American citizen unable to get on with life because certain groups of power insisted on turning their home into a war zone for their own agenda. Cox assembled one of his typically cosmopolitan casts, with some of his more famous or at least well known to his audience friends filling out the smaller roles, and they all had the idea of what he wanted - in truth, it does come across as the film he wanted to make. You could argue that by nudging hints as to what he was saying might have sweetened the pill of his message for a wider audience, but Cox was not about compromise and you get the impression he'd be more satisfied with a noble failure than an artistic sell-out. Now that the Nicaraguan scandals have been superseded by other conflicts, Walker is very much of its period, but you have to admire its sheer audacity. Music by Joe Strummer.
Maverick British writer/director who made a huge impact with his LA-set 1984 debut, the offbeat sci-fi comedy Repo Man. Sid and Nancy was a powerful second film, detailing the life and death of Sex Pistol Sid Vicious, while Straight To Hell was a flawed but amusing punk western starring The Clash. The expensive flop Walker kept Cox away from the camera for five years - he returned in 1992 with under-rated Spanish-language Highway Patrolman.
Since then, Cox has made a series of low-budget, independent features, such as Three Businessmen, 2002's The Revenger's Tragedy, Searchers 2.0 and sort of follow up Repo Chick, plus the Akira Kurosawa documentary The Last Emperor. British viewers will know Cox as the host of BBC2's '90s cult film show Moviedrome, and he has also penned a guide to Spaghetti Westerns.