I was an average student in my school days. Math was never really my thing, science was a bit more interesting, but history…now that’s a subject I enjoyed. I still enjoy learning about history, and I certainly enjoy history movies. But, you can’t really trust Hollywood in the history department. In fact, rewriting it is one of things they’re best at. Sometimes they do it for convenience in storytelling, and sometimes it’s just that the filmmakers want to say what they want to say…regardless of how things may have really played out. That brings us to an odd film from 1987 which tells the story of William Walker, who invaded and took over the country of Nicaragua in the 1850’s. By injecting modern images into the story, director Alex Cox attempted to draw a parallel between the historical events and the conflict between the Sandinistas and Contras that was going on at the time the film was made…in 1987’s “Walker.”
As the film begins, we meet William Walker (Ed Harris) having just returned from Mexico after having failed at inciting an insurrection there. He is put on trial but acquitted. After so much excitement he now plans to settle down…start a newspaper, and marry his deaf fiancée Ellen Martin (Marlee Matlin). However, she dies of cholera. Now, Walker is summoned by millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt (Peter Boyle). He wants to send Walker and a small army to Nicaragua to help secure his rights to overland shipping between the Atlantic and Pacific. Walker agrees and sets out with a group of 60 men.
It doesn’t take long for Walker and his men to end up engaged in battle. Though many times it does not seem that they are doing well, they manage victory. They even end up taking over the capital city. At first, Walker allows the president to stay in control. Walker does, however, take the president’s mistress (Blanca Guerra) for himself. As time goes on, conditions in the country worsen, and Walker executes the president and assumes the post himself.
Now, at this point in the film things may start to get a wee bit confusing for the viewer. Though the film takes place in the 1850’s, director Cox begins to slip in various 1980’s items. Many of these are about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face would be. Computers show up on desks, reporters hold mini tape recorders as they interview Walker, and, most famously, characters read about Walker’s exploits in Newsweek and People Magazines.
Walker soon begins to see himself as somewhat of a God…becoming more and more ruthless and bloodthirsty. For the viewer, things get even more crazy as a helicopter full of marines joins in the fun when Walker burns the capital city in the film’s finale.
Obviously, director Alex Cox was trying to say something with his little film. That’s not what I’m here to talk about. He can say whatever he wants. Whether I agree with his views or not isn’t what I care about. My concern is: is this is a good film and is it enjoyable to watch? Um… “no” and “no!” The film is goofy and self-important, and to be honest, downright annoying.
Ed Harris is a great actor. He’s the best thing about “Apollo 13” and he was robbed of an Oscar for his role in “The Truman Show.” But here, there’s just no depth to his performance. He seems to approach every scene with the same scowl that he wore at the Oscars when he refused to applaud for Elia Kazan’s honorary award. I have no doubt that William Walker is an intriguing historical figure, but there’s just nothing here that gives us a chance to discover that. It’s actually Marlee Matlin, fresh off her Oscar win for “Children of a Lesser God,” who turns in the best performance. Sadly, in at least one area where the filmmakers stuck to history, the character leaves the proceedings quickly.
The film is certainly unique, I’ll give it that. I’m sure many film fans will want to check it out for it’s bizarre storytelling approach, and it’s Peckinpah-inspired battle scenes, if nothing else. But just like many historical films that came before…I dare say most high school history teachers would not approve of “Walker.”