Sunday, March 01, 2009


Walker posterWalker (1987) is set in the 1850s, yet a 1980s Mercedes drives through one scene; in another, mercenaries in Nicaragua smoke Marlboro cigarettes and drink Coca-Cola from bottles. The final scene contains a Saigon-style evacuation, complete with helicopter and fatigue-clad soldiers with machine guns. Obviously, these are not simply goofs on the part of director Alex Cox, but deliberate details which contribute to the film’s bizarre, blood-soaked, and chaotic portrayal of Latin America. Their intent becomes clear as the credits roll and a television screen appears showing journalistic footage of Ronald Reagan defending America’s actions in Vietnam, of American soldiers in training camps in Nicaragua and Honduras talking about “helping Nicaragua defend its own country”, of naked bodies of dead Nicaraguans and their weeping relatives. Although not entirely adherent to history, the film is based on the invasion of Nicaragua by American filibuster and adventurer William Walker, who took the “liberation” of the country into his own hands and ruled as president from 1855 to 1857.

The opening scene shows William Walker, played by Ed Harris, and a number of scruffy, tough-looking soldiers fighting a bloody gun-battle in dusty Sonora, Mexico. He and his men suffer heavy losses and just manage to retreat across the border. Back in California, Walker is put on trail for conducting an illegal war in Mexico, but his fervent defense speech, littered with references to the popular notion of Manifest Destiny and the preservation of the American way of life “at any cost”, manages to get him acquitted by the jury in eight minutes. After all the excitement, Walker is ready to settle down with his fiancée Ellen, but soon enough he is summoned by tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, who owns all the infrastructure in the Central American country of Nicaragua, and is asked to invade Nicaragua and establish stability in the country so that Vanderbilt’s business can flourish. Walker declines. Upon returning from his trip to see Vanderbilt, Walker discovers that his fiancée has died of cholera, and so with nothing keeping him in America, he agrees to Vanderbilt’s proposal. With a rough and raggedy group of mercenary soldiers, he travels by sea to Nicaragua, where a civil war between Conservatives and Liberals is wreaking havoc on Vanderbilt’s business opportunities. As he trains his army on the coast, Walker shows his rigid rule as a colonel and his value for a firm hand on the moral conduct of his men. He proclaims the goal of establishing democracy in Nicaragua a righteous cause. He and his men become Nicaraguan citizens.

When the men are armed and trained, the army travels to inland town of Rivas, where they are ambushed by wild gun-wielding Nicaraguan Liberals, who kill many of Walker’s men. As the Nicaraguans shoot at the army from the rooftops and his soldiers are dying by the bucket load, blood splashing everywhere, Walker walks unscathed, expressionless, undeterred, through the carnage until he reaches a safe house. As his remaining men defend the house, shooting Nicaraguans through the windows, Walker plays the piano and sings, as if the combat were not happening. His men are bewildered by his actions, but manage to stop the attack. Despite the huge number of injured men, Walker makes the unpopular decision to escape the town, dragging the injured along to San Juan del Sur, where the men set up camp and try to recover from their losses. A few days later they are found by a large German army, who has just arrived from Rivas and report the retreat of the Liberals and the victory of Walker’s army. Encouraged, Walker and his army march to Granada, the default capital, where they meet with the remaining members of the Nicaraguan government. Walker appoints a President, a Senor Corrales, and appoints himself the Commander-In-Chief of the Nicaraguan Armed Forces. He and his soldiers spend the next while making “reforms”, which include executing any soldier or local who displeases or opposes the Americans and creating violent havoc in the streets regularly. Walker’s taste for power pushes him to accuse Presidente Corrales of treason and have him executed by firing squad, despite the outrage of the leading Nicaraguan aristocrats. Walker claims himself as the new president, claiming he was elected, although no elections are ever held. He begins to act crazy, killing people at will, firing upon his soldiers, doing little or nothing to govern the country. Granada is in chaos, ruled by “crazy gringos”.

Two men from a transportation company rivalling Vanderbilt’s ask Walker to revoke Vanderbilt’s license to do business in Nicaragua and seize all his assets in the country, giving them the monopoly of transport. Walker agrees to do so in the name of the country’s sovereignty, but this leaves him without financial support and supplies from America. Desperate for resources, Walker establishes slavery in Nicaragua. This results in an uprising of a brutally violent nature, to which Walker reacts by decreeing that the town of Granada be burnt to the ground. The ten-minute scene that follows depicts the town, engulfed in flames, as a background to a seemingly anarchic shootout, in which Walker’s men, wearing ridiculous costumes and army outfits, stalk through the streets and shoot randomly at people, blood gushing, people screaming, children crying. Many of Walker’s soldiers are killed by seemingly invisible Nicaraguans, but Walker emerges unscathed, with that same expressionless face and determined walk as before. He appears invincible. He makes his way to the cathedral in Granada, which has been turned into a hospital and torture chamber, with dead and dying people everywhere. Upon the blood-covered altar, one of Walker’s soldiers performs a gruesome torture upon a screaming man. Walker takes part in removing an organ from this man’s body and eating it. Suddenly, a loud sound is heard outside; as the small group of American soldiers walks out of the cathedral’s door and down the body- and blood-covered steps, a military helicopter lands in front of them, full of American soldiers with machine guns. They say they have been instructed to take Walker’s men back to the States, as orchestrated by an outraged Vanderbilt. The helicopter lifts off, leaving a bewildered and wide-eyed Walker standing alone on the front steps of the cathedral. The final scene shows his death by firing squad in Honduras, his body left to be taken away by the waves.

The film is clearly an attack of American interference in other countries, especially of the Iran-Contra affair of a year before its release, in which Reagan illegally financed CIA training of Nicaraguan paramilitaries with money earned from illegal arms sales to Iran. It shows the ruthlessness with which the United States pursues its geopolitical goals in the Western Hemisphere. Latin America - Mexico and Nicaragua, in this case - is just America’s playground, a place for tycoons to monopolize transportation systems and adventure-seeking criminals can go and wreak havoc among innocent local people. Every American in the film, with the single exception of Walker’s wife, is a money- and power- hungry hooligan with a propensity for insanity and destruction. Walker himself, who is portrayed early on as an idealistic man of strong morals and strict discipline, turns out to be the most crazy, the most destructive. The locals are the ones who suffer; most of the Nicaraguans in the film die brutally or are shown already dead, in piles. To the Americans, they have no faces or names, and their lives have no value. The Americans go to Nicaragua to "improve their civilization and their economy"; once they get there, they destroy the civilization and the economy and take the chaos for themselves. It is only when messing around in Nicaragua is no longer profitable that the Americans will leave; as soon as Vanderbilt stops profiting, he convinces the government to remove its American representatives from the region. In the film, Latin America is a place where Americans go to escape the societal norms of their own land and be the destructive immoral animals that they really are inside, all at the cost of the land's seemingly helpless citizens.

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