Honoring a 1987 cinematic classic that kept Joe Strummer vital in ’87
After the one-two punch of Repo Man and Sid & Nancy, Alex Cox emerged as one of England’s premiere punk-rock directors of the 1980s, along with still-vital predecessors like Jubilee’s Derek Jarman and Scum’s Alan Clarke who shared his lack of interest in orthodoxy and restraint.
If Cox wasn’t as enamored by experimental cinema–or even the UK, which he would leave for good in 2011–he had no patience for conventional heroic narratives. No, he threw his lot in with the underdogs and the losers.
As Cox, who has embraced the “punk” descriptor, told Indiewire in 2011, “It wasn’t just about music; it was about bringing down the government and hanging the Queen from the gates of Buckingham Palace. It was an ambitious project, but like the surrealist project, it completely failed.”
Just as punk didn’t last forever, punk filmmaking as a phenomenon didn’t either. For Cox, the beginning of the end would arrive in 1987 with Straight to Hell, a western romp written in three days and populated by punk and punk-adjacent performers from the Clash, the Pogues, and the Circle Jerks. Grace Jones and pre-Hole Courtney Love, who had appeared in Sid & Nancy, would also come along for the ride.
To critics of the time, it was nothing more than an excuse for the director to hang out with a bunch of musician pals in Almería (home of the spaghetti western). In the same Indiewire interview, Cox countered, “I wish I could say it was a nonstop party for four weeks, but actually it was more of a major logistics enterprise, trying to wrangle the Pogues and get them to the set on a daily basis. It was hard work.”
Nonetheless, the film still plays more like a self-indulgent curiosity than a full-fledged motion picture, but it marked a transition period in Cox’s career. Few knew it at the time, but his interest in the western was hardly a casual affair, but rather a deep and abiding passion he would explore in a myriad of ways in the years to come. In fact, Straight to Hell was itself a loose remake of an obscure spaghetti western, Giulio Questi’s Django, Kill! (If You Live, Shoot!), though Cox invented the clever coffee-obsession conceit.
1987’s Walker, Cox’s damning portrait of an antiheroic historical figure, would see release later that same year. Though he would bring along a few of his Straight to Hell musician pals for the grueling Latin American shoot, like Spider Stacy of the Pogues, this time he set all goofiness aside for a cynical western made in the style of latter-period Sam Peckinpah pictures, like The Wild Bunch.
Significantly, he also brought along ex-Clash man Joe Strummer, who he had met during the wrap party for Sid & Nancy. As Cox details in his 2008 filmmaking memoir, X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker, the two hit it off, and Cox invited him to contribute to the soundtrack for the 1986 film. Though Epic, Strummer’s label, would only allow for two songs, “Dum Dum Club” and “Love Kills” (Cox’s preferred title for the film), he was so fired up by the project that he couldn’t stop composing. Cox would end up sprinkling his incidental music throughout Sid & Nancy, attributing it to a variety of made-up musicians.
The experience would lead Cox to tap him as composer for Walker. Instead of a guitar-based score, like Neil Young’s symphony of feedback for Jim Jarmusch’s period western Dead Man, Strummer split the difference between Ennio Morricone’s work for Sergio Leone and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s for Nagisa Oshima. In other words, there’s nothing overtly punk or rock about it. Instead, when guitar rises to the fore, it’s in the form of flamenco-inspired figures, evidence of Strummer’s enduring love for Spanish culture. And though it goes unmentioned in Cox’s memoir, Strummer’s old band had presciently titled their 1980 release Sandinista! If anyone was meant to compose the score for Walker, it was Joe Strummer.
In the film, straight-backed Ed Harris, who wears a black hat the whole way through, plays Col. William Walker, a 19th-century newsman-turned-marauder who would travel from one Latin American nation to another in an attempt to annex land and indoctrinate people he considered inferior to himself.
Cox begins in Mexico in 1853. Walker starts out marginally likeable, already making him more compelling than a natural-born villain. Just as in real-life, he had a mute fiancée. Harris learned sign language to communicate with Marlee Matlin’s Ellen Martin (though she speaks in most of her other movies). Their sequences play like silent-movie excerpts, particularly in combination with Strummer’s comely scoring.
Once she disappears from the scene, Walker becomes less sympathetic, though it doesn’t happen overnight; Harris modulates his heel turn masterfully. In their commentary on the Criterion Collection Blu-ray, Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (Two-Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), have nothing but praise for the actor, characterizing him as a motivating force on set (Cox also praises his riding skills). No doubt it proved beneficial when extras succumbed to dysentery, typhoid, and hepatitis.
After Walker stands trial for violating Mexico’s neutrality, Peter Boyle’s Cornelius Vanderbilt ropes him into a trip to Nicaragua, and so he sets sail with 58 mercenaries of mixed race, including characters played by Sy Richardson and Miguel Sandoval, who doubled (and tripled) as casting and second unit director.
In Nicaragua, Walker appoints himself president and enters into an affair with former presidential mistress Dona Yrena (Blanca Guerra). Though he had no problem understanding Ellen, who thought nothing of putting powerful associates, like the crude and vindictive Commander Vanderbilt, on blast, his lack of Spanish comprehension means he’s oblivious when Yrena insults him, which she does frequently. He doesn’t find out until later that she speaks perfect English. At one point, she will even try to execute him.
Despite Walker’s apparent political success, everything soon falls apart. When he attempts to shore up his power by reintroducing slavery, he alienates his followers of color. The situation devolves further when his squabbling brothers come to town. Out of desperation, he orders his men to set fire to Granada. Cox turns toward expressionistic, Peckinpah-like violence at this juncture as the townspeople fight back. One by one, Walker’s men are shot, stabbed, and trampled as cinematographer David Bridges bathes the melee in shades of crimson. By 1860, Walker, who had bolted for Honduras, would end up dead himself.
If Universal Pictures largely left Cox to his own devices, they dumped Walker once they realized that he had made more of a radical cris de coeur than a prestige picture. It’s likely that the anti-Reagan/pro-Sandinista angle plus the intentional anachronisms–a pack of Marlboro’s, a cover of Newsweek (with Walker on the cover), and even a Vietnam War-like helicopter evacuation–threw them for a loop.
With few exceptions, notably Vincent Canby of The New York Times, critics were less than enthusiastic about Cox’s passion project. In a Blu-ray featurette, he reads from several reviews, noting the repetition of words and phrases, like “propaganda” and “blood spurting.” In his attempt to follow in the mighty footsteps of Peckinpah and Akira Kurosawa, another directorial inspiration, he was dismissed as a promising young talent who had overshot the mark. He would never work on a major-studio project again.
I didn’t see it upon its original release, so I don’t know how I would’ve reacted to Walker in 1987. In 2022, it easily rises above the merciless noise of its time, particularly thematically since America continues to muck about in the affairs of so-called inferior nations–especially when valuable resources are involved. When Cox exhausted the film’s $6 million budget, his cast and crew, largely sympathetic to the Sandinista cause, worked for free. They knew it was a political as much as an artistic project and, in solidarity with their director, they put any reservations aside to work on location in the midst of a civil war.
In his commentary, Cox claims that Walker “never acknowledges fear.” It proves to be his Achilles heel as he lets absolutely nothing get in his way. It destroys him in the end, but in the 1980s, when Cox similarly steamrolled through all obstacles, he found common ground with his subject, whether he recognized it at the time or not. If it didn’t destroy him, it diminished him as a director. He would proceed to make a series of micro-budget films, to host television shows, to write for books and magazines, and to provide DVD commentaries for any number of westerns and quasi-westerns, like Don Siegel’s Coogan’s Bluff.
In its way, Walker would prove to be the most punk-rock move Alex Cox ever made, less in terms of the film’s look or sound than in its scathing message and reckless execution. He took on his entire adopted country–Land of the Free and Home of the Brave–and he lost. What could be more punk than that?
VIDEO: Walker (1987)
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