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WALKER

 

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WALKER
 

WHO WAS WALKER?

William Walker was an American soldier of fortune who in 1853 tried to annex part of Mexico to the United States.  He failed, though his invasion contributed to the climate of paranoia and violence which led to Mexico surrendering large areas of territory shortly thereafter.  Two years later he invaded Nicaragua, ostensibly in support of one of the factions in a civil war.  But his real intention was to take over the country and annex it to the U.S.  He betrayed his allies and succeeded in making himself President.  He ran Nicaragua, or attempted to run it, for two years.  In the U.S. he had been an anti-slavery liberal, but in Nicaragua he abandoned all his liberal pretensions and attempted to institute slavery.  He was kicked out of Central America by the combined armies of Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Honduras. 

Walker tried to go back twice and was eventually caught by the Hondurans and executed.  He is relatively unknown today, but in his day he was fantastically popular in the United States.  The newspapers wrote more about Walker than they did about Presidents Pierce or Buchanan. 

WHY DID YOU MAKE A FILM ABOUT HIM?

In the late 70's, while I was a student in Los Angeles, the Sandinista Revolution took place.  I was completely in the dark regarding Central America, but was impressed with the articles in the LA Times and Chronicle, and the accompanying photographs of revolutionary dudes in panama hats.

At first the newspapers seemed positive about the Revolution which had overthrown a corrupt, brutal and wealthy dictator.  But soon there was a very obvious change in the attitude of the American media to these Revolutionaries.  President Jimmy Carter issued dark warnings against the Sandinistas, and (as we now know) began funding the contra rebels.  In the early 80's the demented Reagan promoted the same anti-Sandinista rhetoric and the U.S. papers followed suit.  I wasn't surprised at Carter's change of heart or at Ronzo's hostility, but I was - innocent me - astonished at the supposedly-liberal media following suit.  So, in 1984, I went with Peter McCarthy - the producer of REPO MAN - to Nicaragua on an "election-watching tour".

Election day was 4 November, and we were in the hot and dusty city of Leon.   At our hotel, we met two compas (Sandinista soldiers).  Both had been wounded in a contra attack in Murra:  the previous day their friend had been killed there.  One of them was in his first year of college.  The other was still in high school.  They were reading La Prensa -- an anti-Sandinista newspaper reputed to be funded by the CIA.  "All lies, but it proves we have a free press."  Both had thumbs dyed red at the voting booth.  (Voting age was 16; army service began at 17.)  Since they were both seriously wounded (the high school boy had been blinded in one eye by shrapnel) they didn't have to return to the front. 

"But if there's an invasion, I'll go back anyway," he said.  "And if there wasn't a war, I'd like to be an agronomist..."  Their fight was hard, they said, because they took prisoners and the contras didn't.  The contras could also retreat into safe havens in Honduras where the compas couldn't follow them.

They had no fear of a contra victory.  "They are still few in number, and not getting stronger."  They had no popular support.  The great fear everywhere, the young men told us, was of a U.S. invasion, from Honduras and Costa Rica.  Every day the U.S. invaded Nicaraguan airspace:  Peter and I had heard the sonic booms of a U.S. Air Force "Blackbird" spy plane above Managua only the day before.

They asked what we did and we said we were filmmakers (we had shot REPO MAN the previous year).  They asked if we would come back to Nicaragua to make a film.  I said "espero" - I hope so - but that filmmaking costs a lot of money.  The compas were not impressed.  "Si tu es intelligente..."  If people like these two lads could overthrow a hated dictator and American stooge, how hard could it be for two gringos to scam some money in the USA, bring it back and make a movie about Nicaraguan history, Nicaraguan reality?

It took a while to raise that money, though.  And it the end it wasn't two gringos who put WALKER together, but a Peruvian filmmaker called Lorenzo O'Brien. 

WHAT WAS THE REACTION TO THE FILM?

WALKER was extremely popular in certain places.   It was the second biggest film hit ever in Nicaragua, after THE SOUND OF MUSIC.

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE UNITED STATES?

WALKER was made in 1987, in the middle of the US-sponsored terrorist war against the Nicaraguan people.   We made it with the intention of spending as many American dollars as possible in Nicaragua, in solidarity with the Nicaraguans against the yanks' outrageous aggression against a sovereign nation.   Then, as now, this was not a popular position with certain people in power.  But it was the right one.

WHY THE ANACHRONISMS? 

Because we didn't want to make a "traditional" film.  The Hollywood way to make WALKER would have been to tell it from the viewpoint of a sympathetic humane journalist - a film like UNDER FIRE or THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY.  But Rudy Wurlitzer - who wrote the script - and I were opposed to that.  There were no "good" journalists in Walker's retinue.  His men were pirates, gangsters, would-be slave-owners.  And the Nicaraguans who supported him were just as villainous.  In other words, nothing had changed in the 140 odd years between Walker's genocidal campaign and that of Oliver North and his goons.  We had to show them as they were, and to make the point that the politics and the murders and the cover-ups of 1986 and 1855 were no different.  Walker's tame journalist Byron Cole was the same as the man from the New York Times.   His henchman Rudler was the same as the American mercenary Hasenfus, shot down by Sandinista soldiers, with a plane full of guns. 

At the same time, one of our Nicaraguan actors, Roberto Lopez, wanted to put the contra point of view in the film.  He was a Sandinista, but he felt it was very important to explain why some of his countrymen adored the Americans and their notions of culture and progress - "God, Science and Hygiene" in Walker's words.  Roberto - who played Mayorga - wrote a speech in praise of the American intervention, and we included it in the film. 

The Americans called the Sandinistas communists, but they were never that..  The Nicaraguan communists hated the Sandinistas.  It's quite funny - or it would be, if it wasn't so pathetic - to see the liberal media's efforts to erase the 1984 election from our collective memory.  That was a free and fair election (more so than the one in 1996, when many of the electorate didn't receive voting credentials), and the Sandinistas won.   Whatever their flaws, they did a tremendous amount of good for the very poorest people of the country:  the FSLN provided levels of education and health care and land ownership that Nicaragua had never seen before.   This was all documented by OXFAM in their book "Nicaragua - the Threat of a Good Example?"  And so, of course, they had to be destroyed.

HOW WAS WORKING WITH ED HARRIS?

Wonderful.  He was perfect, always involved and thinking.  Ed has a lot of complexity, and suppressed mania:  he is a very rare talent.  We were very lucky with all the cast, especially with Marlee Matlin and Blanca Guerra.  The whole cast was 100% committed and a joy to work with -- Peter Boyle, Richard Masur, Rene Auberjonois, Sy Richardson, Cathy Burke, Xander Berkeley, Karl Braun, Alfonso Arau, Billy  O'Leary, Pedro Armendariz, Edward Tudor-Pole...  Casting was by Victoria Thomas, Miguel Sandoval, and Claudia Becker.
 

WASN'T THERE ANOTHER WALKER FILM?

I don't think so.  Our film upset a lot of liberals, supposedly because of the anachronisms and the jokes.  Robert Redford even announced that he was going to make his own film about William Walker -- direct and star in it, to set the record straight.  But he never did.  Universal hated the film, yet were strangely fixated by it, just as they had been with REPO MAN.  They offered Lorenzo and me an office on the studio lot:  free phone, free parking, subsidized canteen.  But we didn't take them up on it.  We didn't mean to be rude, but neither of us wanted to have to go to Universal City in the San Fernando Valley every day.  It was too big a price to pay.

So the studio and its international division, UIP, sat on the film and made sure it received the minimum distribution possible.  There were to be no more Walker-type films, and no more studio money spent in Nicaragua.   Some months later Lorenzo and I were watching TV at his house:  an ancient episode of BONANZA, the cowboy show.  And in this episode one of Ben Cartwright's old buddies appeared, and he reminded Ben - played by Lorne Greene, of course - how they had both been filibusters in Walker's army of intervention in Nicaragua, many years before.  As Strummer would have it, "he was once an Immortal in William Walker's gringo army..."

JOE STRUMMER DID THE SOUNDTRACK ALBUM.

He certainly did.   SID & NANCY and STRAIGHT TO HELL had had multiple composers - Joe, Pray For Rain and the Pogues.  Joe was sick of sharing the credit and wanted to compose an entire score himself.   Going in we listened to and talked about Bob Dylan's score for PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (the one that contains KNOCKING ON HEAVEN'S DOOR, which Dylan wrote with Rudy Wurltizer).    It is a masterpiece, and Joe wanted to do something as good as that.    I think he managed it, too.   It's a brilliant soundtrack -- certainly his best work after the breakup of The Clash.   The only person he took with him from the previous films was Zander Schloss, who had played with Pray For Rain on SID & NANCY, and had sung the lovely Wiener Song in STRAIGHT TO HELL.

THE GUY WHO'S ALWAYS GETTING BEATEN UP AND TURNS THE ROTTEN CARCASS ON THE SPIT?

Exactly, the Wiener Kid.    Zander was the leader of the Juicy Bananas, back in REPO MAN days.   He plays an idealistic German filibuster in WALKER and Kevin, the much-abused friend in REPO MAN.    He was with the Circle Jerks for many long years;  and the Latino Rocakbilly War;  and Thelonius Monster;  and the Magnificent Bastards;  and the Low And Sweet Orchestra in Los Angeles.  He also plays the role of Daddy Z in THREE BUSINESSMEN.

ISN'T ZANDER SCHLOSS THE ALIAS USED BY PRAY FOR RAIN'S DAN WOOL FOR HIS SOLO WORK?

No.  I too have heard this rumour, and read it on the back of the DEATH & THE COMPASS CD.   But it is not true.  They are different. 

 

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