British filmmaker Alex Cox made his name with Sid and Nancy and cult-fave Repo Man. However, his epic story of greed, Latin American politics and U.S. chicanery, Walker (1987)—set in Nicaragua in the mid-1800s—should have been his pinnacle. With a soundtrack by Joe Strummer, bravura performances by Ed Harris and Peter Boyle, and timeless theme of American interventionism, Walker seemed ‘can’t-miss’. Uh, not so fast. Released in the middle of the Iran-Contra Hearings to mostly negative reviews, the studio turned its back on the film and took a major loss. Criterion has now come to the rescue with a restored reissue of Walker. PKM’s David Stewart caught up with Alex Cox to discuss Walker and other cinematic topics.
Some filmmakers choose to kowtow to the good graces of the studios financing their pictures while others march to the beat of their own drums. Alex Cox is in the latter percussionist camp. Indeed, he could be called the Buddy Rich of filmmaking: lively, idiosyncratic, and explosive. For those not familiar with the director behind Repo Man, Sid and Nancy, and Straight to Hell Returns, Alex Cox has woven in the punk dystopia of the mid-Eighties with his love for American Westerns. Even in Sid and Nancy, there’s an endearing shot of Gary Oldman’s Sid Vicious being beaten up by bikers along a Texas train track that evokes the imagery of Howard Hawks’ Red River and Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.
Out of all of Alex Cox’s films, his sprawling, satirical epic, Walker, remains his finest achievement. Turning 35 years old this year and re-restored for DVD/Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection, the film features Ed Harris as William Walker, a renaissance man (newspaper journalist, doctor, lawyer) from Kentucky who carried out filibuster missions in South America in the mid-1850s. During the Nicaraguan Civil War, Walker made himself president of Nicaragua from 1855 to 1857. Although reviled by many, Walker was a hero to rail and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt (the Robber Baron is played with flatulent hilarity by Peter Boyle), as Walker’s military expeditions opened up the opportunity for the expansion of Vanderbilt’s Accessory Transit Company (ATC). However, Walker’s lust for power made him an enemy to Vanderbilt when he tried to seize control over ATC in 1857. Additionally, the Nicaraguan uprising led to Walker’s Icarian fall from grace.
Upon its release, however, Walker’s studio, Universal Pictures, didn’t give the film the promotion and praise it deserved. The major indicator for the film’s financial failure was the Iran-Contra hearings in Washington, D.C. As Colonel Oliver North was on TV grandstanding and “answering” questions about the American-financed operations and cocaine distribution in Nicaragua supporting the right-wing Contras fighting the oppressed Sandinistas, Hollywood shut its doors on Walker.
Alex Cox didn’t need studio assistance to continue his career as one of the most innovative and evocative filmmakers of his generation. In 2012, Cox taught screenwriting and film production at University of Colorado-Boulder, where he had his students assist him on making Bill the Galactic Hero, a comical, spacey adaptation of a Harry Harrison novel. After leaving Colorado for Arizona, Cox made his 2017 film, Tombstone-Rashomon, a cinematic nod to Kurosawa’s film set against the backdrop of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Entirely cast and shot by the residents of Tucson, Arizona, Cox’s film exemplifies his driving spirit in storytelling at any cost. I corresponded with the legendary filmmaker from his home in Oregon to talk about Westerns, Walker, and independent filmmaking.
PKM: I’m always amazed of the irony that the most quintessential of American westerns – from Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, to Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas – were made by Europeans. It says so much about the mythical qualities of the American West, and its appeal to those who are not from America. For you growing up in Liverpool, what were the American Westerns that sparked your interest into becoming a filmmaker?
Alex Cox: As a teenager I was most impressed by Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, but overall it was the Italian Westerns, rather than the American ones, which captured my imagination. In particular the Leone and Corbucci films, and [Damiano] Damiani’s Bullet for the General, [Carlo] Lizzani’s Requiescant, and [Giulio] Questi’s Django Kill.
PKM: For my money, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is a beautiful film and one of Sam Peckinpah’s best along with an amazing script by Rudy Wurlitzer. What was it about Rudy Wurlitzer that made you want to collaborate with him on Walker? Did he approach you about the William Walker story, or vice versa?
Alex Cox: I asked Rudy to write the Walker script because I’d enjoyed and appreciated Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid very much. It seemed to me that the theme of that film was how two individuals climb up a pile of dead bodies to achieve momentary fame and their own death. This was the theme of Walker, too, and so Rudy was the perfect writer for it. We were introduced by the actor, Harry Dean Stanton, at the Rotterdam Film Festival, and I’m most grateful for the introduction. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is the most political of all American Westerns, and for all its difficulties I think Rudy [Wurlitzer]’s collaboration with Peckinpah (and Dylan, and all the actors and crew!) led to the creation of a masterpiece.
All of this was compounded by the studio’s mutilation of the film on its release; the creation years later of a much longer version, based on Roger Spottiswoode’s cutting copy; and later still a shorter but intelligible version based on the long cut. Criterion are releasing the film on Blu-ray this year, and will presumably pick a favourite.
PKM: Thank God for Criterion! In the early Eighties, you had a substantial track record with Repo Man and Sid and Nancy under your belt. What was Universal’s reaction when you told them that you wanted to make this surreal and satirical film on Manifest Destiny? What was their reaction to the finished film?
Alex Cox: I don’t think they liked it very much. But it isn’t that I proposed the idea to Universal or they responded to me. The executive producer was Ed Pressman, and it was he who took Rudy’s finished script to the studio, and dealt with them.
PKM: Even though Oliver Stone and Richard Boyle made their version of American intervention in Salvador, which answers the question, ‘Why America is entangled in Iran-Contra?’, Walker answers the question of ‘How America’s obsession with South America led to Iran-Contra.’ Did you visit Nicaragua and El Salvador before Walker started shooting? If so, what were the memories from that trip that stuck out to you that you were determined to make Walker?
Alex Cox: Before we made Walker, I had only passed through El Salvador once as a transit passenger, which involved a day and a night stay in San Salvador. I’d been to Nicaragua various times, because it took a while to scout locations and find partners and crew people. Lorenzo O’Brien, the producer, and I were there for about a year prior to shooting. It was a massive undertaking for us and for the Nicaraguans. After the shoot we stayed for a couple more months, editing and listening to the music Joe [Strummer] brought us. You can read all about it in a book I wrote about 20 years back, called X Films.
PKM: How did Joe Strummer get involved with the film? Were you two friends while he was still with The Clash?
Alex Cox: No, I met him after the band had broken up. He was at a bit of a loose end, trying his hand at producing records, at acting, and at composing film scores. We worked together on three films: Walker was the one where the score was entirely his, though Zander Schloss played a big part in its creation.
PKM: Joe Strummer’s music, along with the unforgettable end credit sequence of Reagan’s speeches on Nicaragua mixed in with the tragic footage of the victims of this Cold War paranoia, really encapsulates how, from your eyes, the Western genre is not just a conservative-infused genre, but a signal for human rights advocacy. Was that your initial intention when you made the film, or am I reading too much into the end credits?
Alex Cox: Rudy’s script originally ended with Walker addressing a $50-a-plate support-the-Contras dinner at the Miami Sheraton, while the remains of his army protested outside. The end credit montage was the work of Bob Dawson, and I think he got the same idea – of a timeless, monstrous injustice – across even more powerfully.
PKM: What led you to cast Ed Harris as Walker and Peter Boyle as Vanderbilt? They’re both terrific, and Boyle oozes this interventionist/divide-and-conquer attitude that, sadly, preceded the likes of Ronald Reagan up to Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
Alex Cox: They were the best actors available! Do Reagan and Trump seem different from other U.S. presidents in terms of their foreign policy? I thought there was something of a bipartisan continuity, especially when the Democrats salute Juan Guaido [Venezuelan politician who usurped the nation’s presidency in 2019], and sign up for war with Russia.
PKM: The presence of the Apple Computers by the film’s end adds to the timely chaos we find ourselves in with digital technology outpacing and upending democratic ideology and nonviolent discourse with the January 6th Insurrection. Looking back on the film 35 years later, do you see Walker as a cautionary tale about the corruption of power?
Alex Cox: Walker is a bio-pic which deals with U.S. foreign policy. Whether the country is Nicaragua, or the Philippines, or Afghanistan, or Iraq, the policy always seems to be the same: pound some little state into submission, extract as many resources as you can, then run away. Walker’s story is that of many other liberal interventionists.
PKM: Was Errol Morris an inspiration to you when making Tombstone-Rashomon? I ask because the documentary sequences and, arguably, some of the music had some resemblance to his films.
Alex Cox: Errol Morris the guy who makes commercials for AIG and Nike? Yes indeed – the grey rag hanging behind the interviewees was an homage to that great filmmaker.
PKM: Were there parts of Walker that served as an inspiration for you when making the film? The presence of the Dodge vehicle before the shootout near the end had an intertextual nod to the ending of Walker.
Alex Cox: Filmmakers shouldn’t be inspired by their own work, I think. But since TR is about policing methods the contemporary references seemed appropriate. Fundamentally nothing has changed…
PKM: I teach film studies remotely for Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. As one film scholar to the next, what do you predict will be the ‘new normal’ for filmmaking and film distribution post-COVID?
Alex Cox: Whose filmmaking? The students? The studios? The independents? The cost of COVID protocols and theater closures have hit the independent sector very badly. I’m optimistic that in the long term independent and foreign film will still be appreciated in cinemas, as higher-quality art, like vinyl – even as the studio/Marvel output gets relegated to computers and TV.