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When Hollywood meets the Sandinistas ...

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / May 20, 1987

Granada, Nicaragua

CIVILIANS fled in terror as a volley of gunfire shattered the midnight calm, a mortar explosion shook the earth, and flames licked through Nicaragua's third-largest city. A daring attack by antigovernment contra rebels?

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No, this is Hollywood meets the Sandinistas, and the filming now under way here concerns an earlier age of United States-Nicaraguan hostilities.

Razing Granada as he retreats is William Walker, an American adventurer who made himself President of Nicaragua in 1856.

Shooting the film is British director Alex Cox, whose earlier works include ``Repo Man'' and ``Sid and Nancy.'' Mr. Cox was drawn to Walker's character because, he says, ``he is a really interesting guy.''

``You couldn't invent a character like Walker,'' Cox says. ``He's much too incredible.'' Alternately, Cox describes Walker as ``a complete lunatic,'' a ``strong believer in chivalry,'' a ``liar, a criminal,'' as well as ``totally fearless and full of heroic and noble qualities.''

Although in US history books Walker is but a dimly remembered shadow, he is an arch villain in Central America's collective memory, epitomizing the ugly, interfering American. And to the makers of the film, the moral of his story carries special weight for current US policy toward Nicaragua.

In the years before the US Civil War, Walker, idolized as ``the gray-eyed man of destiny,'' attracted more press coverage than any other American national figure. His conquest of Nicaragua, with a ragtag group of mercenaries calling themselves ``the immortals,'' captured Americans' imagination. Hailing Walker's vision, a contemporary newsweekly, the Illustrated Newspaper, was blunt in explaining its support for the adventurer.

``Humanity is concerned with redeeming Central America from the withering influence of decayed dynasties,'' the paper argued. ``The fairest portion of the world, the transit between two great oceans, the highway connecting our Atlantic and Pacific ports, must be in the hands of a vigorous race, and American institutions, and American spirit, if not the American flag, must wave over Central America.''

In 1855, the 31-year-old Walker invaded Nicaragua, to aid one faction in a civil war. He seized Granada, the enemy stronghold, and soon declared himself President. But he began to lose his grip when he broke with Cornelius Vanderbilt, powerful owner of the Accessory Transit Company, whose ships and coaches carried 20,000 men a year along the Nicaraguan route from America's Atlantic Seaboard to California's goldfields. With Vanderbilt as an enemy, Walker no longer had a way to bring down recruits needed to fight off a joint Central American army. In November 1856, he burned down Granada, retreating south to Rivas. He holed up there for five months, before surrendering to an American warship.

Cox's film, scheduled to be released later this year, ``is very markedly pointed about the mechanisms of US intervention in Latin America,'' says the co-producer, Lorenzo O'Brien. And that angle won the project warm support from Nicaragua's ruling Sandinistas.