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?
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.
Senior government figures, such as Vice-President Sergio Ram'irez Mercado, who is a novelist, read the script before giving permission to shoot. Cox says he has had ``tremendous cooperation from Incine,'' the state film commission, which is co-producing ``Walker.''
``Both filmmakers and officials share a view that US policy toward Nicaragua is fundamentally immoral, and the film was conceived in part to express that view,'' explains a publicity statement issued by the film company. The point is made, Mr. O'Brien says, with a series of anachronisms ``that allude to a timelessness, because we don't think anything has really changed'' in America's behavior toward Nicaragua over the past 130 years.
In one scene, for example, an American prisoner is led away with his wrists roped together, echoing the image of last year's capture here of Eugene Hasenfus, the US flier shot down as he carried weapons to the contras.
But Cox is anxious to point out that ``people will only go and see this film if they find it funny, or interesting. ... It is primarily designed to entertain people, and hopefully the fact that this film was made in Nicaragua will have some impact.'' The director, who strides around the set wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with ``Nicaragua Must Survive,'' says he made ``Walker'' here ``to display solidarity with the Nicaraguan people, and to demonstrate that a very complicated and logistically demanding feature film could be made in Nicaragua.''
So far, he says, everything is going smoothly, although the residents of Granada might not all agree. Electricity poles in the central plaza were torn down to make room for the set, leaving some homes without electricity. Other families have been left temporarily without a telephone, because the production needed their lines. And the square has been covered with several inches of dirt, to give the scene an 1850s authenticity.
``This Walker is screwing up Granada worse than the first one did,'' joked one bystander watching the actors rehearse. This Walker, played by Ed Harris, comes across in the film as ``a self-obsessed man with a mission, who is completely misguided,'' according to O'Brien.
It is this characterization that Cox finds still resonant. ``Walker came down here following the best interests of democracy, of Christianity, fellowship, truth, and happiness, and ended up murdering 25,000 people, which isn't so different,'' he charges, ``from US foreign policy today in Nicaragua'' and US support for the contras.
One hundred thirty years ago, Walker's failure gave even his strongest supporters pause. In 1860, just before he was shot by the Hondurans as his third attempt to take Nicaragua ended in disaster, Harper's Weekly magazine reconsidered its backing for Walker.
``People are beginning to doubt,'' it wrote, ``whether the regeneration of the Central American countries is to be achieved by lawless invasions by armed desperadoes, whose aim is plunder, whose instrument is the rifle, and whose principles are those of highwaymen.''