`Walker': history as tragedy ... and farce. Last-century event in Nicaragua: parable for today?

Nicaragua is the setting and the subject of ``Walker,'' a new movie shot on location there by director Alex Cox. Ed Harris and Peter Boyle are among the stars, along with Rene Auberjonois and Academy Award-winner Marlee Matlin. Overstated, opinionated, and downright offensive at times, it's a deliberately outrageous movie. But it's a hard one to ignore.

The picture takes its cue from a historical figure: William Walker, a 19th-century idealist who decided it was his mission to bring peace and democracy to Central America.

As the movie tells it, Walker marched into Nicaragua in 1855 and defeated the local army, almost by accident. Soon he was chief of the armed forces, and then President of the country - supported by a gang of mercenary soldiers and bankrolled by no less a capitalist than Cornelius Vanderbilt, who played on Walker's zealotry to satisfy his own greed.

In the hands of a less provocative filmmaker than Mr. Cox, the story of Walker might have seemed interesting but irrelevant. It happened a century ago, after all, and Walker's name is pretty much forgotten. Cox loves to poke his cameras into peculiar and overlooked corners, though, as he showed in such deliberately scruffy films as ``Repo Man'' and ``Sid and Nancy.''

Moreover, he sees Walker's exploits as a direct forerunner of current American relations with Nicaragua, driven by a belief that the United States always knows what's best for its neighbors. ``It's our destiny to control you people,'' says Walker in the film. So we won't miss the connections between today and Walker's time, director Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer fill their movie with anachronisms that are as funny as they are glaring. Characters read about Walker in People magazine, for example, and he glows with pride when he sees himself on the cover of Time.

The time warp escalates when a modern car swoops crazily across the screen, in a move worthy of a Glauber Rocha film. And at the climax, the US State Department sends a Vietnam-style helicopter to evacuate American citizens as the country teeters on the edge of collapse.

As the President of Nicaragua, Walker doesn't qualify for this airlift. He is left behind to be executed, as the real Walker was, by a Honduran firing squad. By this time it's hard to feel sorry for the despot, who's played by Ed Harris in a witty and wild-eyed performance. One of his most recent decisions, after all, has been to introduce slavery to his country. Nor does he trouble much, anymore, about the morality of his actions. Asked about the turmoil he's inflicted on Nicaragua, he replies without a blink, ``The ends justify the means.''

And what are his ends? ``I forget,'' is the reply. Again without a blink.

Cox does everything he can to make ``Walker'' a sharp and biting experience - to shock us into awareness of the points he's making. Some of the movie's language is amazingly foul. And to show the absurdity of war, Cox makes the battle scenes absurdly violent, with blood and gore flying everywhere.

This isn't pleasant to sit through. But it's a vivid reminder that behind the abstract political arguments over Nicaragua - now as in Walker's day - real people are struggling, suffering, and dying.

Whether or not one agrees with ``Walker's'' ideology, it's a movie that shouldn't be dismissed. Cox gives us history as tragedy, and history as farce, in one crazily unsettling experience.

David Sterritt is the Monitor's film critic.

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