British-born filmmaker Alex Cox is one of cinema’s most unrepentant iconoclasts. After making his name with his first two features, 1984’s Repo Man and 1986’s Sid & Nancy, both now certified cult classics, he was given a six-million-dollar budget for his passion project, a historical epic based on the true story of William Walker, the American adventurer and imperialist who managed to overthrow the government of Nicaragua with a ragtag band of followers in 1855 and briefly served as the country’s president.
Walker was a passionate rebuke to Reagan-era adventurism in Central America and a vivid reminder of history’s rhymes, employing occasional visual anachronisms (Zippo lighters, helicopters, news magazines) to drive home its political point. Ed Harris gives a magnetic early performance, with solid support from Marlee Matlin and Richard Masur, and the score is by Joe Strummer. Perhaps predictably, however, Universal Studios had no idea how to market Cox’s radical vision, and Walker was not a commercial success.
Cox had two options at this point: learn how to please one’s Hollywood masters and work within the system, or strike out on his own and refuse to compromise his integrity. Obviously, he took the second path, helming a series of independently produced feature overs the ensuing decades. He’s always been a big backer of physical media, contributing audio commentary tracks to almost all of his films’ DVD and Blu-ray releases, and occasionally those of other directors.
That tendency might explain, I thought, why Cox was willing to do press interviews for the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray release of Walker, which contains a wealth of supplemental information on the tumultuous production and its historical inspiration. It turned out, though, that when he spoke with me from his home on the Oregon coast, it was purely out of love for what he calls his favorite of all his films.
“It’s really a commitment to the film, because every time the film comes out, whether it’s the original one-week theatrical release in two cities, or a DVD, or this Blu-ray, it’s another opportunity to get it out there. And that’s the important thing. I’m very proud of it.”
It also turned out that he’s lost none of his disdain for either politicians or Hollywood. (Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.)
OREGON ARTS WATCH: When you recorded the original DVD commentary track in 2007, you and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer made several comparisons between the American imperialism of the 1850s and 1980s and the then-current American occupation of Iraq. What would be a current corollary? Are we still in an age of American empire building?
ALEX COX: “What is NATO expansion? And what is this new American-British-Australian nuclear submarine alliance called AUKUS? I think the American empire is going full-on, fit to burst. But of course it’s only going full-on because it’s running fast down a hill and there isn’t anything at the bottom of the hill except a cliff.”
OAW: That makes me think of the speech that Walker gives in the church pulpit toward the end of the film, where he says basically that even if he fails, these historical patterns will continue and America will be back again and again.
AC: “Ed Harris made that speech up! That wasn’t scripted. He had done all his other stuff, he’d shot everything, and he came to me and said he’d like to go up in the pulpit and make a little speech and explain what this movie’s been about. And he improvised that speech.”
OAW: There’s also an analogy to be made between the character of Walker, who’s defined by his complete and utter confidence in himself and his cause, and that of Donald Trump, who seems similarly incapable of doubt or shame. Except that Walker is an idealist and a true believer, whereas Trump doesn’t really seem to believe in anything.
AC: “That’s an interesting observation. I think what it says is that the idealists are more dangerous. Because the pragmatists always recognize that the other side has its points as well, and has things that it needs or wants. In a negotiation, you want both sides to come out feeling that they have gained something. What we have now is a real problem, because we have a bunch of individuals, who in my opinion are really second-rate, people like Trump, Biden, Blinken, Newland, Boris Johnson, who are political bozos. The horrors that they’re able to inflict on people in the third world, the famine that’s coming due to this war in Ukraine, the destabilization that will happen in Europe as a result of the waves of refugees, the number of small arms which will fall into the hands of criminals, it’s kind of the destruction of Europe in a way. The narrow obsessives who seem to have fallen into positions of political power in the West are likely to destroy us.”
OAW: Are those our only two options? Blinkered idealism or amoral pragmatism?
AC: “There was a third option, which was the Bernie Sanders-Jeremy Corbyn option, a moderate socialism and, at least in the case of Corbyn, a decent respect for people in other countries. This option was very popular, and had a lot of support, but as we saw the system was able to overcome it, leaving us only a choice between madcap, literally insane neophytes and corrupt old pols.”
OAW: Walker was the most expensive film you ever made, and it was then unceremoniously dumped by its studio. You’ve been operating in the industry wilderness pretty much ever since. Do you ever feel bitter about that? Is there anything you would have done differently?
AC: “Look, I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had the opportunity to make a dozen feature films. I don’t come from a family background of having people in the industry. But I’ve been able to make these films, and I’ve been able to collaborate with people like Rudy, and that’s just the way it goes. I’m much happier having made Walker and I would be had I made Three Amigos.”
OAW: Can you imagine a parallel universe where you did make Three Amigos? [The 1986 comedy hit starring Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Chevy Chase was directed by John Landis, but Cox had been offered the job at one point.]
AC: “When I was offered Three Amigos, I had already committed to making this film in Spain called Straight to Hell. And even if I’d taken it, I more than likely would have been fired. I’m not suited for directing guys from Saturday Night Live. That was the worst thing that ever happened to American cinema, when guys like Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray all suddenly became actors. Really? All of a sudden, these comedians became actors? Why? I get it with Peter Sellers. Peter Sellers was a genius. None of those guys were geniuses. Possibly Belushi might have achieved something, on the basis of a movie called Neighbors. But other than that, I thought the Saturday Night Live people were an anathema, and they ruined American cinema. There’s only a certain number of films that get made, so if you’ve got fifty of those films starring second-rate comedians off TV, that’s fifty films that don’t star Harry Dean Stanton, or Dennis Hopper, or Ed Harris.”
OAW: Between the destruction of Europe and the continuing decline of Hollywood, it all sounds pretty grim. Where do we find hope these days?
AC: “Beer! And a good dog! And the Oregon coast!”
(Walker is available to rent on DVD and Blu-ray at Movie Madness. It is not currently available to stream.)