DEVILS THAT CAN QUOTE SCRIPTURE
by Eduardo Carli de Moraes
Unfortunately, ours ears nowadays continue to be used as toilet seats by demagogues and warmongers who have shit for brains. They talk righteously about their intentions of exporting Democracy and Humanitarianism, when they actually mean Imperial Power and Mass Robbery Of Foreign Natural Resources. But I’m not even gonna start giving vent to my fury against the Yankee’s Petroleum Wars that followed the September 11th attacks, nor will I comment on the use of such techniques of interrogation used in Abu Ghraibs and Guantánamos; nor I’ll waste much time denouncing once again the fact that the Bush administration justified the Iraq War with a lie (no, the whole thing had nothing to do with Sadam’s weapons of mass destruction! And, by the way, it’s the U.S. Army who is written down in history as the only one ever to drop an atom bomb another country’s civil population…). But I won’t even get started on the theme of Hiroshima and Nagasaki being bombed to ashes at the end of the II World War, for what I intend to express here is something else, tough closely related to all these horrors here briefly refered to – here I would like to attempt to explain why I deem Alan Cox’s Walker to be an awesome, deeply provocative film, excellent both as an historical depiction of U.S. Imperialism in the 19th century and as a witty satire of a dangerous neurosis that can turn a man into a Fascist pig. This is a film that continues to have a lot to say to us at the dawn of the 21st century A.D.
The reason that explains why Walker isn’t so widely recognized as a masterpiece of cinema in the 1980s, as I think it deserves to be, has to do with its very punkish depiction of a Yankee Fascist Pig. Audiences in the U.S. can’t find here any reason to be proud and patriotic. Watching it, one becomes acquainted with crimes against humanity so great that can rob someone of sleep: the bloody scenes may be filmed in Spaghetti-Western style, but they have the power to communicate to the audience the stature of this tragedy (and it’s huge). This is an unusual picture because it doesn’t have a hero as its protagonist, but much to the contrary: Walker is starred by a villanous mass-murderer and a Imperialist filibuster. Actually, according to Wikipedia, “the English term FILIBUSTER is derived from the Spanish filibustero, itself deriving originally from the Dutch vrijbuiter, and means “privateer, pirate, robber” (also the root of English “freebooter”). The Spanish form entered the English language in the 1850s, as applied to military adventurers from the United States then operating in Central America and the Spanish West Indies such as William Walker…”. Behind Ed Harris’s blue eyes and blond hair and mild manners, there’s a “crazy gringo”, as many people in Nicaragua referred to him.
Possessed by delusions of grandeur, Walker believes that’s it’s a God-given duty for the United States of America to be leaders of the whole continent, to expand their way-of-life was widely as possible – and by the American Way he means a system quite similar to the one then dominant in U.S.’s South in the years leading up to the American Civil War (1861-1865). Walker is pro-slavery, but not only that: he thinks Slavery is so great an institution that the United States should export it. God up in the heavens wanted the U.S. to use military force, invasion of foreign countries with tanks and bombs, and the burning down of whole villages, believes Walker, in order that the “primitive” people of Nicaragua or Guatemala could be “enlightened” by a Superior Civilization. Alex Cox’s film is a satire because it shows how ridiculous this man’s ambitions and ideals are – he poses as a righteous man-of-God, but he’s in favour of a system of slavery, racial segregation, obscene economical inequalities etc. The Nicaraguans, when they discovered what sort of shit the gringos were trying to enforce upon them, fought against it with all their might. The film permits us to see that, in the perspective of the Nicaraguans, the invasion of the Americans, “the crazy gringos”, was similar to the sudden arrival of a plague of destructive insects, or an attack by a savage horde of barbarians.
British director Alex Cox previous movie had been the bio-pic Sid & Nancy (1986), in which he captured quite authentically the downward spiral of The Sex Pistols’s musician Sid Vicious and his groupie-girlfriend Nancy Spungen, embodiments of the “live fast, die young” motto. For his next project after Sid & Nancy, Cox teamed-up with Joe Strummer, who composed the original soundtrack of the film, in one of his greatest works after The Clash had disbanded and The Mescaleros hadn’t yet been born. Ed Harris played the lead role as William Walker (1824-1860) and as usually displayed his high excellence in acting. If Cox’s film can be called punk it’s not because its production is cheap or faulty – on the contrary, this is was a 5-million-dollar budget film, and technically it looks so great as Sergio Leone’s or Gillo Pontecorvo’s films did. It is quite punk for its courageous and rebellious attitude of denouncing, and covering in ridicule, an authoritarian war-criminal such as Walker. In other words: this is punkish left-wing cinema that portrays The Enemy. Walker is a guy devoted to the dogma of Yankee superiority, and to the right of the United States to rule the whole world, and who puts his neurosis to practice in such murderous ways that I hope that you, dear readers, will agree with me in calling him by the un-polite but very fitting term “Fascist Pig”.
But one may ask: why make a movie, in the mid 1980s, about the international relations between the United States and Nicaragu ? Well, it was then a very urgent and pulsating theme in the public debate and on the media, and director Alex Cox remembers as follows the situation when Walker was made – the era of Ronald Reagan (in the U.S.) and Margaret Tatcher (in the U.K.):
“Reagan and Thatcher’s maniac front was working overtime to destroy the Sandinista revolution by any means. Thatcher had even attempted to criminalize the word ‘Sandinista’ – hence The Clash album of the same name. It would be a mistake to underestimate the power of the punk movement at that time. The Clash, The Jam, The Pistols, and their successors were almost the only beachhead many of us had against a tidal wave of reactionary politics.” (ALEX COX, in Let Fury Have The Hour, pg. 80)
That’s what makes Walker such an interesting and exciting movie: it feels like a manifesto written by British punks, in which they make a very powerful political statement about Imperialism and War Crimes. Even tough The Clash’s Sandinista was regarded by many as a lousy follow-up to one of the greatest albums in the history of popular music (1979’s London Calling), it was also a political statement right from its title: “sandinista” was then a forbidden word, and the sandinistas were painted by Reagan and Tatcher’s obedient dogs at the commercial media as dangerous and deadly “commies”. By doing an album like Sandinista, The Clash was trying to make several statements: firstly, they refused to record commercial bullshit only to sell records and honour contracts with CBS; they wouldn’t accept being censored in their language or themes, not they would accept quietly all the lies that were being spread about Nicaragua and the Sandinistas and the need for an Humanitarian Military Intervention by the Yankee’s armies; The Clash would stay rooted in rebellion against a establishment that, after Vietnam and Camboja, after spreading Military Dictatorships all over Latin America (Chile in 1973, Brazil in 1964…), was acting once again with murderous villany against other countries.
In “Washington Bullets”, one of Sandinista’s greatest songs, Joe Strummer asks The Clash’s audience to remember, among other things, the plots to kill Fidel Castro and to sabotage the Cuban Revolution, and also depicts what happened in Chile, in September 11th, 1973, when Salvador Allende’s regime came tumbling down (with lots of Washington Bullets and CIA agents helping out the installment of Pinochet’s dictartorship). “Eevery prison cell in Chile will tell”, sings Strummer, “the cries of tortured men…”. Chile, after 3 years under the yoke of democratically-elected president Allende, was plunged in dark times while Pinochet’s system killed and tortured all around, in order to be able to enforce all the policies that Mr. Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys deemed excellent for profitable markets (Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine tells the whole history quite well).
Joe Strummer, in the 1980s, was moving away from the mainstream arena, venturing into of a shadowy underground where music and social activism were together as one: he didn’t want much to do with the music industry and its hit-producing machinery. Strummer was interested in radical political films – such as Gillo’s Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and Burn! – and he wanted music to act as a helping hand in the struggles for social justice around the world. Strummer wanted to be punk’s Woody Guthrie and in Sandinista, for example, he took his characters from recent History – in “Washington Bullets”, he was singing in memory of Chilean singer, songwriter, poet and teacher Victor Jara (1922-1973), who had been murdered by the fascists in Santiago, September 11th, 1973. With “Washington Bullets”!
Joe Strummer, after The Clash had disbanded, wrote the soundtrack for Alan Cox’s Walker and acted in a supporting role. He would also be an actor in Cox’s next film, “Straight to Hell”.
William Walker is the embodiment of a very dangerous characteristic, that some insist on calling a virtue, but that should be looked upon with skepticism and suspicious, methinks: Walker is a deeply righteous and arrogant man. He believes he’s on the side of Civilization, of Goodness, of God. But in reality he acts like a mad assassin who won’t refrain from shooting his own brother down. Anyone who dares question his authority is treated like a beast that deserves to be spanked or shot dead. He invades Nicaragua backed-up materially by big-money, big capitalist interests, greedy Yankee businessmen wanting to rule over Central America and control the territory that links the oceans. But he always tries to pretends he’s a saint and a god-send, who has just descended from Heaven to help the ignorant and uncivilized peoples of Central American (actually, Walker didn’t descend from Eden, but came out of Nashville, Tennessee…). Even tough he preaches lofty sermons as if he was the Messiah, the Chosen One that will lead his sheep to salvation, what he actually does is only to bring disaster and death to all those around him, including himself. Thus Alan Cox’s intermingles satire with tragedy – to impressive aesthetic effects.
Maddened by his Messiah Complex, delusional like those Insane Asylum Napoleons, Walker acts as if he is a Roman Emperor (he has even his moments of Nero-like incendiary behavior). Deeply racist, he tries to enforce slavery into Nicaragua and be the tyrant of an enslaved nation. He stinks of hypocrisy and agressiveness, and yet he seems to think of himself as a lofty idealist, a revolutionary of a New Enlightenment… He can’t see how blind and dumb he has become by his faithful obedience to his ideals: his righteousness is in fact an embodiment of Right-Wing politics, of Imperial Power acting to enslave and rob other nations. Smells like Bush, right? Walker calls himself a “social democrat”, but the democracy which he wishes to impose on Nicaragua is a bloody bad joke: after ordering the firing squad to get rid of the opposition to his presence in Nicaragua, he decrees himself president without any need for elections. He “democratically” proclaims himself president of Nicaragua, a country he had just invaded with murdering soldiers and mercenaries, and orders the newspapers to print that he has been elected (with only one vote – his own).
These occurrences that Alex Cox’s films depicts so well are also a interesting portrayal of an archetype, of a paradigm. What I mean is this: in many Historical occasions, methinks, men acted very similarly to Walker. If we push the forward button of the remote control of History’s Newsreel, and take a look some years ahead, we’ll discover very similar episodes – for example, as I tried to express in the previous paragraphs, Salvador Allende’s death in 1973 and the beginning of Pinochet’s dictartorship in Chile. But Walker still has a lot to say about much more contemporary events like The War on Terror. Walker is a great historical epic with a punkish mood and filled with witty satire. It’s a film that will be particularly tasty to those who enjoy violent Westerns such as Leone’s or Peckinpahs’s. But its great value lies in its denounciation of the inner machineries and outer actions of an archetypical fascist pig. Behind his blue eyes, this blondie is a “crazy gringo” that invades, plunders, murders and burns while always clinging to the belief that God is on his side and that he knows what’s better for the peoples of the whole globe. He’s just one more example of that archetypical figure, so common in History, of a human devil that can quote Scripture.