British cinema would’ve been a far more dire prospect in the Reagan-Thatcher years if it hadn’t been for Alex Cox and Peter Greenaway, two wildly disparate but brilliantly rebellious and, you could say, slightly insane independents insofar as you could categorize them as filmmakers working in some kind of English tradition. Mostly, you couldn’t Cox, for his part, always considered himself more of a punk without a country than a British voice; only his second film, the magisterial “Sid & Nancy” (1986), is set in the U.K. His quick arc after the tireless indie success of “Repo Man” (1984) is a study in the punk-artist paradigm first, drop your pants at the establishment, then get brought into the system, then quickly reveal yourself to be an ungovernable brat, and get dumped like a sizzling isotope. Cox’s moment of truth was “Walker” (1987), one of most viciously prankish and politically outrageous fireballs ever to hurl out of Hollywood. It was only Cox’s fourth feature and it summarily ended his ascension in even semi-mainstream cinema. (In interviews, Cox remembers being astonished that he didn’t receive a single call or offer after the film was released.) Needless to say, it’s a movie that demands our respect and reverence.
For all of his snot-nosed impishness and drunken Ã©lan, Cox is a die-hard leftist, and “Walker” is his wickedest, angriest rocket launch, a historical “drama” documenting the late career of William Walker, a polymathic doctor, writer, adventurer and filibuster who, in the mid-1850s, was sent to take over Nicaragua by Cornelius Vanderbilt (played like Nero by Peter Boyle). Which he did Walker ruled the tiny, colonialism-beset country as a dictator for two years until he went completely mad, revoked Nicaragua’s progressive abolitionist laws, fought for his throne with a coalition of other Central American armies (and Vanderbilt’s forces), and was eventually executed in Honduras in 1860. Tiny as his niche in history is, Walker has always served as a striding, bellowing symbol of American corporate imperialism (Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Burn!,” with Marlon Brando, was a loose version of the story). At first, Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer treat Walker’s saga as merely tongue-in-cheek history, but gradually the film descends into madness itself, crazed with genre movie allusions, boozy slapstick, meticulous period flavor, satiric anachronisms (the film climaxes with a helicopter drop of ’80s-era Marines), moments of raw Grand Guignol and a pervasive sense of lysergic mayhem.
A toked-up fusion of Godard, Altman, Peckinpah (remembered here on a gravestone) and Monty Python, “Walker” doesn’t in the end have the weight and wisdom we’d like to have in our dreams, but at the same time, it’s as close as any major ’80s film came to Ionesco. Of course, Cox’s sights were actually set on the Reagan administration and its expansive program of destruction in Central America. (The film was shot in Nicaragua during the period when the Iran-Contra Affair was becoming news and just as the Tower Commission Report came out with the full cooperation of the Sandinistas.) Cox always had an eye for the revelatory iconic, and his movie seethes with mysterious signifiers, from Ed Harris’s bright-eyed performance as Walker to Joe Strummer’s hilariously satiric score to moments of “Wild Bunch”-ian slo-mo and fascinating prophecy. (“We were welcomed as liberators!” Walker intones, when in fact they weren’t welcomed at all.) The Criterion edition comes with a plethora of predictably irreverent video documents, commentaries and interviews, and a beguilingly period-appropriate booklet full of documents and a new essay by Graham Fuller.
Peter Greenaway, on the other hand, is very British from toe to nose, but there may not be another filmmaker in the U.K. as defiantly untraditional and perversely idiosyncratic. A hyper-structuralist of the old school (on whatever planet that old school might be), Greenaway is a cinema-maker intoxicated by patterns, tableaux, narratives based on theoretical systems, and mythical histories in other words, he’s always wanted to be God. Greenaway’s long passage through his own formal obsessions his amazingly homogenous career began in the ’60s has taken him to some odd and repulsive regions of late, but his first feature, “The Draughtsman’s Contract” (1982), stills hums with high wit and delirious pleasure in its fusion of pop-baroque music (Michael Nyman’s score is a head-shaking triumph), lavishly composed imagery, fecund Brit-speak and the farcical yet accurate reinvention of the 17th century. The bounce of intellectual game-playing never ceases, from the first bon mot-clotted frieze to the active engagement of the story, which has the wife and daughter of a repellent landowner, while he’s supposedly away, persuade a draughtsman (Anthony Higgins) to draw the estate in 12 careful sketches, a process that involves sexual intrigue and, in a “Blow-Up”-esque twist, the recorded evidence of a murder plot. Greenaway lent the film a uniquely waxen quality, arranging his ludicrously bewigged, candle-lit cast in flat art history tableaux and filling their mouths with absurdly thick Thackerayan verbiage, all of it so arch and masterfully delivered that the very idea of a British aristocratic tradition begins to feel like a sour joke. It’s not a movie likely to be savored by your average miseducated new release-renting trog, but for those with the palates and background, it’s a banquet.
“Walker” (Criterion Collection) and “The Draughtsman’s Contract” (Zeitgeist Films) are now available on DVD.
[Photos: Bruce Anderson, Richard Zobel, John Diehl in “Walker,” Criterion Collection; ]