A hallucinatory biopic that breaks all cinematic conventions, Walker, from British director Alex Cox, tells the story of nineteenth-century American adventurer William Walker (Ed Harris), who abandoned a series of careers in law, politics, journalism, and medicine to become a soldier of fortune and, for many months, the dictator of Nicaragua. Made with mad abandon and political acuity—and the support of the Sandinista army and government during the contra war—the film uses this true tale as a satirical attack on American ultrapatriotism and a freewheeling condemnation of “manifest destiny.” Featuring a powerful score by Joe Strummer and a performance of intense, repressed rage by Harris, Walker remains one of Cox’s most daring works.
The Criterion Collection upgrades their 2008 DVD edition of Alex Cox’s Walker to Blu-ray, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc. It has been encoded at 1080p/24hz high-definition.
Sadly, though unsurprisingly, Criterion is simply reusing the same high-def master they used for their DVD edition, which was sourced from a high-def scan of a 35mm interpositive. The good news is that it holds up surprisingly well and the high-def presentation boost still offers a notable improvement over the DVD. Grain isn’t as clean as it could be, looking a bit smudgy, but it’s rendered well enough. This ends up leading a to a decent, if unextraordinary, level of detail, at least in close-up, the disorienting ones of Peter Boyle’s Cornelius Vanderbilt looking especially good, nose hairs and all. Longer shots can look a fuzzier at times, limiting the finer details, and textures rarely pop but I wouldn’t say the image ever looks soft or out-of-focus. The encode is actually pretty good, but the base master still severely limits things.
More restoration work has gone into this presentation, and I found it cleaner. In fact, it’s just about spotless. Colours are warm but replicate the DVD’s, and blues and blacks still look nice for the most part. Black levels look rich and deep during darker sequences, but range is very limited, which leads to heavy blacks, limited shadows, and a lack of depth. Subtitles translating Spanish and sign language are still burned in.
Is it worth upgrading from the DVD? Eh. The Blu-ray does offer a cleaner looking image with some sharper looking details, but I wouldn’t say the leap in quality, when compared to an upscaled presentation of the DVD, is all that significant.
Criterion includes a lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack. Music and sound effects still sound fine but dialogue, yet again, comes off flat and lifeless, featuring no range. It sounds to be mixed low and comes off muffled, making it hard to hear at times. The narration comes out sounding sharper, but not by a whole lot.
Criterion ports over the supplements from their DVD edition and even add at least one new one. Things start again with Criterion’s 2008 audio commentary featuring Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer. The two were recorded together and touch on all aspects of the production including (but not limited to) how the idea of the film came to be, the challenges of filming in Nicaragua, how certain sequences were filmed, and the film’s not-so-hot reception. They also provide some historical context in regard to the time period of the film and Walker himself, and also how the film was a reaction to the United States’ involvement in Nicaragua and South America in general during the 80's, pointing out specific references and moments of symbolism that included merging the present into the past, like throwing in Newsweek or Coca-Cola and Marlboro products (the two even mention there were walk-outs when items like these started to appear).
Cox also covers the Peckinpah influences, talks extensively about members of the cast and crew, impressively able to recall just about every name, and the two also talk about working with Universal on the film, who were surprisingly easy to work with on this project. One of the goals of the film was to also shoot as much as they could in Nicaragua and they made sure to spend most of the budget down there, giving the area they were in an economic boost. It’s still an incredibly energetic and informative track all these years later, and worth listening to if one hasn’t done so yet.
Also carried over from the previous disc is the 50-minute making-of Dispatches from Nicaragua, directed by Terry Schwartz. Schwartz was invited by Cox to document the making of the film on video, and that material was edited together for this piece, which was created for Criterion’s original DVD. It’s still an interesting documentary though not as thorough as I would have hoped. It offers plenty of footage of the shoot and includes a wide range of interviews with members of the cast and crew, getting more time with Harris than others. It also features material placing the film in a political and historical context, which includes information about the real William Walker and events following the then recent murder of Benjamin Linder, an American engineer who was killed by the Contra rebels. There is also footage taken from a local school where William Walker is taught in history classes; Walker is better known there than he is in the States. In the end I still found it’s coverage of the film itself lacking in a few areas, but it does do an excellent job in covering the region at the time of the film’s production.
Also, it’s worth mentioning that the video material, limited by the format obviously, is in decent shape and looks pretty good here.
On Movie Making and The Revolution is an 11-minute audio clip featuring a film extra reminiscing on the making of the film. This was originally included on the DVD and played over a menu screen, which was an odd choice since it sounds like he is watching the film, referencing scenes in places, pointing himself out; and it would have made sense to show what he was referencing. I was hoping Criterion would upgrade it here but that’s not the case, the audio playing over a graphic. At any rate, he speaks about the production and experience in a frank manner, not holding anything back whether it be good or bad. He talks about the country and the violence that was going on there, and he makes mention of suspecting someone there possibly being C.I.A. and spying on the production. He also, rather amusingly, keeps referring to Ed Harris as “The Colonel” throughout. I enjoyed this supplement but it’s incredibly brief and the presentation still seems to suggest this supplement was somehow rushed.
Previously presented as an easter egg on Criterion’s DVD, the 6-minute Walker 2008 featuring Cox (and his puppy) talking about the film’s reception and going through some of the film’s favorable and many unfavorable reviews. Siskel & Ebert of course trashed it, but one critic did put it on their best-of list. As a sort of follow-up Criterion also includes a newer supplement from 2016, On the Origins of “Walker,” featuring Cox and Wurlitzer recalling the production. Cox (along with what looks to be the same dog from the 2008 feature, though sadly less energetic) ends up going through his old notes, which are in the same book with his notes for Sid & Nancy and his abandoned Mars Attacks! feature. He even appears to have Ed Harris’ diary, which he samples from. The two are filmed separately but Wurlitzer ends up calling up Cox at one point.
The disc then closes with the film’s trailer (which looked to be missing on the DVD) and an image gallery that is presented as a self-playing gallery. It features several production photos and Polaroids, running shy of 9-minutes. It looks like everything has been ported over from the gallery on the DVD.
One of the stronger aspects of the DVD edition was the booklet and thankfully Criterion has also ported that over to this edition, adjusting the length from 38-pages to 44-pages to account for the smaller dimensions I assume. Everything looks to be intact, things starting off again with an essay on the film by Graham Fuller, covering the film’s pre-production briefly before writing about the film itself and the many Peckinpah influences (which Cox talks about on the commentary). You’ll also find notes by actor/writer Linda Sandoval, who recounts a day while working on the film. Finally, there’s a collection of notes by Rudy Wurlitzer on William Walker, the film, and Nicaragua, along with excerpts from the script. The booklet also features a collection of photos, most with text descriptions.
The lack of academic features is still a bit disappointing, whether it be an outsider perspective on the film or the actual historical events, but the supplements come out a bit more satisfying this time around, the inclusion of the newer featurette with Cox going over his notes being a strong addition.
It’s still a good special edition that's worth picking up, but the high-def presentation, despite looking better than the DVD’s, doesn’t offer as significant an improvement as one may have hoped for.