This week’s impromptu double feature demonstrates two different approaches to addressing the legacy of colonialism, using differing techniques to question the narratives surrounding two distinct historical attempts by white men to dominate the inhabitants of Latin America.
A bearded white man sits in meditation at the edge of a rocky outcrop overlooking a secluded natural pool, streams of water rising from below and flowing into his hands. A tribe of horse-headed men escort him up the forested slopes to a clearing where he is greeted by corn spirits, who surround him before reverently placing a woven crown upon his head and kneeling in willing subjugation.
Chilean director Niles Atallah doesn’t want his audience to be under any illusion that Rey (2017) is a conventional biopic. This scene is how he has chosen to introduce Orélie-Antoine de Tounens (as played by Rodrigo Lisboa), a French lawyer whose reading of the 16th century Spanish epic poem La Araucana about the conquest of Chile prompted his own personal dreams of empire. Travelling to Chile in 1858, he spent two years studying Spanish and exploring the area before announcing himself to be the King of Araucanía and Patagonia, as anointed by a small group of Mapuche tribal leaders in the Araucanía region. Although ignored by the Chilean government, his declaration prompted the Chilean Occupation of Araucanía the following year. At the beginning of 1862 he was betrayed to the authorities by his servant Juan Bautista Rosales (Claudio Riveros), eventually being declared insane by the court and expelled from the country. The rest of his life was frittered away on futile attempts to solicit aid in “regaining” his “kingdom”, but his claims were never formally endorsed by any nation and he died in poverty in 1878.
Recognising the impossibility of documenting the truth behind these events in any objective fashion, Atallah has chosen instead to emphasise their subjectivity through the application of a range of techniques. The body of the film is bracketed by grainy footage of a narrated historical textbook, within which the events have been broken up into five chapters (The Captivity; The Trial; The Betrayal; The Fever; The Exile) and an epilogue (The Apocalypse). Much of the movie is centred around the imprisonment and trial of de Tounens, where his testimony is contrasted with that of his accuser Rosales. During these scenes there is not a single recognisable human face to be seen. All of the representatives of Chilean authority – prison guards, lawyers, etc – sport identical crudely-assembled papier-mâché masks presenting a bland uniformity of expressionless anonymity. The only faces distinguishable from the crowd are those of de Tounens and Rosales, who have been granted the distinction of wearing masks which bear some resemblance to their actual faces.
Those scenes which take place outside the courtroom tend to be filmed more naturalistically. The first stages of de Tounens and Rosales’ journey through the wilderness are depicted in a straightforward realistic style, a far cry from the messianic vision of deification which opened the film. As their accounts begin to diverge, the footage of their journey begins to degrade, breaking up into increasingly spiky jump cuts as scratches distort both image and sound, as if the footage illustrating their differing versions of events represented two different attempts at the restoration of the same fatally compromised film stock.
Making the strongest visual impact are the visionary scenes representing de Tounens’ delusions of divine superiority, which could be interpreted either as a metaphorical expression of an internalised white saviour self-narrative, or as the fevered hallucinations of an unwell man during one of his later attempts to return to his “kingdom”. These sequences are largely absent from the body of the film but return for the epilogue, as de Tounens’ return to Araucanía in 1869 prompts a similar visionary experience to that seen in the opening, an experience which this time continues to escalate as the screen fills with multiple iterations of de Tounens-faced godheads which merge into kaleidoscopic mandalas of divine contemplation. Regardless of how seriously one takes these sequences as depictions of de Tounens’ mental state, they illustrate the absurdity of the mindset underlying the foreign exploitation of indigenous people, a subject to which the rather more dry narration of the textbook explicitly returns at the film’s close.
Atallah’s first feature as a director was Lucía (2010), which tells the story of a seamstress and her father under the Pinochet regime – not the sort of subject matter which would normally make it a personal must-watch, but given the creator I’m now itching to see it. It took seven years for Atallah to create his follow-up, during which time he took on additional work as a cinematographer while creating video installations, short animations and music videos. Atallah has continued to work busily in these fields since the completion of Rey, and I can only hope that we won’t have to wait another few years for his next feature.
English director Alex Cox’s Walker (1987) is a prime example of the maxim that historical dramas often have more to tell us about the age in which they were written or made than the age in which they are set. Inspired by a 1984 visit to Nicaragua, where he discovered that the situation on the ground bore very little resemblance to what was reported in the US media, Cox set out to tell the tale of the first North American invasion of Nicaragua in 1855, when Colonel William Walker answered the call to provide military aid to Nicaragua’s Democratic Party under the pretext that his troops were colonists. Two months after his newly stable regime had been recognised by US President Franklin Pierce, Walker seized personal control of the country in a fraudulent election and made a series of increasingly poor decisions which ultimately led to his surrender to the US navy on 1 May 1857 after less than 10 months in power. Three years later, he was invited to Honduras by British colonists who wanted to establish a new government, but was quickly arrested and executed.
Cox introduces us to Colonel Walker (Ed Harris) at the conclusion of his abortive 1853 attempt to invade Mexico after his petition to set up a fortified border colony was turned down by their government. On his return home to California he is put on trial for conducting an illegal war in violation of the Neutrality Act of 1794, but is quickly acquitted by a fixed jury to the cheers of the redneck onlookers. Planning to settle down and start a newspaper with his deaf fiancée (and fiery moral compass) Ellen Martin (Marlee Matlin), her sudden death from cholera leads him to accept a proposition from megalomaniac businessman Cornelius Vanderbilt (Peter Boyle) to “stabilise” Nicaragua as a means of protecting his shipping interests. Accompanied by his friend and adviser Byron Cole (Xander Berkeley), Walker sets off on a haphazardly shambolic military expedition with his second-in-command Major Siegfried Henningson (René Auberjonois), the stalwart Captain Hornsby (Sy Richardson) – a lone black face among his troops – and loyal soldier Timothy Crocker (Keith Szarabajka).
Although Walker is suggested to be an unreliable narrator in his very first scene, in which the speech given by the “gray-eyed man of destiny” comes across as a bit out of touch with reality, this aspect of his character comes to the fore as soon as they reach Nicaragua – his calm narration talks of their solemn landing, while the screen shows a burning ship sinking off the coastline as his sodden men frantically drag what cargo survives onto the shore. His strategy for “liberating” his first town is to march his men down the street, leaving them open to ambush from the roofs and the unnecessary loss of many of his men, who fight and die while he continues to stroll obliviously in calm conversation, untouched by any of the surrounding chaos. He remains so blissfully unaware of what’s going on around him that it takes the arrival of reinforcements with news for him to learn that he’s won, and with victory his detachment only increases, leading to his delusional appointment of himself as leader and the stubborn belief (all evidence to the contrary) that he’s beloved by the people, even after introducing legislation allowing the people to be sold as slaves. Among the minor characters, the English expat painter Faucet (Joe Strummer) is one of the key figures making pointed observations about Walker’s expedition. On first encountering the soldiers, he immediately jumps to the conclusion that the foreigners trampling about as if they own the place must be American (an attitude clearly owing more to the 20th century than to the 19th). Later on, he questions Walker about whether it bothers him that he has abandoned every principle for which he stood. Walker’s reply that the ends justify the means raises the obvious follow-up question of what these ends are – to which Walker replies (with no apparent sign of regret) that he has forgotten. (Strummer, of course, as a founding member of punk band The Clash, is no stranger to revolutionary politics – their fourth album Sandinista! (1980) was named after the socialist political party which had just taken power in Nicaragua, and even the album’s catalogue number – FSLN1 – was a reference to the party’s initials.)
As the film progresses and Walker spirals further out of control, artefacts of modern day America begin to appear: a modern car overtakes a horse-drawn carriage; Walker shows off his appearance on the cover of Time magazine; at the film’s climax, a helicopter appears to extract any US citizens, accompanied by a military escort with a casual attitude to shooting anybody who isn’t obviously a white North American. Contemporary US attitudes make their way into the mouths of various characters, including a chilling speech in which Walker tells the Nicaraguan people that they will never be free of America. While many filmmakers are more than willing to take liberty with the historical details for the sake of a more streamlined story (as is also the case here), by blatantly bringing modern anachronisms onto the screen Cox underlines the way in which the events he has chosen to dramatise are simply a precursor to contemporary American foreign policy and military adventurism.
Ed Harris (The Right Stuff, Apollo 13) is perfectly cast as William Walker, moving through the film with the fixed gaze of a man of vision who sees beyond his surroundings to a higher purpose – a gaze which becomes evident as the delusional obsession of a man who is unable to perceive reality through the obscuring haze of his moral certainty of what should be. Marlee Matlin (The West Wing), in only her second film role, brings a clear-eyed and passionate idealism to her role as a strong independent woman who sees through coded discussions of Manifest Destiny to the ugly pro-slavery attitudes beneath. Her character has a pragmatic counterpart in Nicaraguan aristocrat Doña Yrena, who is initially able to control Walker to an extent but eventually tries to kill him – Blanca Guerra (Santa Sangre, Clear and Present Danger) is exceptional in this part and makes me wish I were more familiar with Mexican cinema. Nowhere in their league, but worth mentioning in passing, is Gerrit Graham (Phantom of the Paradise) as one of Walker’s brothers – while his performance here can’t really be compared to his glam rock diva Beef, I generally find his appearances enjoyable and was happy to see him here.
Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid & Nancy) is no stranger to controversy, and it comes as no surprise to learn that Walker was poorly received in America. Universal Studios were unhappy with the end result, deeming it too political and too violent, and chose not to promote it (the dodgy trailer included below sells it as a po-faced drama rather the cheeky satire it actually is). It was released to largely poor reviews, including a zero-star rating from both Siskel & Ebert, and poisoned his reputation with the big studios – but after sneaking out on budget video and DVD labels, Cox’s achievement finally received formal recognition as worthy of release on the boutique Criterion label in 2008 and I hold out some hope for a Blu Ray reissue in the future.