When Alex Cox, director of Repo Man and Sid & Nancy, published a critical study of the Spaghetti Western (10,000 Ways to Die), I was reminded of his brilliant little cult neo-Western, Straight to Hell. It stars Sy Richardson, The Clash frontman Joe Strummer, Dick Rude and a young Courtney Love as criminals on the run who take refuge in a remote desert town. Jim Jarmusch is a crime boss, and there’s a shootout with a rival gang played by The Pogues. It’s indescribable and was received as such upon its initial release. It works best paired with Cox’s follow-up, Walker.
A biopic only in the loosest sense of the word, Walker acts as a stylistic key for Straight to Hell while telling the tale of an American soldier of fortune who somehow, disastrously, became the president of Nicaragua for a short while in 1856. He was guided by manifest destiny. He was charming, smart, played by Marlon Brando in Burn! and crazy as a loon. He was punk. Accordingly, Walker is a time-skipping, a-chronological, middle finger of a biography. It’s my favorite Alex Cox film and we’re proud to be presenting it on a pristine 35mm print from Cox’s personal collection at the Alamo Drafthouse in Littleton, CO on April 21st in a double feature with Straight to Hell Returns, Cox’s “redux” of Straight to Hell.
We’re pairing Walker with a Q&A with Cox, three beers hand-chosen by the director and a special menu prepared by his lovely and brilliant wife, author Tod Davies with our executive chef Seth Rexroad. All ticket sales for the event will go to charity. I had the great pleasure recently of sitting down with Mr. Cox over a few pints to talk about Straight to Hell, Walker and the Spaghetti Western.
A. Straight to Hell was done as an homage to Giulio Questi's If You Live, Shoot! (1967) that was released in the United States as Django, Kill because they wanted to capitalize on that series’ name recognition. Really, it had nothing to do with Django. It was a psychedelic Western.
Q. Notoriously violent.
A. Yes - it’s terribly violent and was heavily censored.
Q. A strange end for what began life as a concert tour.
A. Elvis [Costello] and Grace [Jones], Joe Strummer, Courtney Love, The Pogues, they all made themselves available for a concert movie. We wanted to go to Nicaragua and stage the concert but there was a lot of turmoil there and political pressures had us to Spain. When the concert movie didn’t happen, we used the money the record company gave us and we made the Western. We wrote the script very quickly and shot it in a few weeks.
Q. Why the Spaghetti Western?
A. When I was a kid, you know, you go to the movies, to the theater, and it was A Fistful of Dollars, A Few Dollars More, really radical stuff that appealed to me. It all led eventually to the book. It’s a study, in chronological order, of those films and of my point of view. Of course my mind always goes to how they got made, how they raised the money for those projects.
Q. How was Walker made?
A. Well the plan had always been with Straight to Hell to reconvene the year after that in Nicaragua and we did. We made it in collaboration with the Sandanista government who was at war at that time with the United States. Pretty cool. The Roman Catholics were behind it, too. We wanted to be a force for reconciliation. Walker was a pretty bad guy, he led this really disastrous misadventure. The more I learned about him, the more intrigued I was.
Q. Not the usual subject for a biopic.
A: No, indeed, and I knew we couldn’t do it in the normal style of things like that.
Q. Hence the surrealistic touches.
A. The anachronisms just seemed to be sensible because it was never meant to be a period piece. I wanted it to be a reflection of the reality of that time, of what we were experiencing. The anachronisms made perfect sense to me and to [screenwriter] Rudy [Wurlitzer] (Two-Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid). Rudy, who always had this sense of the American character and the outlaw drive. Ed [Harris], too. He studied, read books, and kept a diary in the character of Walker. He really threw himself into it; he really captured something of the man.
Q. Was it painful for so personal a project to be rejected?
A. Oh sure. Yeah, the rejection of the film was pretty intense at the outset. A few critics liked it, but starting with Roger Ebert it was all quite negative, sometimes obnoxiously so, but then it started to gain kind of a life on home video and finally Criterion put out a good DVD of it. But it’s never gotten a Blu-ray so this screening of the 35mm print, it’s a new print, is the only way to see the movie as it was originally meant to be seen.