Biopics have been and continue to be a popular genre of film, particularly seeing a resurgence in recent years – the success of 2018’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, 2019’s “Rocketman” and the newly released “Elvis” are testament to the genre’s staying power in popular culture. While seeing the dramatic life of a revered musician or controversial politician on the big screen may sometimes be more engaging than reading through a dry history textbook or biography, biopics can sometimes romanticize their historicized subjects and time periods to a problematic degree. Given the biopic’s resurgence, it is important to recognize the ways in which they harmfully perpetuate the ‘great man’ style of history.
‘Great man’ history is an older approach to studying history which understands the past almost exclusively through the impact of influential individuals, neglecting broader political, economic and environmental factors while minimizing the role everyday people have historically played in pushing for civil liberties and labor rights. This way of thinking about history can tend to lead to an anti-democratic perspective on politics past, present and future, one that can be — and has been — taken advantage of by charismatic authoritarians historically and today.
The limited runtime of a biographical film means that accuracy and context are often cast aside in favor of what is considered entertaining to watch (and profitable for studios to invest in). These constraints have sometimes led biopics to adopt the same kind of uncontroversial depictions that the ‘great man’ view of history affords to often-times problematic figures. “The King’s Speech” exemplifies this to a fault: the movie sympathetically depicted King George VI of England’s private struggle with his fear of public speaking while barely touching on the politics of his role as the last British Emperor of India, having fought against several independence movements in the colonized Middle East and Asia.
The biopic’s recent resurgence and the genre’s tendency toward this individualist style of history has ironically brought renewed appreciation to a 1987 box-office failure, Alex Cox’s “Walker”. A satirical biopic that turns the genre on its head, the historical Western was surprisingly ahead of its time with its critiques of both the genre and the ways in which colonial history is depicted in America. However, the movie’s absurdist style saw these criticisms go over the heads of audiences in the 1980s, where it received mostly negative reviews. Today, it is relevant more than ever in a global political climate that dangerously embraces charismatic far-right populists, romanticized history and media talking points over fact.
William Walker – 19th Century Imperialist, 20th Century Metaphor
“Walker” follows the story of American mercenary William Walker, who overthrew the Nicaraguan government in 1855 in hopes of turning it into a slaving colony. This practice, which was called filibustering, was technically made illegal by the US government in 1818, but continued without punishment due to its popularity amongst most Americans – specifically, the practice continued to be supported by prominent businessmen in the South trying to expand their profitable slave trade. After previous attempts to take territory in Baja California and Mexico, Walker took advantage of a civil war occurring in Nicaragua in order to fulfill his own business interests. After aligning with the losing Leon faction, Walker won the war. Shortly after, he appointed himself president of the country, a post he occupied for just under two years. During this time, he legalized slavery and attempted to control the shipping industry there, which eventually spurred local resistance that sent him back to the United States. After another similar expedition aimed at conquering Honduras, he was captured by the British Navy and executed by Honduran authorities in 1860. He was remembered as a ‘visionary adventurer’ after his death, being seen as a patriot for many years.
In the biopic, actor Ed Harris portrays Walker as a comically larger-than-life figure. In one scene, Walker struts carelessly through a major firefight unharmed. As his fellow soldiers die around him, he seems unbothered, stopping to play a piano. Later on in the film, Walker’s soldiers can be seen reading a Newsweek magazine with his face on the cover, where he is labeled ‘Nicaragua’s Liberator’. While these blink-and-you-miss-it moments of misplaced objects do add up, the film’s climax pushes this pattern of the modern day bleeding into the past to the extreme. This sheer absurdity of Walker’s depiction in the movie shows how historical figures (even those as reprehensible as Walker) can be placed on a pedestal and somehow redeemed, both through cinema and in how history can be taught and viewed.
While the general arc of William Walker’s life is shown in the film, Cox makes it very clear that he was just as interested in addressing the contemporary events in Nicaragua – instead of simply making the film about Walker, Cox chose to tackle the long history of American foreign interference that brought the need for a revolution in Nicaragua in the first place. The film’s use of modern day background props, like a Coca-Cola bottle, a fully-automatic machine gun, and a car blur the lines between the 19th century and contemporary Nicaragua. Cox uses this dramatized telling of Walker’s story to reflect the absurd logic of American exceptionalism and the consequences its past and continued belief has had.
This was especially relevant, and daring, at the time of the movie’s release in 1987. It came not too long after the 1979 Nicaraguan Revolution, where the socialist Sandinista party led the overthrow of the 42-year dictatorial regime of the Somoza family, who held the office of president since the US-backed military coup of democratically elected president Juan Sacasa in 1937. The year of the movie’s release also saw the US Congress launch an investigation into the Iran-Contra affair, the scandal which exposed the Reagan administration’s under-the-table sale of weapons to embargoed Iran to fund the Contras in Nicaragua, who were far-right militias fighting the socialist government that came into power after the revolution.
After receiving a six million dollar financial backing from Warner Brothers, Alex Cox’s seemingly ordinary biopic about a 19th century historical figure turned out to be a far more overtly political film than studio executives had anticipated after his two previous movies, “Repo Man” and the musical biopic “Sid & Nancy”. After seeing the eccentric finished product, the studio withheld ad funding and limited release of the film. When “Walker” was finally released, critical and audience response was almost universally negative, torpedoing Alex Cox’s career. As an alternative to American propaganda about its imperialist legacies as well as the ‘dangers’ of a leftist government in Latin America, audiences of the 1980s were not sure what to make of the film’s strange blend of political satire, intentional historical inaccuracy, and humour. In recent years, however, “Walker” has grown to become appreciated by more progressive audiences, showing that its point was sadly lost on moviegoers in the 80s — or that its sheer absurdity feels more relatable to modern audiences.
The Dangers of Commercializing Nostalgia
“Walker” shows that history does not exist in a vacuum nor through an individual’s eye. Where most biopics attempt to be and market themselves as historically accurate to their subject’s story, “Walker” recognizes the uselessness in trying to achieve something as impossible as that. Instead, Cox chooses to lean into the biases that an individual-based, entertainment and profit-motivated view of history leads to, all without shying away from seriously depicting said history’s ugly consequences and connecting to its legacy in the present.
All the forms of absurdity shown in the film serve to pose an important question: can any biopic truly be ‘accurate’ or divorced from present biases? The satire “Walker” provides in its self-awareness of its genre’s pitfalls, addressing them with equal parts humour and seriousness, speaks to the political danger of viewing history through the romanticized perspective of influential figures and time periods.
The resurgence of biopics in recent years has been a part of a larger trend of the commercialization of nostalgia in media – while the exploration of different time periods and historical events has always been a key part of storytelling, the heightened sense of longing and naive optimism seen in recent media depicting the less-than-shiny historical past, from the 1980s of “Stranger Things” to the nostalgic military whitewashing of “Top Gun: Maverick”, reflects a modern period willing to see past its flaws while searching for meaning in the ‘better days’. This is undoubtedly a dangerous game to play when coupled with the “great man” tendencies of the biopic that “Walker” satirizes.
The way in which the genre is able to desirably package an idealized past for an audience alienated with the present can have serious consequences if mishandled or exploited. This is especially the case if this history is shown solely through the perspective of a charismatic historical protagonist, which “Walker” pushes to its logical point of conclusion and absurdity. As we find ourselves in a time where the line between political talking-points and truth is blurred, Alex Cox’s 1987 biopic serves as a cautionary tale against turning to feel-good historical narratives in shaping your perspective of the past and future.
Edited by Majeed Malhas