To say that the historically accurate and satirical retelling of the famous filibuster, William Walker, adapted in the film Walker was brilliant is an understatement. William Walker, born in Nashville, Tennessee, came to be a leading filibuster in Latin America during the 1850s seeking his manifest destiny. The film depicts a middle aged William Walker and his pursuit in appropriating the presidency of the Republic of Nicaragua in 1856. Ruling for one year, in 1857 he was defeated by a coalition of Central American armies including Costa Rica, Honduras, Salvador, and Guatemala where he surrendered from his duties as president to the United States Navy. After his failed attempts to return back to Nicaragua, he was met by a firing squad in 1860 in Honduras. Much is to be said about the historical inaccuracy in the film. Because the film is an interpretation of the historical events, a primary source of the Recollections of the Siege of Rivas by WM Frank Stewart seems appropriate. The movie is intentionally full of anachronisms making it hard for the viewers to know whether or not to trust the film. With a slight comical tone, the story of the infamous filibuster, William Walker, is depicted in the works of Walker directed by Alex Cox, who develops an interesting storyline of Walker’s later years in life as President of Nicaragua.
Those were the words written across the screen in the beginning of the film. Walker and his small band of men were met by their rightful fate of the natives of Sonora, Mexico. Walker’s mission was simple: to establish the Republic of Lower California, freeing the country from a corrupt dictatorship, which ends in failure. As the natives are closing in on the Americans, Walker explains that “[they] are trapped. Only an act of God can save [them] now”. Immediately after, a sand storm goes through the town of Sonora and the Americans are able to flee safely back home to their native country, the United States. Returning home, Walker was accused of violating U.S. neutrality laws, which states that any American citizen who wages war against any country at peace with the United States is illegal (Revolvy). In the trial, Walker was able to justify his means stating, “it is the God-given right of the American people to dominate the western hemisphere. It is our moral duty to protect our neighbors from oppression and exploitation. It is the fate of America to go ahead. That is her manifest destiny.” He was freed without punishment. None of this was thought to be a part of William Walker’s life.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee on May 8th, 1824, William Walker was born into a wealthy household. His father, James Walker, was a Scottish immigrant who became a successful businessman in Nashville (Minster). He studied medicine at the University of Nashville and University of Pennsylvania. He continued his studies in Europe, studying in Paris, France, and Edinburgh, Scotland (Cox). While he was there, he learned French, German, and Spanish. He came back to Nashville as one of the most qualified doctors in the country.
When Walker began practicing law in New Orleans he met his future wife, Ellen Martin, who was deaf. Walker learned sign language to be able to communicate with her as shown in the film. He began working at the New Orleans Crescent as co-owner and editor (Karp). In his writings, Walker expressed his feelings towards the emancipation of slavery and attacked corrupt politicians. After the Crescent went out of business and his wife passed away from cholera (Cox), he moved to San Francisco where he became co-editor of the San Francisco Herald (Karp). Expressing the right of the first amendment, Walker continued to attack corrupt politicians and was challenged to a duel against a William Hicks Graham. He lost and three months later he was arrested for humiliating a judge. Thousands of people came to the aid of William Walker and he was released and deemed a hero of San Francisco (Karp). Walker was a huge advocate for the ideology of manifest destiny and there was a shift in his writing when he began to focus on American expansionism.
After resigning from the Herald, Walker set up a law practice and was commissioned by San Francisco to negotiate with the governor of Sonora on land they wanted to use for cattle raising and mining (Karp). The governor’s refusal to negotiate led to Walker’s attempt to establish the Republic of Lower California. Walker’s ideology of American expansion sparked and this is what led him to Nicaragua. Nicaragua was a country in turmoil going through a civil war, a fight between the Legitimist Party and the Democratic Party. In the film, before Walker knows much of Nicaragua, he meets Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the most powerful man on Earth. There, Vanderbilt explains his reasoning for wanting Walker to go into Nicaragua to ‘stabilize’ the country. Cornelius Vanderbilt controls the canal route that runs through Nicaragua. At that point in time, that was the only way for supplies to travel from New York to San Francisco. Vanderbilt wanted democracy in Nicaragua and thought that Walker could do this for him. So Walker and 58 of his finest men set sail from San Francisco all the way down to Realejo, Nicaragua in June 1885. To avoid U.S. neutrality laws, Walker obtained a contract from President Castellón of the Democratic Party to bring “colonists” to Nicaragua (Finch).
With consent from Castellón, Walker and his men attacked the small town of Rivas. This town was located near the trans isthmian route that Walker hoped to control. Even though this attack was a failure, it sparked a fear inside the natives. On October 13, Walker took the Legitimist capital, Granada, and negotiated to become the commander in chief to protect the democratic process while offering the presidential position to Ponciano Corral (Cox). Walker’s rapid rise to power disturbed many surrounding countries such as Costa Rica, Honduras, Salvador, and Guatemala. After the betrayal of Ponciano Corral for calling on outside sources for an insurrection against Walker to rescue the nation, Walker named himself President of Nicaragua on July 12, 1856 (Cox). Soon after, he launched an Americanization program. English became the official language and Walker confiscated the estates of native Nicaraguans and resold them to his American supporters. This angered the natives even more. Walker, a man who once “despised” slavery actually annulled the constitutional prohibition against slavery to gain support from the southern states of the U.S. This sparked a variety of enemies. Several different governments refused to recognize Walker’s new government.
Costa Rica was Walker’s new feared enemy. Costa Rica was provided with arms for insurgents. Salvadoran troops entered Nicaragua and were joined by Guatemalan and Honduran forces. In William Frank Stewart’s Last of the Filibusters; or, Recollections of the Siege of Rivas , this firsthand account shares the story of W.M. Frank Stewart and his travels from San Francisco to San Juan del Sur on March 5th 1857. He was recruited by a party of young men that came up from Nicaragua to San Francisco in search of new recruits due to the shortage of men down in Nicaragua. His time down in Nicaragua is nothing close to fun. Conditions were terrible; there was a shortage of food and ammunition. The muskets were in shocking condition (Stewart 8). He explained Rivas as a “living graveyard” [Ibid 9]. To get a sense of who William Walker truly was, Stewart described him as “a little, white-haired, white-eyebrowed, boyish-looking man, with cold, icy-gray eyes, and a quiet, passionless manner, which renders him exceedingly mysterious and enigmatical, even to his most intimate friends” [Ibid 11]. William Walker did not tolerate complaining. As depicted in the film, Walker’s “disregard of danger” was very true [Ibid 19]. During the film at the first battle of Rivas, Walker walks straight down through the town. His men tell him to retreat but he does not listen. This accurate depiction of Walker shows who he is as a person and his character. He was reckless when it came to making decisions. Towards the end of the battle, it almost seemed as if he was going insane.
Walker’s lifeline to the U.S. was the fleet of river and lake steamers controlled by the Accessory Transit Company, a lucrative Vanderbilt enterprise. Walker gained a powerful enemy in Vanderbilt when Walker agreed to transfer the charter to Vanderbilt’s business rivals. This infuriated Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt sent agents to aid Costa Ricans when they invaded Nicaragua again in November 1856. With no hope, Walker ordered Granada to be burnt to the ground and concentrate his forces in Rivas. The Costa Rican capture of the Transit Company Steamers left walker with little hope of reinforcement. The intention of the Costa Ricans was to suffocate the Americans. Walker was expecting reinforcements and other supplies everyday (Stewart 26). He held out for five months against superior forces until his own army was gradually reduced by starvation, disease, and desertion. The limited stock of provisions was exhausted and people were feeding off of the “unsavory flesh of poor, old, poverty-stricken mules and horses” [Ibid 30]. On April 25th, 1857, a flag of truce was sent out to remove the women and children of Rivas [Ibid 36]. In the film, men on helicopter with machine guns came to rescue any American citizens. One man was recording with a camera. The director of the film may or may not have done that on purpose but this has led to a loss in accuracy of historical context. Walker grew irritable due to men deserting him. Walker had lost his prestige of success because his treatment towards his soldiers made them despise him [Ibid 38]. He was considered a selfish person due to his personal drive to take control over Nicaragua. Costa Rica’s plan had worked. On May 1, 1857, Walker surrendered to the U.S. naval officer who negotiated his capitulation [Ibid 40].
William Frank Stewart’s return from home proved that Nicaragua could never become a “comfortable dwelling-place for a nation of white men”(Stewart 61). Walker never grew comfortable with the fact that he could not return back to Nicaragua and in 1860, he was captured and killed by a firing squad in Honduras. He was accused of tyranny, had been charged with selfishness and ingratitude. Many people disliked him. The man who was once revered as a hero is only remembered now for his selfishness. There is much to be said of the history that was not included in the film or was done with poor execution. Although it was entertaining and comical to watch at times, there was much that was not said after Walker’s surrender. William Walker was one of the last filibusters who had one goal in mind, to seek his manifest destiny. And he failed.