Christopher Walken is an alien. This has become common knowledge and part of conventional wisdom. He looks human – sort of. He has human “like” qualities, but it’s undeniable that he is really a creature from another planet who, for so long, has persevered at walking and talking like a homosapien. In recent years, he has become so comfortable pretending to be human, that we’ve forgotten in his formative years, how odd he really was. But like David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, he has become corrupted by our earthly human ways, and has embraced our once foreign behavior as his own.
I bring this up not because I’m presenting some original idea, but in looking back at Walken’s early work, it’s quite shocking to see how little he behaved like a human, and what made him such an arresting screen presence. (Check out David Cronenberg’s highly underrated The Dead Zone if you need further proof. One of his most powerful performances, and clearly, one that is not played by a creature who breathes oxygen or has blood running through his veins.)
Walken garnered some attention for smaller roles throughout the early 70s, but it was his breakout role in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter that put him on the map (and gave him an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor). His performance really was a “coming out,” as he did his best to present a normal, small town kid who becomes “unbalanced” and psychotic due to his traumatic experiences at the hands of the North Vietnamese. Here, then, was the Walken paradox, able to swing wildly from a normal, albeit “odd” person to a kinetic, idiosyncratic “freak of nature.”
Following The Deer Hunter he was approached by Norman Jewison to star in an adaptation of a successful Frederick Forsyth novel that dealt with a group of American mercenaries who leap from one hot spot to another. Jewison, however, was in such demand he couldn’t fit the film into his schedule, and ended up producing with newbie British director John Irvin (who would go on to successfully helm Raw Deal, Hamburger Hill and City of Industry) stepping in.
Walken’s character, Jamie Shannon, is something of an enigma; a seemingly hollow man whose personal life is almost nonexistent. He was once married (to a pre-Poltergeist JoBeth Williams) but was absent in body and spirit. When he’s approached by a British businessman to do some recon in a small West African Nation named Zangaro, there’s little to hold him stateside. According to the mysterious businessman, Roy Endean, there are Western interests in the poverty stricken nation, and Shannon’s intel can help determine how stable the government is under the fascist dictator, General Kimba.
Posing as an Ornithologist, Shannon gains entry, but his seemingly benign methods of taking pictures at high security areas brings too much attention. He’s arrested, beaten within an inch of his life, and then deported. Back in the states, he tries to make sense of his life and get back together with his ex. But it’s too little too late. He is approached again by Endean, now asking Shannon to bring his task force along, attack the capital, wrest control of the country from Kimba and hold the palace until a hand-picked puppet president, sympathetic to the West, can be placed. Shannon is initially resistant, but with nowhere to really hang his hat, he accepts and starts re-assembling his team.
Walken is an actor who does his homework. The character of Shannon is thin on the page, and probably any good leading man could have delivered a competent performance – but Walken has imbued him with an internal–yet highly visceral–struggle. As with all his early roles, you can see the wheels spinning; his face is a tangle of raw nerves that may not reveal what the character is thinking, but it’s obvious he is thinking. His walk is feral, his larger than life eyes dart everywhere; this is a gun-for-hire who is always assessing the room and the situation. He makes empty promises to his ex that he can change and lead a normal life, but she knows, as do we, that he could never make that drastic a shift.
Twilight Time has recently released The Dogs of War on Blu-ray, and apologies for burying the lead, but this new release is definitely worth viewing whether you’ve seen the film or not. Strangely, with little fanfare, Twilight Time’s release is the first time the international version has been made available in the states. An additional 15 minutes have been restored to the US Theatrical version, and it’s quite a revelation. In 1980, United Artists decided to trim 15 minutes out. Perhaps it was in order to squeeze one more screening into the day (this is not unheard of– it was widely known when Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra was released in 1986, he kept cutting its running time down until he could add another performance) or maybe it was just their concern that there was too much plot going on in an action film.
But that excised time was taken up with backstory for Shannon’s character. JoBeth Williams’ ex-wife has two extended scenes, one where she gets in a fight with her father, and we learn his overbearing protectiveness manipulated her to divorce Shannon, and a scene in a motel where Shannon attempts to win his wife back; and we get insight into the way his mind works, his flights of fancy that have no relation to the inherent problems of their relationship. There’s also a subplot involving one of the mercenaries whose death Shannon is somewhat responsible for. All of this material builds upon the skeletal foundation of Shannon’s character, and helps to shed light on his behavior.
Shannon’s band of brothers, (they include a young and surprisingly lithe Tom Berenger and the criminally underused Paul Freeman — best known as Belloq, the heavy, in Raiders of the Lost Ark) returns to Zangaro, and we are treated to battle scenes promised in the poster art. For a film that purports to be a war movie, it’s light on “war” until the end. Interestingly, this gives the film some suspense, as we are waiting for the action to take place.
In the spirit of author Forsyth’s other works, the story leans more on espionage intrigue like The Day of the Jackal, and less on the firepower we’ve come to expect in “soldier of fortune” tales. (Not that The Dogs of War isn’t without things that blow up; a hand held grenade launcher with a massive artillery chamber is given ample screentime).
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray transfer is gorgeous as always, and as has become standard, without much in the way of extras. But having both the US and International versions side-by-side to compare, it’s another testament to a director’s vision suffering at the hands of movie executives that don’t trust the patience of their audience.
Whichever version you see, there is no question that Christopher Walken is and has always been a powerful and atypical screen presence, and The Dogs of War is an important and oft forgotten part of his canon, as well as undeniable proof that the man comes from another planet. There’s no other explanation for his strange choices.
We’re just fortunate he chose to land on Earth.
Dogs of War is available as a limited edition blu-ray from the Twilight Time label, and is available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment and TCM Shop.
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