What would motivate Chinese director John Woo to make a movie about the Navajo code talkers of WWII? Woo, noted for his cartoonishly violent movies like “Broken Arrow” and “Face/Off”, even sunk his own money into it as a producer. He must be a huge history buff. And had a strong desire to bring the story of the “windtalkers” to the general public. Kudos to him for that. Unless he botched the job.
Woo spent an unbelievable $115 million on a movie about a footnote to history. The movie was shot on Hawaii and had cooperation from the Department of Defense. The DOD allowed Woo to use Kaneohe Marine Corps Base for a boot camp for the actors to learn how to be Marines. For authenticity, the movie included actual Sherman, Sheridan, and Japanese Hago tanks. The tanks fit the war, the actors and script did not.
Meet Ben Yahzee. He’s a Navajo Indian who is leaving the reservation to serve his country and represent his tribe's contribution to winning the war. But wait, he’s going to have to share the screen with a white man. How ironic! Sgt. Joe Enders (Nicholas Cage) is the only survivor of a fire fight in the Solomons in 1943 that reminds of the fire fight in “Tropic Thunder”. Except that this scene is even more ridiculous. Enders returns to Hawaii with loss of hearing and PTSD. Ben is sent to Camp Pendleton for communications training in a new program using the Navajo language to send messages that the Japanese will be unable to decode. The men will be used mainly as artillery spotters. Because of the importance of the code, each Navajo is paired up with a regular Marine for protection of him and the code. To protect the sanctity of the code, their body guard has been instructed to not let the code fall into enemy hands. Since the code is in their heads, this means the partner must make sure their charge is not taken alive.
Enders is paired up with Ben. Their Hollywoodesque relationship starts rocky, but they eventually bond to the point where you question whether Joe will be able to carry out his orders in the eventuality (actually, certainty) of Ben being on the cusp of captivity. To double the chance of a dilemma scene, the movie has another partnership involving Ben’s buddy Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie) and Sgt. Pete “Ox” Henderson (Christian Slater). And there is a Pvt. “Chick” Clusters (Noah Emmerich) as our requisite racist.
The unit’s first action is on Saipan in 1944. Our quartet are in the thick of a charge on a Japanese-held hill. Apparently, the valuable Navajo artillery spotters are also needed for suicidal shock charges. Ben radios coordinates to the USS California. The Japanese intercept, but they are perplexed by the gibberish. The system works! We’re going to win the war! Later, the unit suffers from some friendly artillery fire and wouldn’t you know their one radio is hit. Following their training, Ben disguises himself as a Japanese soldier and takes Joe “captive” so they can get to a Japanese radio. I am not making this up. If you think the movie has jumped the shark (Navajo code for destroyer, by the way), you don’t know John Woo. We still have more exposition between Ben/Joe and Charlie/Ox. And Chick is in need of redemption. And the audience is not combat porn sated yet. Queue the gasoline explosions.
If you are wondering why it took a war movie fan so long to review a war movie, it’s because I like good war movies and I am reluctant to watch movies that give off a stench of suckitude. Sometimes my sense of smell is off, but usually my pessimism is warranted. Of course, you don’t have to be a seer to predict a war movie by John Woo is going to be bad. Not to mention that Nick Cage is the star. Cage is the Razzie Cage in this film. He drags the rest of the cast down with him. Even Mark Ruffalo disappoints. Beach keeps his dignity and continues his reign as the greatest modern portrayor of Native Americans in war movies. I’m not sure he wants to show up at the Navajo Reservation any time soon unless he has a well prepped excuse for his involvement in this historical travesty.
I have recently been ruminating on the two types of combat movies since ‘’Saving Private Ryan”. One type attempts to be just as realistic in its depiction of combat as the Omaha Beach scene in that film. The other type attempts to show extreme combat as armchair cinephiles imagine it to be. “Windtalkers” is squarely in the second category. Or should I say categorie. It has all the traits. Lots of flaming bodies. Grenades give off flames. A flamethrower goes up in flames. Are you noticing a popular image in these films? Let’s not forget unlimited ammo without reloading. Blood splatters on the camera lens. Hip shooting. Trampoline deaths. You know – John Woo does WWII. Throw in a laughable score and a predictable and clicheish script and you have one of the worst war movies ever made.
It’s highly likely this will be the first and last movie honoring the Navajo code talkers. That is a shame because they deserved better. It hopefully will be the last war movie directed by John Woo.
GRADE = F-
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The Navajo code talkers were born from the mind of Philip Johnston. He was a WWI veteran who had grown up on a Navajo reservation and thus was well-versed in their language. One of the very few non-Navajos who could claim this. He suggested to the military that their unique language could be used as a code. The military was surprisingly receptive to the idea. Perhaps because Cherokee and Choctaw Indians were used for similar communication in WWI. The testing phase went well and in May, 1942, the first 29 code talkers began training at Camp Pendleton. Eventually 421 Navajos were trained. They were trained to use their language to send messages to other Navajos. For military terminology, they substituted Navajo words. “Turtle” meant “ tank”, for instance. There were a total of 411 terms that had to be memorized for security reasons. The Japanese never came close to reading the messages. The "windtalkers" first saw action on Guadalcanal. They also served on Tarawa, Saipan, and Iwo Jima. They had their greatest success on Iwo where on the first two days they transmitted over 800 messages accurately. Later, Code talkers were deployed to Korea and Vietnam. Because of the top secret nature of the program, historians did not take notice until it was declassified in 1968. Three years later, President Nixon issued a certificate of appreciation. In 2000, the original 29 were honored by Congress with Gold Medals and the other members got Silver Medals.
The movie is based on a seed of truth, but goes way off the tracks. The central premise is that the code was so valuable that no code talker could be allowed to be taken alive. For that reason, each Navajo was paired with a Marine to not only protect them, but kill them if necessary. I suppose it’s possible that some audience members might buy this. However, it’s pure bull shit. In reality, they were assigned a body guard, but it was a response to several incidents where Marines opened fire on some of them because they looked like Japanese.
Woo attempts to show their heroism in battle and I could be wrong on this, but I find it hard to believe that they were the warriors depicted in the film. It would make little sense for such valuable communicators to be in the line of fire. Being a forward artillery observer is certainly dangerous, but it would seem to me that they would not be leading assaults. I found no evidence that any died in combat.