By Oliver Seth Hankla
Over the years, producers and directors have created an increasing number of films that include a variety of events, insight, and details of aspects and events that occurred during World War II. One particularly interesting film, Windtalkers, is a war time thriller that offers its audience a portrayal of a particular group of people who were very important of the efforts of the United States on the Island of Saipan during World War II. That group of people were the Navajo Code Talkers and the marines involved. For the most part, Windtalkers is an accurate portrayal of many of the struggles faced by both the United States Marine Corps and the Navajo Code Talkers in their combined effort to keep the code from being broken; however, some viewers may feel that the accuracy of the story is impugned to the amount of action and special effects used in the film.
Windtalkers was directed and produced by John Woo. Woo is well known and even criticized for the overwhelming amount of actions used in his films at the expense of greater focus on the plot and storyline. Working with Woo was not foreign for Nicolas Cage who played the main character in another action packed film directed and produced by Woo, Face Off. Woo and Cage were not the only members involved in the making of this film with a history of working together; the two writers of the script, John Rice and Joe Batter, both graduated from the University of Southern California and worked together on every film either of them have ever participated on, including the hit block buster, The Last Samurai. The executive producer, C.O. Erickson, is considered to be one of the most experienced producers in the film industry today, and has been producing films for over fifty years.
The cast of the film is very extensive, which is to be expected considering the amount of actors needed in order to recreate that battle scenes, of course the number of main characters in not as lengthy. Nicholas Cage, acting the role of the main character, plays a "by the book" marine, Sgt. Joe Enders, who considers the orders and responsibilities given to him above his own life. In the beginning of the film, Enders is in the Solomon Islands trying to hold the swamp when his men begin dying, causing his leadership to be questioned. Enders then ends up in a field hospital and is eventually moved to a base hospital after a grenade explodes within dangerously close range of him. Not only does Enders deal with the physical disadvantages he acquired while in the Solomon Islands, but he is also fighting a battle of emotions and the memory of the death of his friends.
In an attempt to get back into action, Enders persuades a nurse to help him pass a hearing exam. Once Enders is deemed fit for action, he is assigned to watch over the Navajo Code Talkers and the responsibility to ensure that the code does not fall into enemy hands under any circumstances, and is promoted from corporal to sergeant. Enders receives these orders at Camp Pendleton in California, where the code talkers are trained, and meets the code talker assigned to him. Initially, Enders is very distant and does not understand, but eventually he comes to accept and learn from them. As the movie proceeds, the Navajo Indians gain Enders' respect after proving themselves in battle by actions such as putting their own lives in jeopardy for the lives of the other marines, just as he has done. The transformation within Enders is most evident when he experiences his personal struggle with killing one of the code talkers that he respected a great deal to ensure the secrecy of the code. Throughout the movie, Enders transitions from a gung ho soldier that follows orders without question to an emotionally distraught individual, fighting an ethical battle within him, and begins questioning his own ability to follow through with his assignment. Having already faced physical trauma and coping with the death of his men, his struggle caused by his growing relationship with the code talkers, especially Ben Yahzee, becomes an additional facet that affects the actions Enders takes portraying him as nothing less than a hero. Although the relationship between Enders and the code talkers made a great transformation, it becomes jeopardized between Enders and the code talker he is assigned and had become very close to, Yahzee, after his actions taken to protect the code.
The main supporting actor, Adam Beach, plays Ben Yahzee. Yahzee is a young Navajo Indian who is very ambitious and eager to become a code talker and leaves his wife and son behind to do so. Yahzee is proud of his culture and heritage and is very eager to befriend the marines despite the fact that the feelings are not mutual. For example, during the introduction of Yahzee is proud of his culture and heritage and is very eager to befriend the marines despite the fact that feelings are not returned towards him. For example, during the introduction of Yahzee and Enders, Yahzee is very social and talkative whereas Enders is not. Yahzee accidentally spills his drink in Enders' chow so Enders acts to retaliate by taking Yahzee's chow and begins eating it. The relationship between the two characters starts of fairly rocky but eventually changes into a very close relationship. However, the relationship between Enders and Yahzee takes a turn for the worse when Enders acts upon his duty to protect the code and kills another one of the code talkers, Charlie Whitehorse. It is at this point that Yahzee begins to resent the choice of joining the Marine Corps and develops a growing resentment towards Enders. It is now Yahzee who is making an extreme transformation from one who has a hard time killing to a bloodthirsty Navajo code talker on a rampage to avenge the death of his beloved friend. Although Yahzee's resentment towards Enders had steadily grown since the death of Charlie Whitehorse, his feelings abruptly changed once again after Enders rescues him from a swarm of Japanese soldiers and ends up losing his own life.
Yahzee, like Enders, faces multiple conflicts and struggles of his own throughout the film, such as being away from his family, wanting to be accepted by the other marines, the loss of his friend and role model, the actions of Enders to protect him, and developing the courage to take the necessary actions to save other American lives. In the movie, the significance of Yahzee's role is to emphasize the importance of his cultural values and is expressed through many of his actions, such as his reasoning for joining the military, which was to protect his natural homeland and family.
Another important supporting actor in the film is Roger Willie, who plays the character of Charlie Whitehorse. Whitehorse is both a good friend and role model to Yahzee, which is attributed to his knowledge, wisdom, and experience in the Navajo ways and culture. Whitehorse is older than Yahzee and very protective of him, just as he is with his culture. Whitehorse is not as eager as Yahzee to make friends but eventually lets his guard down with his fellow marines. Unfortunately, Whitehorse's fate is nothing short of tragic when he is surrounded by Japanese soldiers and killed by Enders in order to protect the code from falling into the hands of the Japanese.
Sergeant Pete "Ox" Henderson, played by Christian Slater, is another important character in the film. Henderson is given the same orders as Enders, and like Yahzee, he is eager to meet the code talkers and develop a relationship with them. During one scene, Henderson acts on his willingness to develop a relationship with the code talkers by pulling out his harmonica and joining Whitehorse in playing his instrument. Like the other characters, Henderson faces conflict and struggles that define his own character. It is very evident that Henderson is not comfortable with the orders given to him. He has little experience in the field and finds himself questioning whether or not he will be able to carry out the responsibilities and orders designated to him, especially once his friendship with Whitehorse has been established.
Nicholas Cage performed very well within his role. If some aspects of his character were portrayed differently, it would have seemed more realistic. For example, every time Enders pulled the trigger, someone died. Also, his character seemed to change with different battle scenes. In some battles he seemed absolutely fearless and as though he was completely oblivious to the shots being fired towards him, and in others he acted with much more caution regarding the enemies' gunshots by getting down. However, Cage did very well in portraying the emotions and compassion Enders felt towards the other marines, the code talkers, and especially Yahzee. His ability to depict these aspects made a great contribution to the role of his character and the portrayal Enders as a hero. Adam Beach also did a wonderful job in the film. After the death of Whitehorse, Beach's character faceed his most difficult and consuming struggle; it was at this point he allowed his anger and aggression to take over due to the pain he felt from his loss. I believe some of his actions were plausible due to his state of mind at the time, but others were too aggressive, especially for his character, and only made them seem unrealistic. Beach's character was very significant in conveying the importance of cultural values, which he did very well expressing in his role.
Roger Willie did an outstanding job as Whitehorse in his Hollywood debut. There seemed to be no flaws or negative aspects with his performance or the character he played. While there were particular parts of the movie I favored certain characters, none were able to play a part as moving as Willie in the scene in which he is playing the flute and opens up to allow Henderson to join him. Christian Slater also performed well despite his short lived role. It was difficult to find any blemishes in his performance considering the length of time his character was included in the film, but during his performance he did a great job portraying such an uplifting characteristics. Slater was able to depict emotions that made up Henderson's character in a way that seemed very realistic, truthful, and which advocated a relationship between the soldiers and code talkers.
Historically, the film covered many different people, but the main focus was the liaison between the United States and the Navajo Indians. There was little relevance and involvement of historical facts regarding the Japanese even though they were the adversaries. Many people believe that without the code talkers, the chances of the U.S. winning the war would have been greatly diminished. World War II brought about many changes, and the birth of a new era in our history is depicted when an all white platoon came to accept and respect a Native American for who he is, his culture, his beliefs, and for what he has done. Despite having been moved from their home to a reservation, oppression, and their people murdered by white settlers for many years, the Navajos still fought. They did not fight because they were forced to; they had the heart to put their hardships and differences with their oppressors behind them for the love and fulfillment of duty not only to their families, but also to the land that was taken from them.
The events that were portrayed in the film were mostly specific to those that occurred on the Island of Saipan during WWII. The special effects used to reproduce the explosions and battles that took place on the island were excessive and not accurate to the true historical events. However, there are many other aspects of the plot and story line that are accurate and coincide with historical facts. For example, the Navajo were only enlisted in the Marine Corps and no other branch of the military. Another historically accurate event that occurred in the film included the difficulty the Japanese had in attempting to break the code. The Japanese were considered the best code breakers in the world but were unable to relate the sounds of the Navajo languages with sounds of the Navajo as Americans under water. Also, the Navajo had to relate things like tanks to tortoises in their code because they had never been exposed to such technology before then.
In most films, excessive effects can easily distract and audience from a story line, but with the history involved in this film the distraction is overtaken. Not only did it accurately depict important historical events, but also it did it with a mediocre cast. This truly is a motivating film that expresses the cultural and historical differences that must be put aside in order to unite for common purposes.Members of the Navajo Codetalkers, WWII
The Making of the John Woo Film: Windtalkers
Doris A. Paul, Navajo Code Talkers;
Max Collins, Windtalkers.