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Woo's 'Windtalkers' tells a compelling World War II story

Friday, June 14, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

No brainstorm of the American central command in World War II was more brilliant than that of using the Navajo Indian language as a secret radio code in the South Pacific. Only select, highly trained Marines of Navajo birth could understand it. The Japanese would never be able to figure out what it was, let alone how to break it -- unless they caught one of the Native American speakers during combat and tortured the secret out of him.


RATING: R for language and extreme violence

STARRING: Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach


WEB SITE: www.mgm.com/windtalkers



Those "Windtalkers," and the equally heroic Marines charged with protecting them on the battlefield, are the subject of director John Woo's compelling film at hand. It is not for the faint-hearted.

Neither was the bloody Battle of Saipan in 1944, when the Marines found themselves operating against the most ferocious and difficult conditions yet encountered.

Writers John Rice and Joe Batteer give us both a hero and an anti-hero for protagonists: The former is Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach), a sweet-tempered Navajo idealist who can't understand the mean-tempered, battle-scarred officer Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage) assigned to be his bodyguard.

We, the audience, can understand Enders better because we see him, at film's outset, become the sole survivor of his unit at the Battle of the Solomon Islands. Seriously wounded there -- mentally as well as physically -- Enders is haunted by combat guilt and memories from then, and furious at being required to "baby-sit" Yahzee and his reconnaissance transmissions now, behind the lines, instead of leading the new frontline assault.

Duo No. 2 consists of Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie) and his guard Henderson (Christian Slater), a more compatible pair who share music-making as well as easygoing personalities in the thick of things.

And things are thick, indeed. It seems as if the whole island of Saipan is to be conquered by the same 15 or 20 Yanks, and -- like the Alamo -- they're pretty much all goin' down.

Cage is not my favorite actor. With a one-dimensional seriousness that borders on lugubrious, he is sincere and fine as the dehumanized Joe. But Adam Beach is more than fine -- excellent, in fact -- soulful, calm and always believable.

Frances O'Connor as nurse Rita has the unenviable duty of caring for (and about) Cage. She is the token woman in an all-male cast and does as well as she can in a completely meaningless role.

The dialogue is good. "Another 50 years or so," somebody observes, "and we'll be sitting down with the Nips drinking sake, looking for somebody else's ass to kick."

Less charming, but presumably necessary, is the carnage in a relentless, horrendously realistic series of scenes -- no less bloody than those of "Private Ryan," as we might expect from Hong Kong "action auteur" John Woo. Every shell here is a direct hit. Every bomb produces flying bodies (or parts thereof).

But Woo's direction is redemptively authentic and respectful in its rendering of the Navajo. With "Windtalkers," he has graduated from kung-fudom and has produced a classic war story, painful but powerfully effective overall.

The genius of the code was its simplicity. The Navajo word for "whale," for instance, stood for battleship. "Iron fish" meant submarine. Such is language's complexity and subtlety that the slightest changes in inflection could change meaning. At Iwo Jima alone, the code talkers transmitted 800 error-free messages in 48 hours. They were sworn to secrecy -- and their great contributions went unrecognized -- until decades after the war.

By the way: The Navajo code was never broken.

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