These screengrabs, used here for criticism, are owned by MGM
On June 4, former Marine Chester Nez, the last of the Navajo radio operators of World War II, died at 93. The announcement came from Judith Schiess Avila, his biographer, who worked on Nez's book, Code Talker. Despite coming at a sad time, I hope the PR she got in the past few days boosted sales of what I hear is a pretty good book (I haven't read it), because the only piece of media we journalists have had any interest in, now that the last code talker is dead, is Windtalkers, a 2002 box-office flop featuring Nicolas Cage.
No, Cage doesn't play one of the Navajos. That would be racist. Instead, he plays one of those white protagonists in a movie about a minority group at war. Like Matthew Broderick in Glory, or Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai,Cage's white face theoretically makes the whole thing much more palatable than one of the actual Navajo faces, like this one below, which belongs to Nez:
Press coverage considers the film one of Nez's accolades. The Washington Post puts it in a paragraph with his military honors, saying Nez "was honored a generation later, receiving the Congressional Gold Medal in 2001. Windtalkers, a 2002 film starring Nicolas Cage, was based on the code talkers’ story."
My suspicion is that they, like most of America, gave Windtalkers a miss. It was not a hit, so it's weird that it's our reference point for this moment in American history. It's like memorializing the author Edgar Rice Burroughs by talking about John Carter.
The entertainment and media industries don't consider a Native American story to be a smart move if you want to make money. Some anonymous people I know who represent talent confided in me that when something having to do with Native Americans gets submitted, they're vary wary, or they just skip it outright. No one wants to spend their entertainment dollar on anything having to do with Native Americans. Apparently Dances with Wolves was a fluke.
I took a gamble even writing this, but I hoped that the presence of Nicolas Cage would draw your precious clicks.
(By the way, in case you're planning to watch it, I should tell you I'm going to completely spoil this movie)
Windtalkers is a surprisingly violent war flick centering on a shell-shocked protagonist with fresh trauma who goes into a psychopathic berserker mode during every battle scene. The completely made-up Cage character is a perfect wartime analogue for the antiheroic killing machine protagonists from John Woo's early gun-fu movies, like A Better Tomorrow.
At $115 million in 2002 money, Windtalkers was a big risk, and it was meant to be John Woo's rise to total domination of Hollywood after the successes of Face/Off and Mission: Impossible 2. Huge and bloated, with CG planes and more fiery explosions than the actual war had, its failure ended up halting John Woo's rise. Since then, he's returned to China and has done really well for himself, making action blockbusters that are also literally propaganda.
But despite its action pedigree, it had that title. So we the audience would need to eat our vegetables and take a break from things exploding to learn all about the valuable contributions of two of the 29 Navajo code breakers.
The screenplay gave us the completely fictional Charlie Whitehorse and Ben Yahzee, two guileless privates who left happy lives on the reservation and joined up to do their duty as loyal Americans. The art department placed a truly astonishing number of American flags behind the Navajo characters in the opening few minutes of the movie.
The story in Windtalkers was about the campaign for Saipan, an island under Japanese rule that was, interestingly, inhabited by Chamorro people, who were in a similar position to the Navajo people, being forced to fight for the group who had colonized them. The movie doesn't mention this.
But I just wanted to know how "code talking" might have worked, and the movie delivered! Here's the nuts and bolts of how the code was used by the late Chester Nez and his comrades:
They'd be out in the battlefield, across enemy lines, where shit was hairiest. They were seeking out targets that had not been scouted yet, underground bunkers and such. Nicolas Cage would spot one, and then shout the coordinates at one of the Navajo guys. The Navajo guy would then translate the whole thing to Navajo while shouting into a radio.
Another Navajo guy, safe on a battleship, far from the action, would then hear the transmission and write down the coordinates. He would hand that off to a guy whose job it was to aim the guns.
The Japanese guys in the bunker would be listening in, like, "Wha? I don't speak this crazy language. Oh, well, I guess we're safe for the time being."
Then the movie would cut to some vintage WWII footage of an actual battleship firing actual Mark 7's at the island. No trial and error would be needed. First time was always a charm.
The bunker would explode in a big, cinematic, gasoline explosion. Well done, Navajo guys!
As the film wore on, the movie put the whole code talking thing on the back burner. From time to time it would just use conversations between code talkers as little interstitial moments between battles, as though there was a focus group full of people who wrote, "Wasn't this movie supposed to be about code talking?" on their comment cards.
The conversations tended to be there to show the Navajo radio men getting used to their jobs, and starting to sprinkle in Marine jargon even though they were speaking Navajo. It came off as cutesy and patronizing.
Other than that, Windtalkers is mostly the story of Nicolas Cage's character, with some minority soldiers sprinkled into a company that was not in any other way racially integrated. One particularly racist character was this white bully.
He spent most of the film being a dick to the Navajo guys, spitting on them, calling them "chief," and excluding them from poker games. This sort of thing probably happened to the actual code talkers.
But in the movie, this was a really pathetic way to pay lip service to discrimination. For instance, at one point he was distracted because he was shooting wave after wave of Japanese people.
One of the Navajo guys locked eyes on him…
…reached for a knife to throw…
The racist guy turned, scared he was about to have a knife thrown at him.
Oh, but it was actually a Japanese guy just behind him.
And then he's like, "Oh, wow, the Navajo guy really saved my bacon. Maybe they're not so bad." This sort of thing probably did not happen anywhere other than in pretty much every action movie.
Right after this scene, Christian Slater got outnumbered, and this guy ran in with a sword.
..and cut his head off! It was really unexpected, and definitely my favorite part of the movie, although it was really no more or less violent than pretty much any other battle scene in Windtalkers. It also had nothing to do with Navajo code talkers.
It goes without saying that Chester Nez would be better memorialized by mentioning a different movie about Navajo code talkers, but the only other one is Never So Few, which somehow manages to be worse (seriously):
Granted, I don't expect to see some carefully written drama about the difficulties of being a radio technician on a battlefield. Not a lot of people would go see something that goes into detail about the practical aspects of actually operating the radio and translating military terms into Navajo. I agree. That doesn't exactly sound like a blockbuster.
But then neither was Windtalkers.
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