On December 8, 1941, the United States declared war on Japan. For the next several years, U.S. forces were fully engaged in battle throughout the Pacific, taking over islands one by one in a slow progression towards mainland Japan. During this brutal campaign, the Japanese were continually able to break coded military transmissions, dramatically slowing U.S. progress. In 1942, several hundred Navajo Americans were recruited as Marines and trained to use their language as code. Marine Joe Enders is assigned to protect Ben Yahzee - a Navajo code talker, the Marines' new secret weapon. Enders' orders are to protect his code talker, but if Yahzee should fall into enemy hands, he's to "protect the code at all costs." Against the backdrop of the horrific Battle of Saipan, when capture is imminent, Enders is forced to make a decision: if he can't protect his fellow Marine, can he bring himself to kill him to protect the code?
In this epic of war and a lesson in tolerance, John Woo is meticulous in melding his own intimate style into the clichés of a large-scale war movie, paying homage to all the tired conventions of the genre; it's an honor these clichés don't deserve. Driving the plot is the tension between Sergeant Enders (Nicholas Cage) and Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach), a young marine who is being trained along with other Navajos during World War II to transmit information from the battle front, because their native language is a code that cannot be broken by the Japanese. The picture invents an angle — kill the Navajos if they're captured, a battle condition of which there's no known record — and ignores the more compelling truth: that the Navajos are prevented from being active participants in the same war in which Native Americans raised the flag at Iwo Jima. — Elvis Mitchell
2002-06-14 | Elvis Mitchell | Read the New York Times Review of Windtalkers