Windtalkers begins in Monument Valley, the camera sweeping across the red buttes and deserts. While you might be tempted to ponder the majesty of all this U.S. territory laid out across the widescreen, it’s not long before you realize that such pondering isn’t really the point of John Woo’s new movie. An action movie dressed up like a World War II movie, it tracks the June 1944 Allied invasion of the Japanese island of Saipan, focused through the Marines’ innovative use of Navajo codetalkers.
On its surface, this bit of fictionalized history looks rather noble. The Marines win, the Japanese troops are beaten back via many explosions, and the code, the film’s closing epigraph proudly announces, “was never broken.” The trials and traumas leading to this grand finale have something to do with a codetalker, no surprise, a young and dedicated Private named Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach), but mostly, it has to do with the righteous lesson young Ben affords the Marine assigned to look after him, one Sergeant Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage). The Sergeant’s assignment is not, as he wants, to be “killing Nips,” or even, as he first guesses, only to “baby-sit an Indian,” but to protect the code at all costs. That is, if said “Indian” should be headed into enemy clutches, Joe is supposed to kill him.
This isn’t a particularly desirable responsibility, to be sure (and, it’s worth noting, an responsibility that might not be so readily applied to, say, a white Marine), but Joe is profoundly good at following orders. The film’s first action scene places him smack in the middle of a devastating battle in the Solomon Islands, 1943. Low on ammo and depleted in number, his surviving men suggest they retreat, but Joe holds firm to his mission, even though it ends up costing all 15 of his men their lives, and his hearing in one ear, not to mention, most symbolically, his Sense of Balance.
The rest of the film follows Joe’s efforts to regain his balance, first with the help of a lovely young WAC named Rita (Frances O’Connor). Apparently moved by his debilitating flashbacks to Solomon, she ignores his grumpiness and feels his pain when he collapses whenever he tries to walk. Pretty, perky, and red-lipped as she is, Rita gets even less to do than most girls in WWII movies, and after helping Joe to cheat on his hearing exam, she is forthwith evacuated from this manly romance, reduced to a voiceover on a few “Dear-Joe-the weather-is-lovely-in-Hawaii-why-won’t-you-write-me-back?” letters. Her off-screen nattering does serve a function, namely, to underline — in case you miss it in any of the film’s many other ham-handed tip-offs — that poor Joe is one damaged Marine.
He’s a grappler, that’s for sure. He grapples with guilt over his men’s deaths, more over his own survival and winning medals to boot, and still more over the likely outcome of his latest mission. His grappling with the past has him sweating in huge close-ups, then flashing back to some image of a buddy’s arm blowing off or head exploding, or worst of all, snarling, “Goddamn you Joe Enders!” just before grisly death. As to the future, Joe grits his teeth and decides to be as mean and surly as he can around Ben.
This looks an awful lot like standard issue racism to Ben, who’s seen too much of it. Along with fellow Navajo Charlie Whitehorse (Roger Willie), he’s joined the Marines to serve his “nation,” and, he hopes, to educate the difficult white men who hate him like poison treat him like he has no business being in their beloved corps. When Charlie and Ben first arrive at training camp, they observe the sneery attitude shot their way by the other troops. “I’ve never seen so many white men,” gapes Charlie. “Don’t worry,” says Ben, “They’ve never seen so many Navajo” (that is, two).
No matter Ben’s confidence: Charlie ends up with the better deal: his protector, Sergeant Ox Anderson (Christian Slater), turns out to be a decent fellow who takes to playing the harmonica alongside Charlie’s wooden pipe, so they get a little multi-culti bond on, a la Matewan. Meanwhile, Joe acts ornerier and ornerier: “How’s your white man?” Charlie inquires.
It seems a throwaway question, technically the set-up for Ben’s punch-line (following a food-related run-in, he quips, “Hungry”), but it also indicates the film’s layering of political and historical impasses. Loyalty and duty– so valued by the semper fi guys — here break down into their many components, in relation to possession and territory, commitment and benevolence, dominance and prejudice. Sadly, Windtalkers handles none of these well or even very carefully. Several of the Marines in Ben and Joe’s squad are Southern and/or racist, one prone to fret about dying, thus clearly Mr. Dead Meat; another (Noah Emmerich’s Corporal Chick Rogers) deserving of special reeducation. When Ben, as Chick puts it, “saves my bacon,” he wonders if maybe one day white men will be sharing sake with “Japs”; Joe tells him he’s thinking too much — apparently a bad idea when you’re at war.
Joe’s own resistance to thinking and concomitant determination to follow orders marks his emotional and moral limits, his inability to imagine outside a set of expectations laid down by someone else. Thank goodness that he’s assigned to look after Ben, a young man who has named his own son George Washington Yahzee, who is so spiritual, patient, insightful, and even-tempered (at least until he learns the truth about Joe’s orders, a discovery that is understandably upsetting). How useful it is for white soldiers with issues to be hooked up with noble men of color (recall Hart’s War). It’s true that Woo makes war grisly and frightening (men are repeatedly delimbed, chests are decimated, a head is lopped off), but the film also makes it look like a growth experience, or at least, a chance for redemption: Woo hauls out his favorite iconography to connect Ben and Joe, conveniently both raised in Catholic, even though one grew up on a reservation and another in Philadelphia.
Perhaps the most preposterous instance of Ben and Joe’s mutual appreciation comes when, while the Marines are being hit by “friendly fire,” they must find a working radio to correct the coordinates. Having been accused of looking “like a Nip,” Ben volunteers to dress up in a dead Japanese soldier’s uniform and take Joe over at gunpoint, passing as Japanese in order to get close to the radio. He learns the word for “prisoner” (from Joe, who can so do it all), then heads on over to the other side, where the Japanese take him for one of their own! Maybe they’re just distracted by the chance to kick the shit out of Joe, which obviously brings great delight, because later in the film, another group knows immediately that the Navajo is “important” and should be captured rather than killed.
The film suggests that it’s a good thing for Joe to see this act of valor (he stands up for Ben in the face of a white officer’s bigotry), just as it’s a good thing — maybe for a minute — for Ben to see Joe repeatedly rush into battle Sergeant-Rock-style and blow away whole platoons of Japanese. The metaphor for the schizophrenic national mission (racist/noble) goes into overdrive here. Joe is the generalized tormented warrior who blows away a bijillion faceless enemies (hey, it worked for Rambo), embodying the shortsightedness of vengeance as a motive for anything. Ben’s jaw-dropped awe turns into copycat behavior, when he also finds himself tormented (war is hell, you know, and everyone feels bad sooner or later), and when Joe sees his protectee rush pell-mell into tank- and sniper-fire, suddenly it looks like the bad risk that it has always been.
Though it might be argued that Nicolas Cage roaring and contorting in slow motion makes for good action cinema, it’s hardly the basis for a thoughtful interrogation of how war works, how it shatters (or otherwise forever changes) participants, and reinforces systemic racism. Even a desegregated military, of course, would be in trouble if racism were ever disappeared completely, as the foe, whoever it is, can never seem “equal to” or even much “like” the friend.
While Windtalkers touches on these difficult questions, it resolves them in the corniest possible ways, perhaps worst in the literal “white man’s burden” image of a shot-up Joe carrying his shot-up charge through a field of gunfire. Their mouths grimacing in matched pain, blood spurting from their similar wounds, they constitute a familiar Woo-ish tableau, but they’re caught up in their own slo-mo effect, unable to move on.