Introduction: On paper, Windtalkers (2002) had tremendous potential. A plot derived from the story of the Navajo Code Talkers’ considerable role in World War II was a very clever and unique idea for a film. Director John Woo had the chance to portray war from a completely different angle, unlike any other in the genre. However, the predisposed hype ultimately set up the viewing audience for a dreadful let down. Windtalkers takes place in the Pacific Theater during World War II. At this time, the U.S. continued to face strategic setbacks in the South Pacific because the Japanese found a way to translate American intel by breaking code transmissions. As a result, a new code routed in the language of the Navajo Indians was created to evade the Japanese intercepts. Sergeant Joe Enders (Nicholas Cage) and Sergeant Ox Henderson (Christian Slater) are called into action and are assigned as bodyguards to the Navajo Code Talkers, Private Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach) and Private Charlie Whitehouse (Roger Willie), respectively. Both are told to protect the code at all costs and then dispatched to fight. What begins with a promising opening, soon turns into a disaster. Windtalkers is one of the most unrealistic war movies ever made and completely neglects the importance of the Navajos. Especially for the OWI and BMP, who stake their reputation on depicting the most realistic characteristics of war and the unvarnished truth, the movie is a mere disgrace to their cause.
The Neglect and Demeaning of the Navajo Code Talkers
Their Actual Role: In reality, the Navajo Code Talkers played a major role in every U.S. assault for all three years the U.S. participated in World War II (Naval History and Heritage).
“They served in all six Marine divisions, Marine Raider battalions and Marine parachute units, transmitting messages by telephone and radio in their native language a code that the Japanese never broke. The code talkers’ primary job was to talk, transmitting information on tactics and troop movements, orders and other vital battlefield communications…They also acted as messengers, and performed general Marine duties. Praise for their skill, speed and accuracy accrued throughout the war” (Naval History and Heritage).
The communication skills of the Navajos were crucial to all efforts against the Japanese in the Pacific Theater. “At Iwo Jima, Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, declared, ‘Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima’ ” (Naval History and Heritage). For people that were so vital to the U.S. in the war, Windtalkers did them no justice.
After having watched the film, one might wonder why that is even the title. The Navajo Code Talkers in the movie, Yahzee and Whitehorse, are more like background characters than anything else. There is no emphasis placed on their role as code talkers or the role code talking played in the war effort. Besides for the brief introduction of code talking in the classroom, there is no depiction of how difficult it was to actually administer a message during combat.
Historically Inaccurate: Throughout the whole movie, the code talkers were only called on three times and it was to radio coordinates for airstrikes, a feat that is historically inaccurate. The Navajos radioed messages about battle updates, strategies, and military orders to other U.S. marines, not airstrikes. Code Talkers were employed more for intelligence than actual battle. They were used to safeguard important messages that needed to be passed from battalion to battalion: information that could easily destroy the Americans if the Japanese decoded it. Communicating coordinates for an airstrike does not qualify as an important message or one that even needs to be coded because it doesn’t matter if the Japanese understood it or not. Even if the Japanese did understand it, any effort to move all their heavy machinery and gun emplacements before the strike would be futile. At most, they could prevent a few casualties, but the whole point of the airstrike was to take out their heavy guns and strongly fortified uphill position. Clearly, this was a misguided attempt to show the Navajos importance in battle.
Later on, the movie depicted another fallacy. It showed Sergeant Enders killing Whitehorse with a grenade so he did not fall into enemy hands. This was another event that never happened in real life, perhaps a utilization of Hollywood’s creative license. The soldiers were told to try to keep the Code Talkers alive, but they were not told to keep them from being captured. Code Talkers were taught just like any other marine to not give up precious information if detained by the enemy. In Rosten’s eyes, this was a complete failure of the movie’s duty to “communicate facts about which the public is ignorant” because it only created more erroneous beliefs. Instead of clarifying for the audience, the movie in fact, filled their heads with more false information, and in turn, tarnished the memory of the Navajos.