It is one of the best views on the island: a mile-wide valley framed by wooded headlands stretching away some four-and-a-half miles to the perfect blue of the Pacific. It would be a prime holiday destination if it weren’t for the fact that it is privately owned: the 4,000 acre Kuoloa Ranch on the windward side of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, not far from Honolulu, belongs to the Morgan family and is still a working cattle ranch. Tourists don’t come here.
Which is probably just as well, because anyone looking towards the sea in the late summer of 2000 could have been forgiven for thinking that heaven had been transformed into hell. Explosions, WWII tanks and some 750 soldiers crouched and ran amid the scrub; helicopters hovered overhead; and a small man in a white shirt darted to and fro, directing operations.
If anyone ever earned the title of ‘director’, it is John Woo on Windtalkers, the movie that was being shot on the Kuoloa Ranch during the weeks after Labor Day 2000. What he was directing was a recreation of the pivotal Pacific theatre battle of Saipan (June 1944), which pitted the US Marine Corps against the might of the Japanese Empire. “I was blown away on that first day of filming,” recalls screenwriter John Rice, who was on set. “It was truly amazing to see a thousand men in a valley, tanks rolling by and hundreds of explosions going off in one shot” - there were 280 of them in the one shot, according to producer Terence Chang. “It was such a thrill as a writer to see so many talented people and actors bringing your story to life.”
That day - August 28 - represented the culmination of 10 years of work by Woo and Chang, producers Alison Rosenzweig and Tracie Graham, writers Rice and Joe Batteer and by Hollywood studio MGM to recreate what, for nearly a quarter of a century, remained one of the US military’s most highly classified secrets: the use of Navajo soldiers to provide a code that the Japanese could not break.
In an era long before digital encryption technology, communications between headquarters and advanced battle positions, and between battle commanders and the troops on the ground, were extremely vulnerable. As the recent British movie Enigma revealed, cracking the enemy’s code was a priority in every theatre of operations, and especially in the Pacific, where the distances were huge and the possibility of enemy interception even greater.
Previously, the Japanese had successfully ‘hacked’ into almost every US military communications system, endangering both long-term strategic plans and the lives of the soldiers carrying them out. It was Philip Johnston, the son of a missionary, who provided the US Marine Corps with the solution. Johnston had grown up on a Navajo reservation and was one of the few non-Native Americans to speak the incredibly complex language of the Navajo Nation. As in Chinese, words in Navajo change their meaning depending on the stress and intonation. Unlike Chinese, however, Navajo has never been written down. And this meant that the chances of the Japanese being able to access its meanings were remote.
It proved a perfect solution: the messages conveyed by the Navajo Marines - the ‘windtalkers’ of the film - may have been intercepted, but they were never understood by the Japanese. At Iwo Jima alone, over 800 such messages were sent and received in a 48-hour period, and not one of them was decoded. The idea was so effective that the Pentagon waited over 20 years (until 1968) to reveal its existence - an understandable piece of caution which had the unfortunate side-effect of ensuring that, until now, proper tribute was never paid to the Navajo heroes of the war in the Pacific.
"our own heroes"
That was one thing that the makers of Windtalkers were determined to rectify. “I think it’s immensely important for all Americans - and the world - to know that the Navajo took such an active part in fighting for our country,” says Nicolas Cage, who plays Marine Joe Enders, one of the (non-Navajo) stars of the film. Roger Willie, who plays Charlie Whitehorse, another of the code-talkers, felt even more strongly. Cast as a result of an open audition near his home in Colorado, Willie saw his acting job as both an honour and an opportunity. “It means a lot to me,” he says. “I always viewed the code-talkers as special people: they are our own heroes. The movie presents an opportunity for them and the Navajo people in general to be exposed to the entire world.”
Ironically enough, when Graham and Rosenzweig first came across the story, they thought that it had mainly documentary potential. “I was enthralled,” recalls the former, “but equally perplexed as to how to turn the story of the code-talkers into a feature narrative.”
Once again, history supplied the answer, thanks to one of those dilemmas which may exist in everyday life, but which are magnified a hundred fold by the spotlight of war. The only way the Japanese would ever be able to break the code was if they captured and interrogated one of the Navajo. Since some of the code-talkers were required to operate on the front line, the Corps had to ensure that they were never captured. As a result, a Marine was allocated to each of them with very direct orders: protect the code-talker and his code at all costs.
It would be illegal for the Marine Corps orders to require one soldier to kill another, so what ‘at all costs’ meant was never spelled out. But it was clear to everyone what it meant in practice. And that is where Nicolas Cage’s character and the storyline of Windtalkers comes in.
Cage plays a career Marine who, as a result of his readiness to follow orders to the letter, saw much of his previous company wiped out during a battle on the Solomon Islands. “Enders is shell-shocked and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Cage. “He’s been through horrible experiences in the war and he’s lost his innocence. He’s probably the most unhappy character I’ve ever played.”
Deaf in one ear as a result of a blow to the head, Enders gets back into action thanks to Rita (Frances O’Connor), a nurse who helps him fake his medical history. Almost immediately, he finds himself assigned to look after code-talker Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach), and thus has to grapple with the dilemma of what he would do if Ben - a brilliant code-talker but a totally inexperienced soldier - was ever captured.
Enders’ situation is mirrored by that of another code-talker’s guard, Ox Anderson (Christian Slater), who finds the dilemma even more problematic. “Enders has given up on human existence to some extent and seems more resigned to his assignment,” says Slater. “But Ox really questions his orders.”
Other members of an exceptional cast include Beach, a Canadian Native American who starred in the indie drama Smoke Signals (the Navajo Nation was consulted on whether a non-Navajo could play the part and gave its blessing); Peter Stormare (Fargo); Noah Emmerich (The Truman Show); and Mark Ruffalo (You Can Count on Me) as other members of the platoon. Regular Woo collaborators Jeffrey Kimball (director of photography), Holger Gross (production designer) and Steven Kemper, Jeff Gullo and Tom Rolf (editors) head up the 350-person crew.
Best known in Hollywood for movies like Broken Arrow and Mission: Impossible 2, Woo made his name in Hong Kong with films which were as much about male-bonding as they were about specially choreographed action scenes, and Windtalkers - which focuses on the reluctant friendship that is forged between Enders and Yahzee in the heat of battle - reconnects with that part of his career. Thus, while the Navajo’s spiritual strength re-humanises Enders, Yahzee also learns something from his guard. “He is an intelligent Marine,” says Beach, “but he learns in battle that he’s not very good at killing people. Through Enders, he finds the strength to focus on his unit and mission and not worry about what’s in front of him. He also learns the power of bonding with others.”
Woo warmed immediately to the project - Rosenzweig remembers him leaping to his feet, clapping his hands and saying ‘Now that’s my kind of movie’ at the end of the pitch - but knew he had to find a balance between the massive backdrop of the battle of Saipan and the intimate story of the relationship between two men. As always, he solved it through movement.
“He’s incredible!” says Ruffalo. “In one particular shot, a steadycam followed us into a ditch where all this hand-to-hand combat was taking place. In one long take, moving from man to man, he had choreographed the whole thing. It was like a one-act play!”
“John likes everything to move,” confirms Kimball, who shot Mission: Impossible 2. “He likes the cameras to dance.”
"the ultimate auteur" Nicolas Cage on John
And it is ultimately this kinetic vision that holds Windtalkers together. “John is the ultimate auteur,” notes Cage, who previously worked with the director on Face/Off. “His vision is a world I want to work in. He’s very trusting and collaborative with actors. I also believe he likes to work in extremes. His vision is extreme - and so is mine.”
Published August 1, 2002