Speaking In Tongues

An interesting take on code-breaking, war and friendship.

What may seem like a romanticized rendering of army men communing with the southerly, is actually a gore and gun depiction of an episode in World War II.

"Windtalkers" is a John Woo film that tells of the capture of the Japanese Island of Saipan by Amrican Marines. But unlike Woo’s other tale of capture and battle (albeit of another kind), this is one film where characters don’t go scaling up and down walls and fly with the wind - instead, they talk into it!

When the Americans declared war on Japan in 1941, their men took a severe beating when the enemy somehow broke their war codes. Joe Enders (Nicholas Cage) is a bruised marine, the last one standing in a horrific battle in the marshes of the East, where his comrades are blown to bits by Japanese barrage. When he returns to the convalescence centre at Pearl Harbour, he is diagnosed as suffering from a badly damaged eardrum, destabilizing his bodily equilibrium. But inspite of recurring nightmares of war, he enlists the help of a nurse and worms his way into the next batch out to battle.

His new assignment is unusual - he has to protect a Navajo Marine, a "code talker", from enemy hands. But more importantly, he has to protect the code. This clandestine code is based on the language of the Navajos and has no written text; if the code talker is captured by the Japs, the Americans might just lose the war.

"Windtalkers" belongs to the cadre of World War films that takes you closest to the gunpowder. In fact, the illustration of armed combat, gunfire and military action risks transgressing palatable viewing as blood and bullets paint a gory picture. A story of two men among thousands, venturing out to war, the other half of the stage is taken up by newcomer Adam Beach who plays the young Navajo Ben Yahzee. Yahzee is one of the prized code talkers new to army life, and to the Americanisms Cage and his colleagues are familiar with.

Taking you to the vortex of battle, Woo spares no trouble recreating that battleground, and is equally lavish with the decimation of bodies. There are some battle sequences that continue for ages, where gunfire is the continuing score. While the film’s plot revolves around the camaraderie and fellowship of one unit of marines, it's prime focus is the unique contribution of the Navajos.

A recognizable celebrity cast represents an assorted compound of characters, though Beach comes across like a greenhorn. Cage, in an attempt to come across as broken and injured, barely survives in this film. The locales - parts of Hawaii and Southern California - vivify the jagged planes and dry hills of Navajo country and the island of Saipan, though none of that feeling of serenity lasts longer than a grenade explosion. Even the few moments of emotion assume the artificiality of manufactured morality, and don’t quite fit into the screenplay.

With action first on his agenda, Woo has made a commendable war film; personally, though, I thought this one had one gun too many.

This article was first published on 19 Sep 2002.