Windtalkers (2002)




Director:     John Woo.

Starring:     Nicolas Cage (Sergeant Joe Enders),  Adam Beach (Private Ben Yahzee),  Peter Stormare (Gunnery Sergeant Hjelmstad),  Noah Emmerich (Private Chick),  Mark Ruffalo (Private Pappas),  Brian Van Holt (Private Harrigan),  Martin Henderson (Private Nellie),  Roger Willie (Private Charlie Whitehorse),  Frances O'Connor (Rita),  Christian Slater (Sgt. Pete 'Ox' Anderson),  Jason Isaacs (Major Mellitz),  Billy Morts (Fortino),  Cameron Thor (Mertens),  Kevin Cooney (Ear Doctor),  Holmes Osborne (Colonel Hollings). 

Navajo codetalkers use their own language as the unbreakable code.


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

A bus arrives at the Navajo Indian reservation.  Ben Yahzee hugs his wife and son good-bye. 

Solomon Islands. 1943.  The Japanese are all around a squad of 15 men led by Corporal Joe Enders.  The Americans start running out of ammunition and want to retreat.  But Joe tells them that their orders are to hold the position and that is what they are going to do.  One by one the marines are killed.  The last one alive is hit repeatedly and tells Joe as he dies:  "God damn you, Joe Enders."  Enders himself is hit by shrapnel from a tossed grenade and collapses in a heap.

U.S. Marine Field Hospital.  Corporal Enders is in the hospital.  He receives his purple heart for being wounded.  He is then told that he will be put in for the silver star. 

Camp Pendleton, California.  The Navajo will receive training to be codetalkers here. 

Kaneohe Bay.  U.S. Naval Hospital. 1943.  Joe suffers from flashbacks to the time he lost 15 men.  He suffers from a perforated eardrum and has troubles with his balance because of it.  The Wave Rita likes Joe a lot.  She even helps him cheat to pass his hearing test. 

Camp Pendleton.  Sgt. Pete "Ox" Anderson is assigned to be with the codetalkers.  Joe will also be working with the codetalkers.  He is informed that the codetalkers will each pair up with a non-Navajo marine.  The job of the non-Navajo marine is to keep the codetalker alive.  Joe doesn't like the idea, but the officer tells him that they need good marines.  They cannot let the codetalkers fall into enemy hands.  The implication is that they are to kill the Navajos if they are about to fall into the hands of the Japanese.  (Joe is then promoted to Sergeant.)

The Navajo arrive on the base.  Ox goes to talk with Joe.  Joe tells him that he cannot speak about his duties, which makes Ox smile since he got the same instruction.  Ben is searching for the Second Joint Assault Signal group.  Ox leaves Joe to help out the Navajos.  Ben is there with his very close friend Whitehorse.  Later Ben speaks with Joe since they are to be paired up together.  Ben is being very friendly, but Joe is being very inhospitable. 

The guys play poker.  One of the fellows named Chick starts harassing the Navajos.  In a briefing, news arrives that they will be shipping out tomorrow morning.  They will be placed in front of the whole division.  Whitehorse is paired up with Ox.  Joe experiences more flashbacks and has to leave the briefing.  Ben follows him and sees Joe throwing up.  He tries to talk with him but Joe just keeps rejecting him.  Just before leaving, Ben asks Joe:  "What the hell's wrong with you?" 

Rita visits Joe.  They have a drink together.  Ox plays his harmonica.  Rita tells Joe that she will write him and she hopes he will write her back.  Joe is non-committal on the subject.  Later Whitehorse tells Joe to take good care of his friend Ben.

Japanese Island of Saipan.  June 16, 1944.  The marines are fighting the Japanese defending the island.  The Japanese are fighting from trenches.  Joe is back in combat and he starts to go crazy.  He starts killing one Japanese soldier after another.  He is so crazed that Ben is amazed and shocked by his behavior.  As a codetalker Ben transmits the coordinates to Whitehorse who then transmits them to the naval ships.  The Japanese intercept the message, but can't decode it. The naval guns zero in on the coordinates. 

Ben freezes when faced with killing a Japanese soldier.  He hesitates so long that Joe has to kill the soldier.  Joe takes a satchel of explosives and throws it into a Japanese machine gun nest, thereby destroying the nest.  Chick shouts to the others:  "A God damn Nipponese touchdown." 

Back at camp, Whitehorse and Ben hold a Navajo ceremony.  Joe receives a letter from Rita. 

Chick continue to harass the Navajos.  He catches Ben by himself taking a bath in a pond.  He hits Ben a couple of times with his rifle butt.  Then Ben tackles Chick and hits him in the face several times.  Joe arrives and watches what's going on.  Chick gets the upper hand again, but is soon stopped by other marines.  When Chick tries to continue the fight, Joes chokes him from behind until he stops.  Chick defends himself by saying he thought Ben was a Japanese.  No one believes that line. 

Ben tells Joe that the ceremony of the other night was a protection ceremony.  He adds:  "I won't freeze up again."  Joe expresses his skepticism, but Ben insists its true because his buddy Whitehorse smeared the ash on his face.  Joe receives another letter from Rita.  She took a stray dog in to her home.

Joe finally starts talking to Ben as a person.  Japanese artillery opens up on the American troop trucks. The mean are getting clobbered.  And then Joe tells them that it is not Japanese artillery shelling them, but American.  Joe starts laughing.  Ben can't get a message out because his radio has been hit by enemy fire.  The men run away from their trucks to escape the artillery fire.  Gunny gets wounded by a sniper.  Joe is the one who kills the sniper.  The Americans then run into an entrenched Japanese position.  Again they start taking a beating.  Ben has an idea.  He takes the uniform of a dead Japanese soldier and puts it on himself.  Joe volunteers to be his prisoner.  Ben marches Joe behind Japanese lines.  The Japanese start beating Joe, until he reaches behind Ben's back and pulls out his pistol from Ben's belt and shoots the Japanese.  He pushes one of the Japanese right into Japanese headquarters and he and then Ben start killing every Japanese they see.  Ben gets on the radio and transmits the coordinates.  The American artillery zeros in on the Japanese and starts clobbering them. 

Back at camp a Colonel arrives to present still another medal to Joe.  Joe tells the Colonel that he couldn't have done it without Private Ben Yahzee, but the Colonel shows only disinterest in this.  Joe gives his medal to Private Pappas to give to the wife of a recently killed marine friend.  Joe and Ben have a drink together.  Ben says giving the widow his medal was a noble thing for him to do.  Joe scoffs saying that he doesn't care about medals.  He then opens up and tells Ben about his losing a 15 man squad.  He scoffs at himself:  "Yeah, I'm a good fucking marine."  As he gets drunker he starts having more flashbacks.  After Joe passes out, Ben performs a Navajo ceremony over his body.  Joe awakens and tells Ben to stop that nonsense.  (But when Joes drifts off again, Ben finishes the ceremony.)

Rita writes Joe that they have finally gotten to the end of the blackouts on Hawaii.  She asks him if he is reading her letters and if he is listening.  Ben tells Joe that he should come out to Navajo country.  For the first time since meeting the Navajo codetalker, Joe calls him Ben.  Joe visit Gunny telling him:  "I need out. . . I can't do it."  Gunny says it's impossible.  He has been saving a lot of marines. 

Joe and his group are supposed to be in a secure zone, but suddenly the Japanese launch a surprise assault on them.  The soldier with the flame thrower is killed when a Japanese bullet pierces his gas tanks and he starts to burn to death.  Joe shoots him with his pistol to end his suffering.  During the fighting, Whitehorse saves Chick's life.  Ox receives a bayonet wound and Whitehorse is wounded.  A Japanese officer cuts off Ox's head with his sword.  The Japanese then overpower Whitehorse.  Joe sees Whitehorse being captured.  He looks at Whitehorse's face and Whitehorse says to kill him.  Joe tosses a grenade into the group killing both Whitehorse and the Japanese. 

Ben arrives with the rescuers.  He immediately wants to know where Whitehorse is.  Joe just says he's over there.  When Ben sees his friend dead he starts to cry.  Joe then tells Ben:  "I killed him."  Ben is furious and threatens to kill Joe.  Joe just tells him:  "Do it."  Pvt. Pappas stops Ben.  Later Joe tells Ben that he was following orders.  Ben says:  "Of course you were, Joe.  You're a damn good fucking marine." 

The Eighth Army is moving up.  Joe's group has to go ahead of them.  If they are able to take the ridge in question Saipan will belong to the Americans.  Gunny asks Joe if there is still a problem between himself and Ben.  Joe says no.  Moving up the ridge the men find themselves in the middle of of a mine field.  Pvt. Pappas is to follow behind Chick to find a path through the minefield.  Since Pappas is scared, Ben steps forward and starts marching through the field.  Joe has to hustle to keep up with Ben.  They get attacked by the Japanese but beat them back.  The Eight Army is on the march to the ridge now.  Gunny tells Joe that they have to check out the other side of the ridge.  They proceed to do their duty.  Gunny gets badly wounded by a Japanese machine gun.  While Joe works on Gunny, Ben goes ahead without him.  Joe suddenly realizes that Ben is gone and hurries to catch up with him.    And now it's Joes's turn to watch a crazed man killing the enemy one after the other.  Joe is shocked at the killing frenzy. 

Pappas fights for his life against a Japanese soldier.  They are locked together in a death struggle.  When the Japanese soldier gets on top of Pappas, Ben shoots the Japanese man three times in the back.  When Pappas gets up, he attacks Ben.  Ben could have killed him too, if the bullets had gone through the Japanese soldier's body.  Joe helps pull Pappas off Ben. 

As the men proceed ahead Ben, Joe, Chick and Pappas find themselves fighting against a large number of attacking Japanese.  Joe seems to have found himself in the same situation as previously.  The men wonder if they are going to die, but Joe insists:  "Nobody else is going to die!"  As the Eighth Army approaches the ridge, the Japanese open up with their artillery.  They start devastating the Eighth Army.  Joe sees the destruction below him and realizes that they have to call in air support.  He runs to fetch a radio so that Ben can get a message out.  But before Joe can grab the radio, a Japanese soldier grabs it and runs.  Joe is able to kill him and get the radio back.  Ben is still angry with Joe and threatens to kill him with Whitehorse's knife.  While arguing with Ben, Joe gets bayoneted by a charging Japanese.  Joe is able to kill the man and then saves Ben's life from another attacker. 

Joe gets the radio and gets wounded again.  Ben is able to get the coordinates to the Americans.  Joe pulls a wounded Ben to relative safety.  Ben asks him:  "How many are still out there, Joe?"  Joe looks and sees a lot of Japanese coming down the ridge toward them.  But he only says:  "There's not many."  Ben points Joe's pistol to his face and tells Joe:  "Do it, Joe, do it!"  But Joe refuses to shoot saying that no one else is going to die.  Joe grabs Ben and throws him over his shoulder.  Both men are re-wounded.  Joe gets him into a foxhole.  Chick and Pappas arrive and save the day by killing the rest of the Japanese in the immediate area.  Joe gets Ben into a foxhole.  Airplanes arrive to bomb the Japanese positions. 

Ben shouts:  "Joe, we did it!"  But Joe has been hit in the chest.  Ben says:  "We saved a lot of marines today."  Joes responds:  "Yeah, we did."  Joe starts reciting a prayer and then dies.  Chick arrives with the good news that they finished off the last of them.  But Joe is gone. 

Joe had written Rita back at least once.  He wrote to her that he was listening.  He said her letters were the only thing the kept him going.  He adds that he wants to come back.

Ben is back in Monument Valley.  He tells his young son George about Joe:  "If you ever tell a story about him, George, say he was my friend."

The Navajo Code was vital in the victory at Saipan and every major battle in the Pacific.  It was never broken. 


Good action movie.  (My wife complained it was a little too filled with killing and death.)  I had read a critique of the movie saying that it dealt mostly with Sgt. Joe the white guy and not enough about Pvt. Ben the Navajo.  But the movie is about the interaction between the two men, so I didn't think the film ignored the Navajo contribution.  It just put it into a larger context.   Both Nicolas Cage as Sergeant Joe Enders and Adam Beach as Private Ben Yahzee were good in their roles. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


Historical Background:


1944 (June 15) to 1944 (July 9)  --  the Battle of Saipan was fought on the island of Saipan in the Mariana Islands.  The invasion fleet embarked from Pearl Harbor. 

The American 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions and the 27th Infantry Division, commanded by Lieutenant General Holland Smith defeated the 43rd Division of the Imperial Japanese Army commanded by Lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saito.  The American lost 2,949 killed and 10,364 wounded, out of 71,000 who landed.  The Japanese lost almost the entire garrison of 30,000 men.  About 22,000 Japanese civilians also died on the island. 

The Americans landed on the northeast section of the southern part of Saipan island.  They pushed out from this section into the entire south and started moving north through the island. 

1944 (July 18)  --  Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo fell from power.

1944 (October)  -- Saipan was a major base for the retaking the Philippines from the Japanese.  



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