In a darkened screening room at MGM Studios, Navajo Code Talker Chester Nez and his son Michael watched “Windtalkers” for the first time amongst a group of journalists ferried to Hollywood to preview the film.
The film depicts how 29 Navajo Marines were trained to use a secret military code based on the Navajo language. The code was the only one never broken by the Japanese and was instrumental in winning World War II.
The movie was scheduled for general release June 14 on more than 2,800 screens across the country.
As we got acquainted on the bus ride to the studio, Chester Nez said he had never spoken of the secret role he played during World War II until recently when the Navajo Code Talker Association began receiving long overdue recognition.
Though he had several friends who had also served as Code Talkers, they were sworn to secrecy until 1968 when the military declassified the code. They had honored that oath for decades, not talking about it among themselves or to their families.
When President Bush honored Nez and other Navajo Code Talkers with Congressional Gold Medals last year, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., said, “It’s unfortunate that we could not have recognized these men and their contributions sooner than this. These men remind us what real American heroes are all about.”
Campbell also pointed out that only 77 years before World War II, the grandfathers of these heroes were marched at gunpoint with 9,000 other Navajos more than 300 miles across rugged terrain and scorched desert where they were held at Fort Sumner as prisoners of war in their own homelands.
In 2002, as America recovers from last September’s terrorist bombings ? the deadliest attack on our homelands since the Indian Wars ? it was rewarding to see Navajo people finally portrayed as heroes defending their country.
Director John Woo said he hopes his film will bring global attention to the key role the Code Talkers played in helping to win the war.
“There was such a huge contribution by the Navajo Code Talkers to this country, and yet no one had told their story,” he said in an interview. “When I read the script, I knew I had to make this movie.”
Woo also took on the touchy issue of racism that the Code Talkers experienced. In several scenes in the movie Navajo soldiers are told they are “slanty-eyed savages” and look just like the Japanese.
In fact, Chester Nez said a fellow Marine once held a gun to his forehead because he thought Nez was Japanese.
The movie begins and ends in majestic Monument Valley on the northern border of the 25,000-square mile Navajo Nation where Ben Yazhee, played by Salteaux actor Adam Beach, leaves behind his wife, child and extended Navajo family to join the Marines. A scene at the trading post where the Greyhound bus picks him up features a cameo appearance by Albert Smith, a Code Talker who served as an advisor to Woo.
Also on the bus is Yazhee’s friend, Charlie Whitehorse, played by first-time Navajo actor Roger Willie, an artist, former paratrooper and graduate student at the University of Arizona. The two actors do a fine job of portraying traditional Navajo characteristics of dignity, tolerance and devotion to family.
The film focuses on Marine bodyguards (Nicolas Cage and Christian Slater) who are assigned to protect Code Talkers Yazhee and Whitehorse and, if necessary, kill them in order to protect the code from falling into enemy hands.
While the military officially denied there were any orders to kill fellow Marines, producers Alison Rosenzweig and Tracie Graham insist the storyline was based on interviews with some of the original 29 Code Talkers, including Carl Gorman, who confirmed the story. They also point out that the Marines approved the final script.
Windtalkers re-creates scenes from the bloody battle of Saipan and was filmed in part on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Actors Beach and Willie said they were “terrified” at times while shooting the movie because Woo did such a masterful job of creating war scenes where hundreds of bombs would explode as they dodged their way to safety.
Watching the horrific images of war on screen, I could not help but think that from where we sat as Navajos, patriotism and allegiance to our nation extends well beyond the 200-year-old United States of America.
Navajo ties to this land go back centuries to Dine’ creation stories that tell of our emergence from Ni’hima Nahas’dzan, our Mother Earth. Our songs, ceremonies and language are rooted in her sacred mountains, rivers and forests. Our prayers pay reverence to the land, the water, the air, and the sky.
How ironic then that our language, once beaten out of our elders in government boarding schools, was used to defend America.
It was a privilege and proud moment to sit with a real American hero as we watched Windtalkers on the big screen and by the film’s end, I was in tears. Not because the hero dies, but because I finally realized what our Navajo soldiers had to go through to defend our homelands ? again.
We all owe them great respect and gratitude.