LOS ANGELES, Oct. 14 (UPI) -- Was there a more promising-sounding movie concept this year than the inspiring story of the Navajo code talkers? And were there any more costly botch-ups?
The U.S. Marine Corps recruited about 400 Navajos to baffle the Japanese during the Pacific War by sending coded radio messages in the unwritten and subtle Navajo language, which the enemy couldn't even transcribe.
"They sound like they're talking underwater!" exclaims one frustrated Japanese cryptologist in "Windtalkers," which is being released Tuesday on DVD ($26.98 list) and VHS (priced to rent at $57.99).
As with the British cracking of the Nazi codes (the subject of the recent film "Enigma"), the important contributions of the Navajo code talkers to winning World War II were kept officially secret until the late 1960s.
So, why doesn't "Windtalkers" work? (It does get better as it progresses, but not enough to make more than $41 million domestically, despite a lavish $115 million budget.)
First, handing such a quintessentially American subject to director John Woo, the Hong Kong action-movie legend, was a mistake. Americans have traditionally loved movies about Marines from different ethnic groups learning to live together by killing foreign bad guys. Not surprisingly, though, this theme doesn't seem to inspire the director.
Nor is Woo much interested in the complex and ambiguous interplay of Indians and whites. Instead, he's obsessed with restaging -- "Rambo"-style -- the 1944 invasion of the Pacific island of Saipan, where 3,426 Americans died.
Nicholas Cage plays a morose Marine assigned to guard a Navajo code talker (Adam Beach of "Smoke Signals"). Cage's character curiously interprets his orders to mean single-handedly charging enemy lines and submachine-gunning what looks like an entire Japanese division.
In these patriotic days, Woo's taste for delirious action fantasies (the sinister and absurd "Face/Off" is his best Hollywood film) transforms this tragic and heroic slice of American military history into a long (133 minutes), repetitious and distasteful carnival of mayhem.
Countless soldiers are catapulted a dozen feet into the air by explosions. Yet, Woo's normal creativity at dreaming up new ways to kill people seems constrained by the need to maintain at least a minimum level of historical realism.
Second, the screenwriters, Joe Bateer and John Rice, are so terrified of being accused of stereotyping Native Americans that they portray the Navajo with no particular traits.
Look, you can't "celebrate diversity" unless you show some diversity.
In reality, the Navajo are fascinating. They are possibly the most economically dynamic of all tribes. They were originally invaders from Canada who arrived in the Southwest not long before the conquistadors. Acquiring sheep from white people, they prudently shifted from hunting and gathering to herding, weaving, and crafts manufacturing. While the rest of the Native American population was in catastrophic decline due to European diseases, weapons and alcohol, the Navajo exploded in numbers, much to the distress of their neighbors and rivals, the more conservative Hopi tribe.
In their political timidity, the screenwriters ignore some terrific factual material about how unique Indian talents both befuddled and benefited the military.
According to interviews that filmmaker Jim Piechocki conducted with surviving code talkers, the boot camp drill instructors couldn't get the Indians to march in formation. In battle, however, the Navajos proved impressive irregular soldiers. On average, they were more stoic than whites regarding weather and pain, less needing of water, better sharpshooters, better pathfinders, and better at stalking the enemy (due to their spooky ability to walk without making a sound).
In fact, one problem the Marines brass had with the code talkers was keeping them at their radios relaying messages when the Navajo really hungered to infiltrate Japanese lines on perilous commando raids.
Further, the frightened screenwriters ethnically reverse the personalities of their fictional leads so that Cage plays a white American who acts like a typical Navajo -- he's brave, taciturn, withdrawn and dignified. And Beach, who is an Ojibwa from Manitoba, is instead frightened, gregarious and grinning.
Embarrassingly unrealistic is the scene where the Italian-American gets falling-down drunk. The Native American has one drink, then stops without a second thought about having another. Couldn't they just have made the Indian a teetotaler?
That drunk scene, however, is as good as the script gets for Cage. Since winning the 1995 Oscar for "Leaving Las Vegas," Cage has alternated between starring in the kind of oddball projects that made his reputation and the blockbuster action films (like this $20 million paycheck) that finance a lifestyle reminiscent of a renaissance pope's in its lavishness.
Cage's protean talent for surprising line-readings is largely wasted in this role. Although he's onscreen far more often than the Navajo, who are the ostensible subjects, Cage's character speaks in a monotone on the occasions when he speaks at all.
Rated R for pervasive graphic war violence and for language.