Marine Corps Fights to Polish Image in 'Windtalkers'
by DickG DickG (no login)
To the Shores of Hollywood
Marine Corps Fights to Polish Image in
By David Robb
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 15, 2002; Page C01
In the original screenplay for the new MGM movie
"Windtalkers," a Marine
nicknamed "The Dentist" creeps across a
battlefield strewn with the bodies of
Japanese soldiers. "The Dentist bent over a dead
Japanese soldier, doing what
he does, relieving the dead of the gold in their
mouth," the original script
reads. "The Dentist twists his bayonet, struggles
to get the gold nugget out
of the corpse's teeth."
"Come to Poppa," says The Dentist.
It's a grisly scene, one of several that you
won't see in the World War
II-era movie -- directed by John Woo and starring
Nicolas Cage, Christian
Slater and Adam Beach -- which opened yesterday.
The scene was written out of
the script after the Marine Corps and the
Department of Defense -- which lent
production assistance to the movie -- complained
When filmmakers ask the Defense Department for
help, they have to submit
their screenplays to Phil Strub, the head of the
department's film and TV
liaison office in Washington. He reviews them for
accuracy and to determine
whether they will help the military's recruiting
efforts. Hollywood's top
producers regularly trek to Strub's office,
pleading for assistance. Strub
has clout. If he likes a script, he can recommend
that the Pentagon give the
movie's producers access to billions of dollars'
worth of military hardware
-- ships, airplanes and tanks. But if he doesn't
like a script, the producers
will have to make the changes he recommends if
they want the military's
That's what happened to "Windtalkers," which
tells the story of Marines
assigned to guard the Navajo "code talkers" who
used their unique language to
confound Japanese code breakers.
After receiving the original "Windtalkers" script
on Jan. 28, 2000, Strub
passed it along to Capt. Matt Morgan, the head of
the Marine Corps' film
liaison office in Los Angeles. Morgan liked the
script, but had some major
reservations. He discussed the Dentist scene in a
March 3, 2000, memo to
"This has to go," Morgan wrote. "The activity is
un-Marine. . . . I recommend
these characters be looting the dead for
intelligence, or military souvenirs
-- swords, knives, field glasses. Loot is still
not cool, but more realistic
and less brutal."
Strub agreed. "Stealing gold teeth, yep, has to
go!" he wrote back to Morgan.
A few days later, Morgan sent a memo to Terence
Chang, Woo's producing
partner. "The 'Dentist' character displays
distinctly un-Marine behavior," he
told Chang. "He is, in fact, committing an
atrocity. While I recognize the
war in the Pacific was brutal, I don't see a need
to portray a Marine as a
Morgan said he told Chang: " 'Listen, if you're
gonna do something like this,
is this gonna be something that's gonna be dealt
with in the movie? Because
you don't deal with it. I mean, you just got a
guy who shows up and he's
doing it like he was washing his car or
something.' And I say, 'If you're
gonna portray this, let's deal with it. The why.
The how. Was it reciprocal?
You know, because the Japanese were doing awful
things to the Marines, too.'
So Terence said, 'You know what? John [Woo]
doesn't like this scene either.
It's gonna go away.' And I think by two more
drafts, it was gone."
But Chang said that the scene was cut because the
movie was "too long" anyway
-- not because the Marines complained.
Screenwriters Joe Batteer and John Rice fought to
keep the scene in the film,
but in the end took it out. Batteer said the
scene was dropped only after the
Marines objected. "The Marines' notes came prior
to the decision to drop
that," he said.
"Through Terence Chang we got the word. It was,
'You gotta lose the
filling-pulling,' " Batteer said. "We saw
Morgan's missive about the
ghoulishness. We argued that it was true, but we
ultimately relented and
yanked it, no pun intended. We tried to argue our
case, but it was a fine
line because we had to appease the Marine Corps
and the studio. The studio
wanted the cooperation from the Marines."
"They said a Marine would never do that," Rice
said. "But who can say one
Marine would never do that? "
Despite his claim that this kind of atrocity was
"un-Marine," even Capt.
Morgan acknowledges that such crimes were
"You can look at various books about Marines in
World War II, and this
obviously happened," Morgan said. "I am very
proficient on my Marine Corps
World War II history, and I know that these
things happened. Horrible, awful
atrocities happened, especially in the Pacific."
Another scene that Morgan and Strub didn't like
involved a war crime
committed by the lead character -- Sgt. Joe
Enders, played by Cage. In the
original screenplay, Enders kills an injured
Japanese soldier who is
attempting to surrender.
In his memo to Strub, Morgan wrote: "Enders uses
the flame-thrower to toast
the Japanese cave. One of the soldiers attempts
to surrender, and Enders
happily roasts the unarmed man. Killing this man
is potentially a war crime,
and an experienced Marine in a signal unit would
know how rare and valuable a
Japanese prisoner is."
Morgan relayed his concerns to Chang, and that
scene, too, was written out.
Chang said he and Woo "hated that scene" because
"it was too brutal. It would
be very hard for the audience to sympathize with
Enders later on in the
Once again, the screenwriters fought to keep
their vision intact. "It showed
that Enders was enraged and wanted to kill
Japanese," Batteer said. "We
didn't want to paint him in a positive light. We
wanted to show him as a
But in the end, they bowed to pressure from the
Marine Corps and the
As in any film production, tensions arise about
whose vision will make it to
"Everybody has an agenda," Batteer said. "It's a
collaborative art form. You
have the writer and the director and the studio,
and in this case, you also
have the USMC, and everybody has their point of
view, and everybody
The military also wanted the producers to change
a scene in which Enders is
given orders to kill his Navajo code talker
should they face imminent
capture. The battle over this scene raged for
weeks, and once again the
Marine Corps' version of history won. Only this
time, the writers' version
was backed by not only the code talkers but also
the U.S. Congress.
In the original script, a Marine Corps major
tells Enders: "We can't risk one
of our code talkers falling into enemy hands. If
there's a chance that he
might be captured, the code will be deemed more
important than the man. If it
comes to it, Enders, you're going to have to take
your guy out."
Morgan, however, called such kill orders
"fiction." And Batteer recalled that
one of the producers called to say the Marines
were concerned about the
scene. "They essentially denied that such orders
were given," he said. "The
Pentagon requested that the language be altered
to make it not quite so
Chang said he still believes that Marines had
been ordered to kill the code
talkers rather than to allow them to fall into
"The whole movie was based on that assumption,"
he said. "We did talk to code
talkers, and they said that was true. Why would
they lie to me? But I also
understand the Marines' position."
In the end, Chang agreed to make the change
requested by the Marines. In the
movie, the major now tells Enders: "Under no
circumstances can you allow your
code talker to fall into enemy hands. Your
mission is to protect the code at
all costs. Do you understand?"
Chang noted, however, that "it's still pretty
obvious" what is meant when
Enders is given his orders.
Several of the Navajo code talkers have said that
there were indeed orders to
kill them in the event of capture. John Brown
Jr., one of the original 29
code talkers, told Reader's Digest: "The Marine
order was to let them shoot
you if you were captured. That was war. We were
In his imperfect English, code talker Carl
Gorman, who died in 1998 at the
age of 90, told "CBS Evening News" in 1997:
"Orders was given that if any of
the code talkers being captured, shoot the code
Even Congress concurs. Two years ago it passed a
bill awarding Congressional
Gold Medals to the 29 original code talkers. The
medals were presented by
President Bush to four of the five living
original code talkers at a ceremony
last July in the Capitol Rotunda.
Batteer and Rice, whose movie had just finished
shooting in Hawaii, sat just
a few rows back from the honorees. As he watched
the ceremony, Rice was well
aware that the language the Pentagon had forced
the producers to remove from
his screenplay was part of the very bill Congress
had passed authorizing the
The legislation states: "Some Code Talkers were
guarded by fellow Marines,
whose role was to kill them in case of imminent
capture by the enemy."
"It was kind of ironic," Rice says.
The Marine Corps, however, still insists that no
such orders were given and
is trying to get Congress to rewrite the
The writers said they were relieved that the
Pentagon didn't insist on more
"We're happy that's all they wanted," Batteer
"The integrity is still there," said Rice.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company
R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GySgt USMC (Ret.)
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