Launch of 'Windtalkers' boosts modern Indians

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SANTA MONICA, Calif. ? Studio publicists are promoting the World War II action movie "Windtalkers" with a rare sense of mission.

As all Indian country will soon know, the film centers on the much-honored Navajo code talkers at a moment of extreme danger in the Battle of Saipan. But the publicists are learning they have much more than a battlefield summer block-buster on their hands. They see the movie as a breakthrough in portraying the American Indian in the modern world, unfiltered by the stereotypes of Hollywood, or the mainstream society.

"I think it is very important," said Jamie Geller, senior vice president of MGM Worldwide Publicity. She told Indian Country Today she took a personal interest in the movie's break with traditional stereotyping because of her own Jewish background. Scenes in the movie portraying the prejudice of the time resonated with her, she said, "when you see the same thing psychologically that they went through."

Jackie Bissley, a contract publicist for the movie (and contributor on movies to ICT), said "Looking at 'Windtalker,' you see a milestone being created by the impact of the film both inside and outside the community."

Inside the Indian world, she said, "it has broken a lot of stereotypes by the way the characters are developed by Adam and Roger." (Adam Beach, Ojibwe, star of "Smoke Signals", and Roger Willie, Navajo, an acting newcomer, portray the main code talkers.)

The impact in the outside world, she said, is coming from a promotional campaign that is just getting into stride. Originally hired as liaison to the native press, Bissley said her role had rapidly expanded as interest from the mainstream media came to focus on the Indian actors and the Navajo background. "Eighty to 90 percent of the press requests are for Roger Willie, Adam Beach and the code talkers," she said.

The executives at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists have responded, said Bissley, with an unprecedented outreach to Indian country in the promotional campaign. Native journalists will be included in the traditional press junket to Hollywood, and two of the movie's five premieres are scheduled for the Four Corners heart of Navajo Country.

The showings in Kayenta, Ariz., on June 12 and Gallup, N.M. on June 13 will honor the families of all the code talkers, both the handful of survivors and those who have passed on.

The premieres begin June 4 in Washington, D.C., June 6 with an industry screening in New York City and the formal opening in Los Angeles on June 11.

Geller declined to reveal the promotional budget or the total cost of the film but said "It's a definite major movie." It will open on more than 2000 screens, her staff later informed ICT, a launch leagues ahead of the art-house release of "Smoke Signals" and the non-release, say, of "Doe Boy."

Planning for the ad campaign is so extensive that it was largely responsible for the decision last fall to postpone release of the movie in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Although the delay aroused some criticism among Indian movie buffs, Geller explained it as a product of the uncertainty in making a major buy of television air time. "We had to commit $8 million of advertising," she said. But so much television air time had been pre-empted by the national emergency, the studio didn't know if it would be able to air its commercials for the planned release on Veteran's Day, Nov. 9.

The formal opening on June 14, Flag Day, raises its own anxieties, since it falls in the middle of the crowded summer blockbuster season. The competition so far includes "Spiderman," the new Star Wars episode and "Men in Black 2." On June 14, "Windtalkers" will open against "The Bourne Identity," "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys," and "Scooby-Doo."

The movie can count on the drawing power of its non-Indian stars Nicholas Cage and Christian Slater and director John Woo, who has successfully imported the artistic violence of Hong Kong movies to his previous Hollywood projects.

But for the promotional staff, the relation with Indian country has given the project a special spirit. Bissley praises the teamwork among the 15 or more promotional staff. "It's a rarity," said Bissley. "There just haven't been any egos."

"We are very proud of this movie," said Geller. "We are very proud to have been able to work with the people whom it depicts."