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Hollywood Bets On Beautiful Minds

Movies* 'Windtalkers' follows in the footsteps of 'Enigma' and last year's best picture Oscar winner: feature films that depict the art of code breaking.

June 19, 2002|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Recently movies have been talking in code--or code breaking anyway. Three films have dealt with the use of codes in disseminating military intelligence, most recently "Windtalkers," John Woo's epic World War II saga, which has as its foundation the use of the Navajo language as a strategic code in the Pacific theater. It was preceded by another WWII real-life tale, "Enigma," about the cracking of an encoding machine used by the Germans in their troop movements.

And in last year's Oscar winner, "A Beautiful Mind," John Nash is recruited to bring his mathematical genius to bear on breaking codes during the Cold War era--which becomes a vehicle for delineating his descent into paranoid schizophrenia.

The Enigma coding device was, in its day, relatively sophisticated in comparison to the decidedly low-tech use of the Navajo language. Yet the former encryption device was cracked by the Allies, while the latter was never deciphered by the Japanese. For "Enigma" director Michael Apted, all three movies thematically point to a period in time when military intelligence communication was taken more seriously.

"If we hadn't been able to read intelligence, we would never have won the second world war," Apted says. "But for some reason, in the past 10 or 15 years it's all gone out of whack and we've lost essential information."

The World War II-era codes were derived from the most unlikely sources: The Enigma machine was an adaptation of a mathematical device created in the '20s for use by financial institutions; the Navajo code was another variation on the use of Native American languages. According to Jack Ingram, curator of the National Cryptographic Museum, the U.S. had successfully used Choctaw encoded messages in World War I.

Just as the codes were derived from unlikely sources, so too were the men and women involved in their creation and interception, Apted points out. In its effort to break the Enigma code, the British ministry of defense recruited code breakers through unconventional means including crossword puzzle competitions and chess matches. He calls them the progenitors of today's computer nerds. "But that didn't stop the British. They really saw the importance of being non-elitist in their attempt to find good minds for solving puzzles," he says.

Many of the Enigma decoders were teenagers. Similarly, of the 420 Navajo trained by the Marines to be "windtalkers," a large number were recruited right out of high school, including Merrill Sandoval, a Navajo Indian who was approached by Marines who visited his school in New Mexico.

Only after he'd enlisted (at age 17) and gone through basic training did he learn the real reason why they were interested in him.

"We were quartered separately from the beginning," recalls the 77-year-old veteran who now lives in Arizona. "We never asked why. But after boot camp we were sent to Camp Pendleton where they started training us in all phases of communication."

That included memorizing a 20-page Navajo "code" dictionary, according to Ingram, the first time the Navajo language had been written down. In the lexicon, jointly developed by the Marines and the Navajo enlisted men, the language was adapted for military purposes. Ships were referred to using Navajo words for different fishes. Similarly, aircraft were named after various birds, according to Sandoval, who spent his war years stationed at headquarters communicating with other Navajo on board aircraft and vessels and on the front line. "It was completely oral. Even our own people only knew that we were talking Navajo. But they didn't know what we were saying."

Since nothing was ever written down and the Navajo servicemen had committed the code to memory, it was rendered unbreakable. To the Japanese, it sounded like little more than gibberish. "They did everything to jam us and they even had people who spoke excellent English issuing conflicting orders," says Sandoval, "but we managed to get our messages through."

Fortunately, no Navajo serviceman was ever captured by the Japanese.

The interception of an Enigma machine by the Poles early in the war became the first step in breaking that code, through a British and American team effort, according to Ingram. One of the Germans' original three-rotor, disc-playing devices fell into enemy hands. After taking it apart, a logic to the scrambling of letters and numbers was eventually devised. The U.S. then unscrambled a next-generation four-rotor machine.

One of the reasons Nash may have been recruited by the Rand Corp. in the years following World War II was to bring his mathematical gift for the abstraction to bear on reading codes, according to Dave Bayer, a professor of mathematics at Barnard College who served as a consultant on "A Beautiful Mind." Code breaking had previously been primarily a linguistic exercise, explains Ingram. But since the '20s, intelligence sources had begun to avail themselves of mathematicians' abilities to decipher sequencing patterns.

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