Once Were Warriors (film)
|Once Were Warriors|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Lee Tamahori|
|Produced by||Robin Scholes|
|Written by||Riwia Brown
based on the novel by Alan Duff
|Music by||Murray Grindlay
|Editing by||Michael J. Horton|
|Distributed by||Fine Line Features|
|Running time||99 min.|
Once Were Warriors is a 1994 film based on New Zealand author Alan Duff's bestselling 1990 first novel. The film tells the story of an urban Māori family the Hekes and their problems with poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence, mostly brought on by family patriarch Jake. It was directed by Lee Tamahori and stars Rena Owen and Temuera Morrison.
Beth left her small town and despite the disapproval of her parents, married Jake "the Muss" Heke. After eighteen years they live in an unkempt State House and have six children. Their interpretations of life and being Māori are tested. Their eldest daughter, Grace, keeps a journal in which she chronicles events as well as stories which she tells her younger siblings.
Jake is fired from his job and is satisfied with the unemployment benefit, spending most days getting drunk at the local pub with his friends, singing songs and savagely beating any patron whom he considers to have stepped out of line. He often invites crowds of friends back from the bar to his home for drunken parties. His wife "gets lippy" at one of his parties and he brutally attacks her in front of their friends. Beth turns to drink when things go wrong, with angry outbursts and occasional violence on a much smaller scale. Her children fend for themselves, resignedly cleaning the blood-streaked house after her beating.
Nig, the Heke’s eldest son, moves out to join a gang whose rituals include facial tattoos (in Māori culture called Tā moko). This usually shows the heritage of the person; in Nig’s case, he shows only the heritage of his mother, with the Moko located on only one side of his face. He is subjected to an inititation beating by the gang members, but then embraced as a new brother and later sports the gang’s tattoos. Nig cares about his siblings, but despises his father. He is angered when his mother is beaten, but deals with it by walking away.
The second son, Mark "Boogie" Heke has a history of minor criminal offences and is taken from his family and placed in a foster home as a ward of the state due to the situation with his parents. Despite his initial anger, Boogie finds a new niche for himself, as the foster home’s manager Mr. Bennett helps him embrace his Māori heritage. Jake does not care that Boogie is taken away; he comments that it will do him some good, to toughen him up a bit. Beth is heartbroken, and scrapes money together to visit him. Jake pays for the rental car from gambling winnings, but desserts the family to go to the pub and they never make the journey.
Grace, the Heke’s 13-year-old daughter, loves writing stories. Her best friend is a homeless boy named Toot who lives in a wrecked car. She despises the future she believes is inevitable and is constantly reminded of getting married and playing the role of the wife, which she believes is catering to one’s husband’s demands and taking beatings. She dreams of leaving and being independent and single.
Grace is raped in her bed by her father’s friend "Uncle Bully" who tells her that it is her fault for "turning him on" by wearing her "skimpy little nighty". She becomes depressed. She tries to go to her friend Toot for support, smoking her first dope. Toot kisses her, but she reacts violently and storms out, believing him to be "just like the rest of them". After wandering through the city streets, Grace comes home to an angry Jake with his friends. Bully asks for a goodnight kiss in front of everyone, to test his power over her. Grace refuses and her father tears her journal in two and nearly beats her up. She runs out to the backyard crying. Beth returns home from searching for her and goes outside looking for Grace, only to find that she has hanged herself from a tree branch.
Jake stays in the pub with his mates while the rest of the family take Grace's body to a traditional Māori funeral ceremony. Beth stands up to him properly for the first time as he refuses to let her be taken to the marae; he has always felt second rate for not being in touch with his heritage, in his words, "a black bastard". The film cuts back and forth between the mourning, Jake in the pub bottling it up and the family on the marae. Boogie impresses Beth with his Māori singing at the funeral and Toot says his goodbyes, telling her the gentle kiss was all he meant by it. Boogie reassures Toot that Grace loved him and Beth invites Toot to live with them.
Reading Grace’s diary later that day, Beth finds out about the rape and confronts Bully in the pub. Jake at first threatens Beth, but Nig steps between them, protecting his mother. He hands him Grace’s diary and Jake reacts by severely beating Bully and stabbing him with a glass bottle in the crotch. Beth blames Jake just as much as Bully for bringing home his violent friends. She leaves and states her intentions to leave with their children and return to her Māori village and traditions, defiantly telling Jake that her Māori heritage gives her the strength to resist his control over her. Jake hopelessly sits on a curb outside the pub as the family leaves, with sirens wailing in the background.
Differences between book and film
The book and the movie follow a roughly similar plot. The three major differences are the role of Beth, most of Nig's gang subplot is absent from the film and the ending is significantly different. In addition, the film takes place in Auckland whereas the novel was set in the fictional town of Two Lakes based on the town of Rotorua where Alan Duff grew up. (Rotorua is Maori for two lakes.)
In the book, Beth and Jake are roughly equal characters. Beth is a flawed but dynamic character who is almost as irresponsible as Jake. In the film, Beth is more central, especially as Jake's period of homelessness is completely absent from the film, but her character is less complex. The difference between Beth's character in the book and the film is illustrated by an episode in which the family rent a car in order to visit Boogie in borstal, but Jake ends up getting drunk in the pub as the family wait in the car with him promising to have only one drink. In the book, Beth hires the car using money she has saved by not drinking, but quickly joins Jake in the pub and gets upset that they have not visited Boogie only when it is too late. In the film, the rental car is obtained by Jake giving money to Beth that he won gambling on horse racing. Beth and the children wait in the car for Jake to come out of the bar for several hours before going back home without visiting Boogie. Essentially Beth spends the first three quarters of the movie as a passive character before Grace's suicide spurs her into leaving Jake, whereas throughout the book she makes several attempts to improve her life before improving both her family's life and her community.
The subplot concerning Nig's gang is a bigger part of the book than the film. Nig attempts to find a substitute family in the gang, but its members are either too brutal or too beaten down to provide him with the love and support he craves.
The most apparent difference between the plot of the novel and film is the ending. In the novel, Grace is not sure who raped her, but thinks it may have been Jake. She writes this in her diary and when the rest of the family find it they confront Jake. He cannot remember what happened as he was too drunk. He then leaves the family, lives in a park and befriends a young homeless man. Meanwhile Beth begins a Māori culture group which reinvigorates the community.
Production and awards
The film was produced by Communicado Productions, its first feature film. The film won best film at the New Zealand Film & Television Awards, Durban International Film Festival, Montreal Film Festival and Rotterdam Film Festival. It also became at the time the highest grossing film in New Zealand, surpassing The Piano. The film was nominated for the Grand Prix of the Belgian Syndicate of Cinema Critics.
The film was shot at a local Otara state house, located at 33 O'Connor street, Otara, Auckland. The film was filmed primarily in that house, with neighbours complaining on numerous occasions due to the film's late night party scenes.
A sequel to the book was published in 1996, What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?, which was made into a film in 1999. However, it was poorly received compared to the original. The third book in the trilogy, Jake's Long Shadow, was published in 2002 but has not been made into a movie.
Popular and critical reception
The website RottenTomatoes.com, which compiles mostly North American reviews, shows that 29 out of 31 were "fresh", or 94 percent positive. The reviews gave the film an average rating of 7.7 out of 10.
- Thompson, K. M. (2003). "Once Were Warriors: New Zealand's first indigenous blockbuster." In J. Stringer (Ed.), Movie Blockbusters (pp. 230 – 241). London: Routledge.
- Once Were Warriors on NZ On Screen - behind-the-scenes footage and interviews as well as the film trailer. Free to view (Flash required)
- Once Were Warriors at the Internet Movie Database