Once Were Warriors

by Glenn Erickson Sep 09, 2016


Dramas don’t come more powerful than this one — a Maori family might escape their slum existence if it weren’t for the father, an emotionally volatile monster whose brutality knows no limits. The show took in awards everywhere — it’s a stunningly affecting tragedy not completely without hope.

Once Were Warriors
Film Movement Classics
1994 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 102 min. / Street Date September 6, 2016 / 39.95
Starring Rena Owen, Temuera Morrison, Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell, Julian Arahanga, Taungaroa Emile, Rachael Morris Jr., Joseph Kairau, Cliff Curtis, Pete Smith.
Stuart Dryburgh
Film Editor Michael Horton
Original Music Murray Grindlay, Murray McNabb
Written by Riwa Brown from the novel by Alan Duff
Produced by Robin Scholes
Directed by Lee Tamahori

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

In 1996 or so, working at MGM, I learned about a movie coming out with a definite neo-noir theme — Mulholland Falls. Then I was told that its director was a New Zealander whose claim to fame was a movie about Maoris. At the time he seemed a really wrong choice. I’ve only now just seen Once Were Warriors. It is an exceptionally good movie, very strong, very affecting, and with a broad streak of emotional truth. Yes, after seeing this ‘Maori movie,’ if I were a studio executive I’d also greenlight director Tamahori to do whatever he wanted. The only other picture I’ve seen by this fellow is his Bond opus from 2002, and I won’t blame him for it being one of the franchise’s worst. Once Were Warriors is his first movie, and he’ll not need to make another to insure a place in the film history books.

Movies have the power to take us to places we know nothing about. Once Were Warriors is about the indigenous Maori minority of New Zealand, or more accurate a segment of the Maori culture living on the fringes of society. A proud tribal movement is picking up steam but we see a big community of low-income natives on the dole and eking out a living. They live in substandard housing jammed up against a freeway in an industrial slum. The Heke family is in a wretched state, not because of the poverty but because of the twisted psychology of Jake Heke (Temuera Morrison), the father. Humiliated by his station in life, Jake is an alcoholic who abuses his family beyond any reason. His background in Maori culture wasn’t accepted by his wife’s relatives, and he certainly doesn’t fit in with the white culture, represented here only by some cops and a judge. Called Jake ‘Musser’ because of his brutal habits in barrooms, Jake is a fearsome brute at the mercy of his own ignorance, macho stubbornness, and volatile emotions. When he’s drunk and angry, he’s a dangerous man, even to his own family. Any slight or disagreement can bring about a life-threatening beating.

The Maori bars are rough places where these BIG musclebound Alpha Males regularly pummel each other senseless, just to express their manhood. There’s nothing quite like it here. I’m not sure the Maoris were ever conquered — the English settlers had to make some kind of truce with them. After spending a little time with Jake and his fellows, all the stories make sense.

As a story about an abusive relationship, Once Were Warriors works because of the particular cultural setting. Jake’s proud wife Beth (Rena Owen) loves her brute man: she’s culturally conditioned to take pride in his nature. When he’s sober and happy Jake can be fun but nothing comes before his petty pleasures. Beth desperately wants to get a leg up financially, buy a decent house and get a better life for her family. Her oldest Nig (Julian Aharanga) is a young adult being enticed by gangs. Her somewhat naïve teen boy Boogie (Taungaroa Emile) is on the verge of being sent to reform school. Her two smaller children shiver in terror when their father carries on. A fifth is a marvelous daughter, Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell). She’s quite bright and has a positive outlook even in this rat-hole of a life she’s been handed. Grace writes stories, keeps up the family morale and shares Beth’s hope for a better future. Grace is also the one to pick up the house, after Jake’s drunken parties have destroyed or damaged almost everything in sight.

Jake isn’t interested in bettering anything. He quits his job (the dole pays only $17 less than his fish market earnings) but still expects to drink all he wants with his brothers (one nice, one a slimeball). He demands sex from Beth whenever he wants as well. When Beth won’t cooperate she is raped, and beaten so badly that she can’t show her face for Boogie’s court appearance. Nig already hates her (or thinks he does) and now Boogie thinks he’s been abandoned. Beth watches her family disintegrate. When Jake wins some money and is feeling good Beth talks him into renting a car to visit Boogie in the reform school. A glorious happy day for the family soon goes so terribly sour that any sane person would give up entirely on Jake. Sticking to one’s man is a number-one priority, but Beth does have limits. When Jake’s indifference and brutality threaten the prize daughter Grace, it’s obvious that things have gone way, way too far. Compared to Jake Heke, Robert de Niro’s Jake LaMotta is manageable and thoughtful. Any worse, and Jake would be a beast that devours its young.

Beth Heke does her best, and Grace is the hope for the future. The one positive value in Once Were Warriors is a ‘new tribal’ movement. Maori people that have left the tribal territories are going back to find pride and meaning in their traditions. When young Boogie acts up at reform school, the social worker, a tribal man, inspires him to break free of his frustrations and channel his pride through Maori customs of manhood. Boogie throws himself into those stylized fearsome tribal challenge dances, and the martial art of handling a weapon that’s a cross between a spear and a club. The older Nig is initiated in the other direction, into a criminal street gang that covers themselves entirely in tattoos. They look like punks and their behavior is not much different than the fantasy highway maniacs in the Road Warrior movies. Poor Ruth doesn’t know what’s happening to Boogie, as he won’t talk to her on the phone. Nig completely ignores her too, while Jake is perfectly happy to remain strangers with all of his children. But our hearts are broken when Beth cannot keep the abuse and brutality away from Grace.

Once Were Warriors is a strong and emotionally overpowering experience, but not so much as to become depressing. Beth and her children are so likeable and vulnerable that we can’t turn away or pretend we don’t care. The Heke’s lowlife existence is no more terrible than living conditions in any slum, yet with a mother like Beth it should be capable of holding together. Nobody’s desperately into drugs, and Boogie and Nig could be reached if Beth could offer them any hope. Jake the Musser makes anything like decency seem way out of reach.

The film is rough, with genuinely scary makeup for Beth’s post-beating condition, and some of the fights are so brutal that we don’t understand why men aren’t being killed. Remember Jake LaMotta’s awful penchant for destroying everything around him of value, perhaps because deep down he hates himself? Jake Heke is that times ten, a human being turned in a completely anti-social direction.

I found the film riveting. The performances are stunning, especially Rena Owen, Temuera Morrison and Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell. Lee Tamahori’s direction cannot be praised highly enough — his post-punk neo-realist horror show / native pride picture is unforgettable. If you’re not too sensitive, I recommend it.

A follow-up, not a sequel, was released in 1999, What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? Perhaps it’s worthwhile, but I lost interest when I heard the words ‘family revenge’ in a plot synopsis. If it catches up with me, fine.

Film Movement Classics’ Blu-ray of Once Were Warriors is a fine HD encoding of Lee Tamahori’s universally praised breakthrough picture. The cinematography is handsome without glamorizing anything; there’s always something new and curious to see, like the rather disturbing tattoos on the gang teens, that disfigure their mouths. The local rock soundtrack is impressive as well. Even as earky as 1994 there’s a fully developed Rap culture among the Maori kids. It’s a whole new experience.

The main extra is a nearly feature length making of docu, where we meet the screenwriters and most of the actors (quite a treat) and find out that, yes, this is indeed a movie and not a waking nightmare. It’s been rescued from home video quality so is not very good looking, but that’s not a problem as the content is so interesting. Film Movement has come out with a real winner this time, and I’m glad I caught up with it.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Once Were Warriors Blu-ray
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Making-of documentary; color illustrated booklet with essay by Peter Calder
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 5, 2016

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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