Once Were Warriors: compelling film with complex characters but disappointing message

Lee Tamahori, “Once Were Warriors” (1994)

An intense film from New Zealand of a family in an impoverished and degraded social environment dominated by alcohol, a defeatist attitude and violence, this is certainly uncomfortable viewing but what the film says can be very compelling. A bare plot is embellished by careful character development in the unlikely shapes of Jake Heke (Temuera Morrison), an urban working-class Maori man, good-looking and muscular, hot-headed, sentimental, given to drink, gambling and fighting, and his wife Beth (Rena Owen) who is torn between her love for Jake and her knowledge that his behaviour is destroying them and their five children. Already at the start of the film the two eldest sons Nig (Julian Arahanga) and Boogie (Taungaroa Emile) are going their separate ways: Nig joins a gang and Boogie is made a ward of the state and removed from home. Beth relies on her 13-year-old daughter Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell) to take Boogie to his counsellors and to help out at home while Jake, recently unemployed, spends his time at the pub drinking, gambling and singing with his mates. He brings them home most nights as well. Beth enjoys the company of the men and their wives and girlfriends and joins in the fun but realises too late the consequences of having Jake’s friends around at a time when Grace is growing into a beautiful teenager. Tragedy befalls the Hekes and Beth is forced to decide between keeping the family together and saving the children she has left.

Jakes and Beth’s fiery pas de deux is the backbone of the film and carries it to the bitter end; the actors playing them do a masterful job with their characters. At times they are restrained and act with their eyes and faces and when required Morrison and Owen may over-act to the point of caricature. Jake and Beth are not simply stereotypes of the alcoholic wife-basher and the battered wife who forgives him over and over: they love each other deeply and there is an obvious sexual attraction between them. They have an easy-going and carefree attitude to life and as long as they have each other the future can take care of itself (and therein lies part of the problem). Unfortunately traditional attitudes about gender roles, which may or may not come from Maori culture, intrude: Jake expects Beth to be passive and obedient at all times. Their dialogue, behaviour, their social environment and the baggage they bring from their upbringing make change difficult in spite of Beth’s repeated resolve to remove her children from the violence. It might be said too that the effort to keep the family together and the older boys out of trouble is sapping Beth’s strength and that of any woman in her situation, however strong and committed she might be. Female friends who hold similar attitudes as Beth and Jake do about male-female relations in marriage are no help. For much of the movie Beth is a passive person who does very little and only snaps into action-hero mode in the last half-hour of the film.

Kerr-Bell nearly steals the show from the two leads as Grace, the young and innocent girl who seems old and wise for her age. Intelligent and idealistic, she keeps a journal and writes imaginative stories ofr her two younger siblings. With her friend Toot who lives in an abandoned car under a highway underpass, she plans to escape her life of urban poverty and deprivation. It’s easy to imagine that in a very different culture and time she would be groomed to be a healer, a shaman, a custodian of tribal lore and knowledge and a leader. Grace’s development as a character of sensitivity on the verge of womanhood makes her traged all the more heart-breaking.

The film suggest that social differences between Jake and Beth’s birth families play a part in their dysfunctional relationship but there’s nothing about how or why Jake has become so estranged from and hostile to his Maori heritage while Beth is close to it and has a positive relationship with it. The “elephant in the room” – the pakeha (white) culture – is the framework that surrounds the Hekes and their world which has brought them grog, gambling and alienation from both Maori and pakeha culture itself. The film offers no way in which the Hekes might negotiate a less troubled and a happier path that combines the best of Maori and pakeha traditions. Might the situation have been that Beth’s social class in Maori culture was the warrior class which was allowed to keep its traditions by the British by selling out the Maori lower class (Jake’s level) in some way? In the meantime Nig and Boogie find their own way back into reconnecting with Maori culture and expressing their masculinity but whether both boys can find their own niches in both Maori and pakeha society is a question the film can’t answer. It looks as if Boogie’s way of rediscovering his Maori heritage is better than Nig’s way but is a watered-down Maori culture seeking accommodation and integration into pakeha culture but getting nothing in return the best way to go?

The film’s conclusion seems hasty compared to what went on before but it looks quite open-ended – we don’t know if the sirens are those of the police or of the ambulance – and there’s the possibility that Beth’s resolve might flag again. Nig’s experiences with his gang could have been a significant sub-plot commenting on family and cultural relationships and on how boys and men learn about masculinity in dffferent cultures and sub-cultures. How men form a masculine identity and use it or abuse it is a major theme in the film. The lesson viewers might take from “Once Were Warriors” is that the working-class fusion of Maori and pakeha cultures that form the Hekes’ world is a degraded one with values and attitudes that trap people like them in poverty, hopelessness and violence with no change or improvement possible. Only by rejecting this fusion and going back to traditional Maori culture is there any hope for change. What constitutes “traditional” Maori culture and whether all its customs and traditions are worth keeping and preserving is another thing altogether; before the pakehas came to New Zealand, Maori society could be and often was very violent.

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