Once Were Warriors: Maori Class Wars

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  • Post last modified:August 28, 2020
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When Alan Duff had his novel ”Once Were Warriors” published in 1990, he wanted to begin a conversation about Maori culture that was alien to many people in New Zealand. Raised by parents who were part of two different Maori tribes, Duff poured much of his troubled experiences into the novel. The two tribes were depicted as symbols of an ongoing conflict within the Maori culture. You can sense it throughout this lauded film adaptation.

Married for 18 years
Beth Heke (Rena Owen) is living with her husband Jake (Temuera Morrison) in South Auckland. They’ve been married for 18 years and have five children. But it’s a troubled family. In marrying Jake, Beth went against the will of her parents. He’s known as ”The Muss” because of his muscles; popular down at the pub because he likes to drink and throw parties, Jake also usually ends up in brawls. He is not much of a provider and now he’s lost his job, which doesn’t seem to bother him, but Beth is more worried.
What everybody knows, including the kids, Beth and their friends, is that Jake sometimes crosses a line… and then Beth becomes his target.

Horrifying domestic violence
Domestic abuse is a very tangible theme in this film. The violence of those scenes are horrifying, all the more so because the two lead actors, Rena Owen and Temuera Morrison, are so good. It’s obvious from the start that the Heke family is far from healthy; Beth and Jake have been married for a long time, but seem unable to create a safe home for their children. The oldest ones are getting tired of them; Nig (Julian Arahanga) despises his father to the degree that he can barely talk to him, Boogie (Taungaroa Emile) is a juvenile delinquent and Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell) keeps writing stories as a way of escaping.

Obviously, Jake is the villain; his macho attitude is poisoning the children and he’s unable to take responsibility for his violence. Whenever Beth has to spend a day nursing her bruises, black eyes and busted lips, he squarely blames her. Most of the time, so does she, making up excuses for him, which hurts her relationship with the children and justifies Jake’s behavior. She should have fled a long time ago, but there is a twisted degree of love in their marriage, which is convincingly illustrated by the actors. There’s also a lot of fear. Definitely in Beth’s case, but perhaps also in Jake’s, as shown in the last sequence when she gets to have her final showdown with him. In the end, all that’s left of his masculinity is his pathetic screaming.

Class plays a huge part; Jake was initially rejected by Beth’s parents because he wasn’t good enough for her tribe. Grace’s intellectual leanings are treated with contempt by Jake. And Boogie keeps showing an interest in his Maori culture, something Jake has abandoned in favor of beer and barroom brawls. This clash between resignation and alcoholism on one side, and honoring your family, history and place in life on the other is a clear part of Duff’s work and agenda.

The film was a huge hit in New Zealand and gained much international attention, providing Tamahori, Morrison and Cliff Curtis (memorable as ”Uncle Bully”) with Hollywood careers. As a portrait of domestic abuse, there are few surprises. But the cultural debate simmering underneath it makes the film stand out. 

Once Were Warriors 1994-New Zealand. 103 min. Color. Produced by Robin Scholes. Directed by Lee Tamahori. Screenplay: Riwia Brown. Novel: Alan Duff. Cast: Rena Owen (Beth Heke), Temuera Morrison (Jake Heke), Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell (Grace Heke), Julian Arahanga, Taungaroa Emile, Cliff Curtis.

Trivia: Followed by What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? (1999). 

Last word: “I was crossing the border from Canada to the United States some 10, 15 years ago. [A customs officer] said, ‘are you that guy who made ‘Once Were Warriors’? I said, ‘yes I was’, and he said, stamp stamp stamp, ‘through you go mate, that was a great movie’. For a while, we changed things. I know that sounds lofty and a bit bullshit – films don’t really change anyone’s life – but we do know that that film in that country did affect people’s lives. [But] Another generation comes along and repeats the mistakes of their parents and on it goes. Now, we have a methamphetamine epidemic. Before it was alcohol.” (Tamahori, Stuff)



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