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Page history last edited by PBworks 18 years, 5 months ago



New Zealand 1983 124 minutes


Director: Geoff Murphy

Producer: Geoff Murphy

Screenplay: Geoff Murphy, Keith Aberdein

Cinematography: Graeme Cowley

Editor: Michael Horton

Music: John Charles

Played by: N Z Symphony Orchestra


Leading Players:

Anzac Wallace (Te Wheke)

Bruno Lawrence (Williamson)

Kelly Johnson (Scott)

Wi Kuki Kaa (Wirimu)

Tim Elliot (Colonel Elliot)

Ilona Rodgers (Emily)

Tania Bristowe (Kura)

Martyn Sanderson (Vicar)

Faenza Reuben (Henare)

John Bach (Belcher)

Merita Mita (Matu)

Bill Juliff (Charlie)

Stephen Tozer (Captain Rogers)

Robin Ruakere (George)

Tom Poata (Puni)

Dick Puanaki (Eru)

Sean Duffy (Jones)

Wayne Allan (Cronin)



In school, many years ago, history came in two sizes - very thick and extremely thin. The fat volume was full of dates, facts and hyperbole about Great Britain and the British Empire. The slim book - subtly dismissed as being of little consequence - contained the history of New Zealand. That, we were led to believe, had been only the Treaty of Waitangi, Hone Heke's curious flagstaff fetish, the growth of the pastoral industry and the ministries of Seddon, Ward and Massey. New Zealand had not existed long enough to have made history. Can you wonder we were more impressed by the Armada, Wolfe at Quebec, the Napoleonic Wars, the Indian Mutiny and Scott of the Antarctic? A mere hundred years could scarcely match a thousand.


In those days I more or less lived in the cinema. Westerns came and went, all playing out much the same ritual: peaceful settlers massacred by savage Indians; Brave and Decent Scout (or Cowboy) sets off in pursuit of hostile tribe, only to be surrounded; U.S.Cavalry arrives in the nick of time, pennants streaming, bugles blowing; miscreant Indians brought to justice. White man's justice, that is. In those dear unambiguous days the U.S.Cavalry stood for the Rule of Law. What the Indians did was motivated by their inherent aggression or a primitive code of vengeance. Beyond our ken were such refinements as 'land rights' or 'dispossession' or 'forcible re-location' or 'loss of tribal resources'.


Utu brought it all back to me. Here were the details that had been left out of that little book of New Zealand history. And here was our version of those peaceful settlers, that hostile tribe, the Cavalry on the skyline - the classic figures of the Hollywood western. But this is a western for the 1980s. Roles are reversed, battle lines are blurred, the emphasis is shifted to give moral weight here, to change the outlook slightly and give us a different view.


In Utu Geoff Murphy seems to have elected to show the conflict between British domination and native resistance as a foretaste of today's 'freedom fighters'. The Maori rebels (if that is what they are) are frequently presented in clothing and attitudes that call to mind pictures of their 20th century Central American counterparts. Their leader, Te Wheke, is conceived and played in the charismatic style of a Castro or a Che Guevara. His rhetoric is in a Maori tradition; but, although his stated motive is to briog down retribution on those who have slaughtered his family, his sentiments echo the rallying cry of all who suffer the injustice of deprivation.


Te Wheke's ambivalence is expressed graphically - bouts of manic violence contrasted with moments of sly humour or introspection. In these he is prone to quoting Shakespeare - an incongruous touch which may well have historical precedent, but it comes across as artiface rather than real character revelation. In the action sequences and in his towering authority as a comander Anzac Wallace communicates what Geoff Murphy obviously intended: a 19th century anti-repression symbol who is equally relevant to our times.


As the antagonist to this basically sympathetic figure Murphy offers a British officer who is pretty much a sterotype. He is the conventional English upper class snob and bully, a wine-drinking, chess-playing member of a military caste system with the usual prejudices (and vices) of his kind, against whom we can happily direct our own deepseated resentment. When he finally gets his quietus from the least expected quarter, the tacit approval of the white 'colonials' says much about their feelings towards the Mother Country and what they have to put up with from her.


Foremost among the settlers is Williamson, a landowner who has been one of Te Wheke's victims and has a personal account to settle. As played by Bruno Lawrence, the man is endearingly demented - crazily intent on making ever bigger and more destructive weapons to kill the renegade Maori. When the troops assemble at the small township, scene of the biggest confrontation between Te Wheke and the Army, it is Williamson's eccentric behaviour that gives the sequence much of its humour, surprise and tension.


The scenes in the township (and how truly New Zealand it is, a main street in the middle of nowhere with a pub and a general store) are reminiscent of a hundred Hollywood westerns. The column of soldiers, marching to a Yankee tune in the best tradition, are almost vintage John Ford. The camera catches sight of faces - faces which have been glimpsed before, in crowds, in congregations - faces which tell us that not all Te Wheke's men are in the bush. When the fighting begins it is a confused hubbub of shouts, musket fire and hand-to-hand encounters. This is precisely how it must have been, except in set battles, and Utu recaptures brilliantly the desperation and brutality of the struggle between trained soldiers and fanatical warriors. The New Zealand landscape - bush, mountains, river and open country - has seldom been filmed to better advantage. Dull greens, earthy browns, mist-covered rockfaces, sunlight in waving tussock - these are authentic New Zealand images. They are every bit as effective as the prairie, the mesa or Monument Valley. And Geoff Murphy proves (not once, but three times) that New Zealand has rivers and ravines just as much made for jumping into as the one that saved Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.


Utu is not perfect. A combination of scripting and editing gives us a story line which is fragmentary, diffucult to follow and even misleading. After the attack on Williamson's house the Maoris throw a body on their cart. Williamson? So it seemed, but evidently not. In the final frame there he is, haggard and haunted, but unmistakably alive. The large number of characters, especially Maoris, who make brief appearances leads to problems of idenfication. Kelly Johnson tries to cope with a rather thinly-drawn character, never quite making him into anything other than a token embryo Kiwi - a colonial born, English trained, eager to adopt new ideas but restrained by authority, agaianst which he chafes - and having the qualities of niceness, naivete and courage in equal measure. When an opportunity occurs for massacre, mayhem and destruction on a grand scale Utu winds up to make the most of it - and a bit more. The sacking of Williamson's home is a case in point. True enough, no doubt, but it tends to go over the top and become an effect for its own sake rather than for narrative purposes.


It is in its final sequence that Utu fails most notably. The debate on the meaning and relevance of retribution is split four ways, with Maori and pakeha each claiming the right to execute Te Wheke. This means that the climax of a swiftly told story of action suddenly becomes bogged down in a question of moral responsibility, which has to be talked over in both English and Maori - using sub-titles. While the idea itself may be admirable, the execution is clumsy. It draws out the ending unnecessarily, and in making the resolution it falls back on a contrivance of melodrama: the last-minute disclosure that one character is someone other than you had supposed him to be. In keeping with the Victorian period maybe, but awkward nevertheless.


Flawed though it may be, Utu is a notable addition to the growing number of first-class New Zealand films.


- Peter Harcourt, Sequence'', March 1983.




Utu was re-edited for foreign release in 1985 in what is sometimes called "The Director's Cut". At the advice of overseas 'experts', the film was shortened and the final scene (specifically mentioned in Peter Harcourt's review) was intercut throughout the narrative. Whether it improved the film has remained a subject of debate. The recut version runs 105 minutes.



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