Once Were Warriors

Lee Tamahori

Riwia Brown (Screenplay)
Alan Duff (Original novel)

Rena OwenBeth Heke
Temuera MorrisonJake Heke
Mamaengaroa Kerr-BellGrace Heke
Julian ArahangaNig Heke
Taungaroa EmileBoogie Heke
Rachael Morris Jr.Polly Heke
Cliff Curtis – Bully

New Zealand

English, Maori

Release Date:
2 September 1994 (Venice Film Festival)

1994 Montréal World Film Festival – Best Actress: Rena Owen (Tied with Helena Bergström in Sista dansen); Grand Prix des Amériques: Lee Tamahori; Prize of the Ecumenical Jury: Lee Tamahori; Public Prize: Lee Tamahori

1994 New Zealand Film and TV Awards – Best Film; Best Director: Lee Tamahori; Best Editing: Michael Horton; Best Film Score: Murray Grindlay, Murray McNabb; Best Juvenile Performance: Taungaroa Emile; Best Performance in a Dramatic Role – Male: Temuera Morrison; Best Performance in a Supporting Role – Female: Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell; Best Screenplay: Riwia Brown; Best Soundtrack: Kit Rollings, Ray Beentjes, Michael Hedges, Graham Morris

1995 Australian Film Institute – Best Foreign Film

1995 Rotterdam International Film Festival – Audience Award

New Zealand: R
Australia: MA
Canada: 18A
Finland: K-16
France: -16
Germany: 16
Iceland: 16
Netherlands: 16
Norway: 18
Spain: 18
Sweden: 15
UK: 18
IMDb: 7.9/10
Netflix: 3.8/5
Rotten Tomatoes: 94% (Fresh)

This is the second movie from New Zealand that has come up from our little Random Movie experiment. The first was Kombi Nation, and aside from the fact that they both have New Zealand origins the two films couldn’t be more different. I have stated before that I love foreign movies because they take me to a world and show me a culture that I otherwise wouldn’t see. Well, Once Were Warriors certainly fits that bill. It plops the viewer smack dab in the middle of a modern family of Māoris, the indigenous people of NZ. From the first shot of the movie you can tell that this is going to very different from most other movies that came out of NZ, before or since. There are no beautiful beaches or lush scenery here, just the urban landscape of the inner city (in this case Auckland).

Jake (Temuera Morrison) and Beth Heke (Rena Owen) have five children. Jake just lost his job and is now “on the dole.” He likes to drink and party with his mates. And fight, he also likes to fight. Neither of his two oldest sons want anything to do with him, and yet they take after him, they are both heading for trouble with the law and with society.

As is often the case, the spiritual heads of the family are the women: Beth is played by the amazing Rena Owen. She is incredibly beautiful and yet her face is a road map of suffering: Both her personal pain, and that of her people. The oldest daughter is named Grace, and she is grace personified. Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell was only 16 at the time the movie was made, but she has an old soul. Grace writes stories that she tells to the youngest two children, stories about the Taniwha – a magical creature of the sea who takes care of people. Both Grace and Beth have the potential to be that magical woman to their families, but will they be strong enough to do it?

Turns out that Beth is descended from Māori royalty, but she has slipped away from her roots – mostly because Jake doesn’t want anything to do with his Māori heritage. However, each of the children are – in their own ways – returning to that heritage, even the oldest son who joins a gang that fancies itself as returning to tribal warrior roots.

I said in the beginning that foreign films show us different worlds and cultures, but is it really that different? Watching OWW I kept thinking about how similar these inner city Māori people seemed to the marginalized people in my country: Our African Americans and Latinos in our own inner cities, our indigenous people on their reservations, even our impoverished whites. The languages and nuances change, but the song remains the same.

The brutality of Jake and his friends takes a horrible toll on his family, and at the end Beth confronts him about it:

Our people once were warriors, but not like you, Jake. People with mana, spirit. If my spirit can survive living with you for 18 years then I can survive anything.

The Misplaced Boy MST3K Scale:

Rena Owen and young Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell carry Once Were Warriors, and their performances alone make it worth seeing.

Be warned, though. The movie doesn’t shy away from the brutality of some of its characters, for that reason it may not be appropriate for some. I’m giving it a…


Random Quote Whore Quote:

Once Were Warriors is a nodal, unrealizable, geognosy of a movie! Rena Owen is micronucleate!!!


3 thoughts on “Random Movie Review – Once Were Warriors

  1. Hey MB 🙂 Couldn’t help but comment – being that I’m from NZ!! This movie shocked New Zealander’s when it was released in the early 90’s – due to the raw exposure with regards to the underground domestic violence scene and gang culture in New Zealand. Although this is a movie, it is sadly, an accurate portrayal of the most destitute end of our society. Like most New Zealander’s, I have a love/hate relationship with this movie – I loved it for it’s was a raw truth and beauty, hated it for it’s brutal violence and bare exposure of the ugly side of human nature. Overall, it was a harsh but beautiful movie. The actors were talented and managed to produce a wealth of varying emotions in many who watched it.

    • Thank you so much, Grace. Harsh but beautiful, I wish I’d said that 🙂
      Yeah, when done right, film can tell the truth…and a wise man once said the truth will break your heart before it sets you free.

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