The movie now glorified as the big cinema game changer in 1994 is the Cannes Palme d’Or winner Pulp Fiction, but Once Were Warriors released the same year had a much bigger impact on me. After multiple viewings extrapolating the jigsaw time-jumping Pulp I now appreciate its greatness with respect to Tarantino’s writing, but as far as a ‘knock your socks off’ movie experience I cannot speak more highly of Once Were Warriors. It’s a cultural tour de force of exceptional cinema from New Zealand and left most cinemagoers gobsmacked by the finale including yours truly.
IMDB Storyline: Set in urban Auckland (New Zealand) this movie tells the story of the Heke family. Jake Heke is a violent man who beats his wife frequently when drunk, and yet obviously loves both her and his family. The movie follows a period of several weeks in the family’s life showing Jake’s frequent outburst of violence and the effect that this has on his family. The youngest son is in trouble with the police and may be put into a foster home while the elder son is about to join a street gang. Jake’s daughter has her own serious problems which are a key element in the plot.
This movie goes deep into the trenches of one Maori’s family attempts at dealing with the problems of poverty and alcoholism. Warriors remains the highest grossing New Zealand film of all time even surpassing The Piano (1993) and critically lauded upon release. It’s definitely not an easy movie to watch, but as a viewer you feel so invested in the characters trying to keep the family together despite the persistent hardships confronting them. I haven’t seen as many ‘raw’ movies as ‘Warriors‘ and admire the courage it took for the actors especially the mother played by Rene Owen whose performance is astonishingly good. Heck, Rene was even picked up by Lucas to play in two Star Wars prequel movies as a result.
There are movies which depict domestic violence, but when Rene’s character is hit in the gut, you actually feel like you are being hit in the gut. She’s the anchor point in the whole movie. The rational person of the family is the oldest daughter (13), who is really the only one who can communicate with all the other members since the mother (Rene character) also succumbs to the boozy lifestyle. The boys are either lost in life or lost in their own rage. The youngest daughter is simply too small and clings to her sister. It takes a tragedy to allow some of these individuals to reach out for each other and try to re-create a form of family life. For any cinephile Once Were Warriors is a must-see.
- Temuera Morrison would get challenged to fight all the time by local thugs after seeing him play Jake Heke…(he also said) how he couldn’t contemplate how anyone would want to watch a film containing such violence.
- Actor Cliff Curtis initially refused the role of Uncle Bully as he found the character so repulsive, but his agent and his auntie persuaded him to do it.
- The film was turned down by various potential backers and producers including the New Zealand Film Commission. A key turning point in getting the project off the ground was that Wellington playwright Riwia Brown rewrote Duff’s original script and made it as much the story of Beth and her children as it is the story of Jake. Then director Tamahori knew he was onto a winner. Tamahori said “You couldn’t have it be a story about a mindlessly violent thug. I was more fascinated by a story of a mother who makes efforts to rise above her circumstances and create a life for her children.”