When it first appeared more than a dozen years ago, Once Were Warriors became the most popular film in New Zealand history. For all I know, it remains so. A family melodrama and, around the edges, a social one, the film tags an abusive couple in a contemporary Maori ghetto. It’s not a bad film (no worse, say, than Gone with the Wind), but its main interest lies in the split nature of its achievement: a good, sensible script by Riwia Brown, perhaps taking its cues from Alan Duff’s novel, and the grotesque treatment it is given by director Lee Tamahori en route to Hollywood and the dismal Mulholland Falls (1996).
The marriage at the center of the film is among the most miserable in all of cinema. The moment Jake informs her that he has lost his job, without so much as asking what happened Beth lights into him; the implication is that Jake has let their large family down by popping off at work before. Already struggling to make ends meet, Beth Heke isn’t consoled by the fact that public assistance will mean only a slight reduction in family income. Of course, Beth is the kind of gal who will grab at any pretext to lash out at her husband and puncture his ego. Indeed, Jake’s life is one of noisy desperation, his fragile sense of manhood a battleground; at any moment Beth may once again throw up to him that he, unlike her, comes from slaves—given their shared social circumstance, an irrelevant as well as a cruel distinction intended simply to punish the both of them for her decision over twenty years earlier to marry him against her parents’ wishes. Beth promised herself then she wouldn’t leave Jake no matter what, and this rule of her colossal pride has largely dictated the course of their disastrous union. For Jake is a bully; defeated by his lot in life (a situation that the script posits but that Tamahori, a sensationalist, refuses to address, much less analyze), he subjects Beth to horrible sporadic beatings whenever she becomes too “lippy.” When Beth tries shaming him by flaunting her pummeled face, Jake laughs and says she looks “bloody ugly.” The couple, then, is snug (and smug) in their sadomasochism, while at the same time socioeconomically trapped; and there are children involved, all of them damaged, or being damaged, by their parents’ psychotic swings between loving sweetness and horrific violence. They are the helpless victims of Beth and Jake’s continuous cycle of pride, rage and recrimination.
Surely part of the point of the film is that the squalor, poverty and social marginalization to which the couple have been and are being subjected create an environment that all but dooms individuals and families to failing and failed lives. But don’t expect any of the remarkable insight here that one finds, say, in Gregory LaCava’s Primrose Path (1940), where one can see and feel the social environment working on the characters to stress and warp their lives, and where Ginger Rogers’ complex portrait of the shanty town girl whose father is a drunk and whose mother is a prostitute discloses the daily war even a child must wage to negotiate the terms of her emotional as well as economic survival. LaCava keeps his focus on the conditions determining his characters’ lives, and he avails himself of Rogers’ poignant acting to generate a living, breathing metaphor of each generation’s attempt to prevail against the conditions that will crush them. And he succeeds so vividly that even the hasty happy ending that Hollywood gave the far grimmer play (by Robert Buckner) on which the film is based fails to mitigate his social portrait and its tragic implications. Alas, Tamahori is after nothing so substantial in Once Were Warriors.
Tamahori’s critical mistake is that he weighs everything in a single direction rather than evenhandedly showing how both Beth and Jake are victims in the same social boat. Indeed, Beth is so much more the active monster, and Jake by contrast so much more the reactive monster, that the assault they endure from their social and racial context constantly must yield center stage to the particulars—the psychology—of their marriage. Blatantly dishonest for trying to enforce a disconnect between the film’s social aims and narrative material, Tamahori mounts an overcompensatory effort to absolve Beth of all responsibility for the hideous nature of her marriage, projecting all the blame onto Jake. Brown’s script will have none of it, but Tamahori persists, as though on a self-lacerating, fanatical mission. Helping out in this regard, all for the worse, is Rena Owen, who as Beth ignores the character’s ambivalences and ambiguities in favor of going the safe, easy histrionic route of playing her as an Earth Mother. Fortunately, though, each of the three children, however differently, tries to restore a connection to their tribal past. This, the film’s most interesting aspect, is also the least sentimentally treated. All three kids—a girl and two boys—make their own way to this past of theirs (one with the help of someone else’s guiding hand) in order to dignify and deepen themselves—not simply as a coping mechanism vis-à-vis their current circumstance but also to open up for themselves a range of new possibilities.
There are other good things about the film. For instance, a loose, overspilling mise-en-scène becomes the visual correlative to the messiness of Maori ghetto life. (The production designer is Michael Kane; Stuart Dryburgh is the cinematographer.) Moreover, Gracie Heke’s hanging is a rare convincing film suicide. The thirteen-year-old, heretofore a virgin, commits the act after being raped by a drunk friend of her father’s; Gracie is additionally driven to it by her overwhelming feeling that, if they knew, little support would be given her by her parents and older brothers. Both these elements of the film—the mise-en-scène and Gracie’s suicide—ring true.
Regrettably, the film converts the latter into a plot set-up. Once she learns of her daughter’s suicide (how she does is a bit of a stretch), Beth decides to leave Jake, whom she blames for this also. Apparently she wants to leave her husband with nothing—with less than nothing; for she provokes Jake into brutally assaulting Gracie’s violator—an evil act by one who is ignorant of the complicity of hers in her child’s death that Brown has been careful to include. But neither Brown nor Tamahori provides the slightest clue as to how Beth could bring herself to make such a vicious assault on Jake’s soul. Why not just take the children and go? Why doesn’t grief over her daughter’s death bring a measure of humanity to Beth’s soul? I am not suggesting that the plot be changed, only clarified; absent this, it must be changed, though, to keep us, the viewers, out of harm’s way of Beth’s cruel revenge against husband and rapist both. There are certain acts so monstrous that they should be presented in art with Shakespearean complexity or not at all.
Temuera Morrison plays Jake Heke. He is adequate, as is the rest of the cast with two exceptions, one being less than adequate, one being more than adequate. Pretty Mamaencaroa Kerr-Bell is a long way from being able to meet the demands of the role of Gracie, one of only two characters I like in the film. However, in the much simpler role of Toot, Gracie’s boyfriend who lives in the husk of an abandoned car, Shannon Williams is a sweet adolescent. Toot is the other character I like, and I felt terrifically sorry for him when Beth at the end takes him in. If Tamahori were the least gifted as a filmmaker, he would have sharply reflected on this and created a closing irony that might have shot through all the preceding material, transforming it. Even better, he should have scrapped the entire film and started over, giving his material the sociological and political treatment it cries out for.