One of the great things about having the film archive here in Wellington is that they put on classic New Zealand films that would otherwise never be screened anywhere.

Got out last night to see Utu, the Geoff Murphy film we’d like to remember him for.

And it was a ripping yarn. Some very poor shots that Geoff probably regrets, and the whole thing is maybe 20 mins too long, but highly enjoyable.

If you can’t remember the plot (it was 1983 after all), Anzac Wallace plays Te Wheke, a native trooper in the employ of the British in the 1870s. In the opening scene his kainga is butchered by a local colonel and Te Wheke vows revenge. You don’t have to be a genius to work out the rest. The first thing Te Wheke does is go kill the local missionary, who’s actually a bit of a prick.

In fact, most of the British are.

What struck me most about the film was the manner in which it must have disturbed many people in the general public, especially those who chose to forget (or never knew about) the seamier side of the colonisation of New Zealand. 1983 was close to the end of Muldoon’s petty dictatorship, and only 5 years after Bastion Point. Race relations in New Zealand were at an all-time low for the C20th, and it was only with the passing of the Treaty of Waitangi Amendment Act 1985 (and the subsequent Treaty settlement process) that things started looking up.

And these themes run deeply through the film. The Raupatu, and the needless slaughter of Maori by racist British and colonial troops, the need for justice to be served. They’re challenging to think about today, let alone the heady 1980s.

We also got to see another old 80s theme trotted out. The bad guys are always gay.

But it’s the final scene that really carries the film. Wi Kuki Kaa, the only actor of any great weight in the film (and yes, that includes Bruno Lawrence), delivers a truly great performance to end it all. The poignancy of that ending was immense.

Looks like you’ll have to get it on video though…

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