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Once Were Warriors (film)

Once Were Warriors
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Lee Tamahori
Produced by Robin Scholes
Written by Riwia Brown
based on the novel Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff
Starring Rena Owen
Temuera Morrison
Cliff Curtis
Julian Arahanga
Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell
Music by Murray Grindlay
Murray McNabb
Cinematography Stuart Dryburgh
Edited by Michael J. Horton
Distributed by Fine Line Features
Release dates
  • 2 September 1994 (1994-09-02)
Running time 102 minutes
Country New Zealand
Language English
Box office $1,608,570[1]

Once Were Warriors is a 1994 film based on New Zealand author Alan Duff's bestselling 1990 first novel.[2] The film tells the story of an urban Māori family the Hekes and their problems with poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence, mostly brought on by family patriarch Jake. It was directed by Lee Tamahori and stars Rena Owen and Temuera Morrison.[3]


  • Plot 1
  • Differences between book and film 2
  • Cast 3
  • Production 4
  • Reception 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


Beth left her small town and despite the disapproval of her parents, married Jake "the Muss" Heke. After eighteen years they live in an unkempt State House and have five children. Their interpretations of life and being Māori are tested. Their eldest daughter, Grace, keeps a journal in which she chronicles events as well as stories which she tells her younger siblings.

Jake is fired from his job and is satisfied with the unemployment benefit, spending most days getting drunk at the local pub with his friends, singing songs and savagely beating any patron whom he considers to have stepped out of line. He often invites crowds of friends back from the bar to his home for drunken parties. His wife "gets lippy" at one of his parties and he brutally attacks her in front of their friends. Beth turns to drink when things go wrong, with angry outbursts and occasional violence on a much smaller scale. Her children fend for themselves, resignedly cleaning the blood-streaked house after her beating.

Nig, the Heke’s eldest son, moves out to join a gang whose rituals include facial tattoos (in Māori culture called Tā moko). This usually shows the heritage of the person; in Nig’s case, he shows only the heritage of his mother, with the Moko located on only one side of his face. He is subjected to an initiation beating by the gang members, but then embraced as a new brother and later sports the gang’s tattoos. Nig cares about his siblings, but despises his father. He is angered when his mother is beaten, but deals with it by walking away.

The second son, Mark "Boogie" Heke has a history of minor criminal offences and is taken from his family and placed in a foster home as a ward of the state due to the situation with his parents. Despite his initial anger, Boogie finds a new niche for himself, as the foster home’s manager Mr. Bennett helps him embrace his Māori heritage. Jake does not care that Boogie is taken away; he comments that it will do him some good, to toughen him up a bit. Beth is heartbroken, and scrapes money together to visit him. Jake pays for the rental car from gambling winnings, but deserts the family to go to the pub and they never make the journey.

Grace, the Heke’s 13-year-old daughter, loves writing stories. Her best friend is a homeless boy named Toot who lives in a wrecked car. She despises the future she believes is inevitable and is constantly reminded of getting married and playing the role of the wife, which she believes is catering to one’s husband’s demands and taking beatings. She dreams of leaving and being independent and single.

Grace is raped in her bed by her father’s friend "Uncle Bully" who tells her that it is her fault for "turning him on" by wearing her "skimpy little nighty". She becomes depressed. She tries to go to her friend Toot for support, smoking her first dope. Toot kisses her, but she reacts violently and storms out, believing him to be "just like the rest of them". After wandering through the city streets, Grace comes home to an angry Jake with his friends. Bully asks for a goodnight kiss in front of everyone, to test his power over her. Grace refuses and her father tears her journal in two and nearly beats her up. She runs out to the backyard crying. Beth returns home from searching for her and goes outside looking for Grace, only to find that she has hanged herself from a tree branch.

Jake stays in the pub with his mates while the rest of the family take Grace's body to a tangihanga. Beth stands up to him properly for the first time as he refuses to let her be taken to the marae; he has always felt second rate for not being in touch with his heritage, in his words, "a black bastard". The film cuts back and forth between the mourning, Jake in the pub bottling it up and the family on the marae. Boogie impresses Beth with his Māori singing at the funeral and Toot says his goodbyes, telling her the gentle kiss was all he meant by it. Boogie reassures Toot that Grace loved him and Beth invites Toot to live with them.

Reading Grace’s diary later that day, Beth finds out about the rape and confronts Bully in the pub. Jake at first threatens Beth, but Nig steps between them, protecting his mother. He hands him Grace’s diary and Jake reacts by severely beating Bully and stabbing him with a glass bottle in the crotch. Beth blames Jake just as much as Bully for bringing home his violent friends. She leaves and states her intentions to leave with their children and return to her Māori village and traditions, defiantly telling Jake that her Māori heritage gives her the strength to resist his control over her. Jake hopelessly sits on a curb outside the pub as the family leaves, with sirens wailing in the background.

Differences between book and film

The book and the film follow a roughly similar plot. Three major differences include the role of Beth, the involvement of Nig's gang, and the ending. In addition, the film takes place in Auckland, whereas the novel was set in the fictional town of Two Lakes, which was based on Rotorua where Alan Duff grew up. Two Lakes is a literal translation of the Maori Name Rotorua.

In the book, Beth and Jake are roughly equal characters; Beth is flawed but dynamic, and almost as irresponsible as her husband. In the film, Beth is more central, especially because Jake's period of homelessness is omitted from the film; however, her character is less complex. The difference between the book and the film is illustrated by a key episode in which the family rent a car in order to visit Boogie, but Jake stops at a pub along the way for "one drink." He ends up getting drunk for hours as the family wait in the car. In the book, Beth hires the car using money she has saved by not drinking, but quickly joins Jake in the pub and gets upset only when it is too late to visit Boogie. In the film, Jake wins money gambling on horses and uses it to rent the car. Beth and the children wait in the car outside the bar for several hours before Beth finally calls a cab and takes the children back home without visiting Boogie. Essentially, Beth spends the first three-quarters of the film as a passive character, until Grace's suicide spurs her into leaving Jake, whereas throughout the book she attempts to improve her life.

The subplot concerning Nig's gang is a bigger part of the book than the film. In the book, Nig tries to find a substitute family in the gang, but its members are either too brutal or too beaten down to give him the love and support he craves. In the film, we see little of the gang once Nig is initiated and tattooed. Also in the Book it is Toot that rejects Grace's advances for affection, as he instinctively realizes they are both too damaged to console each other or explore their childhood love.

The most obvious difference between the book and the film is the ending. In the novel, Grace is not sure who raped her, but thinks it may have been Jake. She writes this in her diary, and when the rest of the family find it, they confront Jake. However, he can't remember what happened, because he was too drunk. He then leaves the family, lives in a park, and befriends a young homeless man. Meanwhile Beth begins a Māori culture group that reinvigorates her community.



The film was produced by Communicado Productions, its first feature film. The film won best film at the New Zealand Film & Television Awards, Durban International Film Festival, Montreal Film Festival and Rotterdam Film Festival. It also became at the time the highest grossing film in New Zealand, surpassing The Piano. The film was nominated for the Grand Prix of the Belgian Syndicate of Cinema Critics.

The film was shot at a local Otara state house, located at 33 O'Connor street, Otara, Auckland. The film was filmed primarily in that house, with neighbours complaining on numerous occasions due to the film's late night party scenes.

A sequel to the book was published in 1996, What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?, which was made into a film in 1999. However, it was poorly received compared to the original. The third book in the trilogy, Jake's Long Shadow, was published in 2002 but has not been made into a movie.


Once Were Warriors was critically lauded on release and the film currently has a rating of 94% on Rotten tomatoes based on 32 reviews with an average rating of 7.7 out of 10.[4]

Roger Ebert gave the film three and a half stars out of four and stated in his review ""Once Were Warriors" has been praised as an attack on domestic violence and abuse. So it is. But I am not sure anyone needs to see this film to discover that such brutality is bad. We know that. I value it for two other reasons: its perception in showing the way alcohol triggers sudden personality shifts, and its power in presenting two great performances by Morrison and Owen. You don't often see acting like this in the movies. They bring the Academy Awards into perspective."[5]

A New Zealand survey in 2014 voted the film the best New Zealand film of all time.[6]

In 2014 a documentary film was made for the 20th anniversary of the original release of the film. [7] [8]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Maslin, Janet (February 24, 1995). "Once Were Warriors (1994) FILM REVIEW; For a Family, the War at Home".  
  3. ^ Thompson, K. M. (2003). "Once Were Warriors: New Zealand's first indigenous blockbuster." In J. Stringer (Ed.), Movie Blockbusters (pp. 230 – 241). London: Routledge.
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Once Were Warriors" has been praised as an attack on domestic violence and abuse. So it is. But I am not sure anyone needs to see this film to discover that such brutality is bad. We know that. I value it for two other reasons: its perception in showing the way alcohol triggers sudden personality shifts, and its power in presenting two great performances by Morrison and Owen. You don't often see acting like this in the movies. They bring the Academy Awards into perspective.
  6. ^ "Kiwis pick their favourite movie". Stuff/Fairfax. 19 August 2014. 
  7. ^ "Once were the cast of Warriors". Stuff/Fairfax. 19 August 2014. 
  8. ^ "What became of Grace Heke". Stuff/Fairfax. 19 August 2014. 

External links

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