Utu (1984)

Utu (1984)
  • 1025
  • Unrated
  • Genre: Adventure
  • Release year: 1984 ()
  • Running time: 118 min
  • Original Title: Utu
  • Voted: 1025

In New Zealand in the 1860s the native Maori people fought the British colonials to keep the land guaranteed to them by treaty. The warrior Te Wheke fights for the British until betrayal leads him to seek utu (revenge). The settler Williamson in turn seeks revenge after Te Wheke attacks his homestead. Meanwhile Wiremu, an officer for the British, seems to think that resistance is futile.

1Anzac WallaceTe Wheke
2Bruno LawrenceWilliamson
3Tim ElliottCol. Elliot
4Kelly JohnsonLt. Scott
  • Brilliant study of revenge by 10

    To me, a good movie uses the introduction to snap your tether of disbelief; the middle to entertain you and deliver you to the end; and the end to make it worth the journey.

    This movie does it better than any other movie that I've ever seen.

    The story is about revenge ("utu"), how the cycle starts, how it changes, and the price to be paid to end it.

    The time and the place are not important, though the movie is beautifully shot and historically valid. The action is only a device to tell the story, though it is compelling and riveting. The subject matter is profoundly serious, though there are elements of comedy even during the most serious scenes.

    Overall, this is one of the best constructed films that I have ever seen. The pacing of the scenes, the respect for the intelligence of the audience, the dark endearing humor, and the impact of the message all make this one of my favorite movies.

    The director's cut provides additional scenes that explain some of the details that are missing from the original, but these extra scenes foul the sharp pacing that makes the studio cut work so well.

  • Somewhat confusing script mars an otherwise great film by 7

    While it is slightly confusing on a first viewing for someone with scant background knowledge about the setting, Utu is still a largely entertaining, interesting and well made film with an odd tonal combination of a western, a war film, a Charles Bronsonish revenge flick and touches of macabre comedy.

    Utu is inspired by true events in New Zealand circa 1870. We focus on a military-oriented motley crew of English, Caucasian New Zealanders, or Pakeha, and natives of Polynesian descent, or Maori. The general atmosphere in the film is similar to the pioneer atmosphere of some U.S.-oriented westerns set in the late 19th Century. The plot is catalyzed by fighting among the English, Pakeha and Maori with difficult-to-discern lines of division. To an extent, it seems that these oppositional groupings must have been somewhat chaotic in reality, and especially Maori are shown flitting from side to side.

    The important points for the film, though, are that we're shown the massacre of a Maori village by Caucasians in the beginning, and we're shown the Maori Te Wheke (Anzac Wallace) happening upon the aftermath of the massacre, whereupon he swears revenge, or "utu", on the white men for their misdeeds. His chief opponent is Lieutenant Scott (Kelly Johnson) a very young Pakeha (who looks a lot like a young Jay Mohr) with a very multicultural band of military men under his command. A homesteader named Williamson (Bruno Lawrence) also becomes unwillingly involved, and Scott is under the command of a relatively staunch Colonel Elliot (Tim Elliott). On the "forest" level, the film is a relatively simple coming together of these characters as Te Wheke seeks his revenge.

    In terms of action and the film's western modes, Utu is very satisfying. The attack scenes are thrilling, visceral and even occasionally gory. The western scenes are often accompanied by beautiful cinematography, sometimes with wide landscape shots showing the varied and gorgeous natural features of New Zealand. For voracious viewers of American films, the western material periodically feels more like a low-key Civil War movie. Writer/director Geoff Murphy meshes all of these styles together well.

    The film's politics and ethics are kept complexly gray. Maybe a bit too gray, considering how difficult it can be to keep all of the characters and their sides straight, but on the other hand, Murphy is probably shooting for historical accuracy in the complexity, so it's at least understandable on that end.

    Wallace makes a great anti-hero. At first, when he happens upon the aftermath of the Maori village massacre, we deeply sympathize with him, but shortly after this scene, he's hacking and shooting up everyone more like a serial killer, or a Maori Charles Manson. Still, sympathy with the character doesn't completely disappear, and it may be helped if one is familiar with New Zealand history--I would suspect that in general, the Maori received treatment from Caucasians something like American Indians did. The scene with Te Wheke undergoing a ritual scarification/tattooing is one of the best symbolic "obedient do-gooder to avenging hurricane" transformations I've seen, even though it is fairly understated. Wallace's role as a rip roarin' antihero is even more interesting in light of his offscreen history. Born Norman Pene Rewiri, he committed armed robbery as a youth, was sent to prison for a number of years, changed his name to Wallace, and became a union organizer. Utu was his first film.

    Murphy also peppers Utu with a very interesting romance between Lt. Scott and a Maori woman, Kura (Tania Bristowe), who weaves her loyalties in and out of Te Wheke's gang. This is one of two tragic romances in the film--the other being between Williamson and his wife, Emily (Ilona Rodgers)--that fuel "big turning points" at other times in the plot in a deepening of the film's theme of karmic retribution, or as an earlier scene notes, "He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword". Thematically/subtextually, Murphy passes with flying colors.

    The performances are good, and Murphy's direction in terms of blocking, tonalities, pacing, editing and so on is great. My score for Utu is really a "high 7". I wish I could have given the film an even higher score, and I can envision myself appreciating it more on subsequent viewings (provided I don't completely forget about all of the factual background material I've looked up since watching it), but my confusion with the plot and characters just wouldn't allow that, no matter how much I enjoyed the film otherwise. I know that some of the problems I had were with dialogue and pronunciations--this is definitely a film that could have benefited from subtitles.

    But Utu has some great scenes, some excellent extended sequences (including the homesteader sequence and the climax--both were incredibly suspenseful), some memorable characters, and a wicked sense of humor--there were a couple times I almost felt as if the film were turning into a "black comedy". It's worth checking out if you're into world cinema or any of the film's genres, and probably even more imperative to watch if you have an interest in New Zealand history.

  • Cavalry vs. Indians, Kiwi-style. by 7

    Well-made actioner could have benefited from a script that took more time to establish characters and historical context. The film opens with a horrific massacre of a Maori village, which drives native soldier Te Wheke (Anzac Wallace) to swear a blood vendetta ('utu') against the white man. Unfortunately, there is no explanation given for the massacre, and we know nothing about Te Wheke except that until then he was a soldier in the white man's army.

    Despite this narrative gap, the action which follows is reasonably compelling in the manner of a Don Siegel or John Sturges Western. Besides the strong performance by Wallace, Kelly Johnson is good as the baby-faced army lieutenant charged with introducing new-fangled 'commando' tactics from the Boer War, and Bruno Lawrence has a field day as a gun-obsessed homesteader who swears his own oath of vengeance against Te Wheke after his wife is killed. (Wait till you see the shotgun he puts together in his shed!) Geoff Murphy's direction is straightforward, if sometimes muddled during shootouts, and other pluses are the authentic period production design and weaponry, along with mobile camera-work by Graeme Cowley on rugged New Zealand landscapes.

    Not a profound work, but entertaining for its historical milieu, based on real incidents. Be warned that the DVD transfer is not the best.

  • Not a Great Film, But a Good, Entertaining One by 7

    Leonard Maltin, practically the only film critic who has written a review of this film, states that it is "downbeat, dull, and full of stereotypical characters - without the compensating power of Australia's not dissimilar 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.'" It's a shame that the movie has only this professional opinion from Maltin and no others, even though Maltin is a critic with whom I usually agree. Being one of the few people who has probably seen both films, I have to disagree with Maltin's assessment. While "Chant..." was a very serious meditation on the nature and effects of racism, this film was intended as a lighter, more entertaining Western-type movie filled with sudden dark humor - the kind of macho, action-filled movie that director Walter Hill in the U.S. used to make years ago. I don't think it aspires to be the masterpiece that "Chant..." was, but that does not diminish its qualities.

    Really, for a simple Western revenge movie, there are several interesting themes here. The first is the difficulty of maintaining a conflict between two peoples living in such close proximity. The British settlers, and even members of the British army, seem to be social neighbors with the Maori natives - trading, speaking each other's languages, and even joining each other's armies. Not only does this make pure hatred nearly impossible, but makes it difficult to accurately assess the motives of the people around you. There is something universal in this theme - this may be one of the reasons the U.S. had such difficulty in the Vietnam War, in that it was both relying-upon and fighting a local people.

    The second, more obvious theme, is the self-perpetuating effects of revenge, which never seem to dissipate. Every character here seems to have their own personal obsession with some kind of individual revenge. Ironically, the one character who seems the most internally-conflicted and the one with the most to hate - a socialized Maori who has learned English and French and even joined the Queen's army, witnessing atrocities on both side - is the only one who can carry out "without prejudice" a formal military execution.

    I somewhat understand why Maltin disliked this movie. A possible flaw is that there is almost no expository on how the character Te Wheke metamorphosizes from a loyal British Army lance corporal to a heavily tattooed, brutal Maori warmonger who will kill anyone who gets in his way. But on the other hand, this movie is not a character-study of Te Wheke, it is more of an essay on the futility of pure revenge, or "Utu." Really, the best reason to see the movie is its technical qualities. Director Murphy has a real kinetic feel for visuals - like Scorsese, keeping his camera constantly moving among the chaos of 19th century guerilla warfare. The acting is generally good, and the feel for the New Zealand wilderness is excellent. Yes, this movie could have been better, and probably should have been better given the greater seriousness which this subject matter deserved. However, it's worth a rental if you can find it. And if you're not a New Zealander, I recommend watching it twice; it is very fast-paced on the first viewing and difficult to decipher - it gets better the second time.

  • 'Utu Redux' is the film the Director wants you to See. by 7

    Most reviewers have referred to this as a Western, but I feel that puts a label on it that is misleading. The setting involves a colonial power and subjugated indigenous people in 1870 New Zealand, but it could have been 1870 Australia or Canada or Mexico or United States or any number of other countries. It is a fiction based upon real people and events with a late 19th century New Zealand setting. One needs to view it without the preconceived notions and if so done, you will better enjoy it.

    All that said, I would highly recommend viewing the recently released 'Utu Redux' version. It is a bit shorter with a greatly improved image and sound. It has been digitized and is now available on region free DVD and Blu-ray. Since its 1983 release, it was bastardized by various distributors with length changes and quality losses. The director, editor and original cinematographer spent much time and expense to get back the film they intended. 'Utu Redux' is that film.

1Graeme Cowleycinematographer
2John Charlescomposer
3Geoff Murphydirector
4Michael Hortoneditor
5Don Blakeneyproducer
6Keith Aberdeinwriter