Monday, August 19, 2013


1983, New Zealand, directed by Geoff Murphy

That rare film that arguably makes a genuine difference to historical understanding of its particular time period, without actually being historically accurate, Geoff Murphy's "Kiwi western" ended up being screened for a couple of generations of New Zealand students as part of their history syllabus -- part of a wave of historical revisionism that also saw James Belich's book The New Zealand Wars become a somewhat unlikely local hit.

Murphy's aim is not so much to clarify the actual events of the mid-19th century as to give a sense of the cross-cutting motivations, conflicts, and interdependencies of settlers, Maori (who had far more than a single agenda), and the British army. The various actors come into strikingly close contact at times: these people often knew each other intimately whether they were on friendly or unfriendly terms, and the film is especially strong on giving virtually everyone (save the British commander) considerable nuance of character.

It's also highly assured from a technical standpoint, in contrast to the patched together qualities of Murphy's Wild Man, and Murphy finds some stirring beauty in the New Zealand landscape years before Peter Jackson altered the field; the sequences of horsemen crossing the sun-dappled land recall Breaker Morant, another film that did its utmost to rework our understanding of the British colonial record. And all this without sacrificing thrills and spills, whether it's the set piece attack on a settler home or the iconic Kiwi cinema moment when Bruno Lawrence raises his quadruple-barrelled shotgun for the first time.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States