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Utu
(1984)

Director: Geoff Murphy  
Cast:
Anzac Wallace, Bruno Lawrence, Tim Elliott


I think that with just about everyone on this earth, there is a desire to feel superior, to feel on top of everyone else on this earth. More often than not we pretend that we don't have any kind of shortcomings and focus on the positive stuff in our lives. But the truth is that no group of people or even single individual is free of flaws and shortcomings. I learned this for myself in an unexpected way some time ago. It was in Vancouver, where I had travelled one Easter weekend to visit a friend I had made way back in high school. My friend had a girlfriend from Brazil, and that got me wondering about something. So one day, when she wasn't around, I asked my friend, "Have you ever said to your girlfriend, 'Ooooooooh, naughty naughty naughty! I know what you and your countrymen have been up to, and it surrrrrrre ain't pretty! Don't try to hide it - I know what cruel mischief you and your people have been up to! You have been viciously chopping down the Amazon rain forest bit by bit for years and years! Don't you know that the Amazon rain forest is the lungs of the world? Not only are you cruelly destroying a whole ecosystem, you are dooming mankind to choke to death from a lack of fresh air! Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame! Everybody knows your name........s!' ?" Okay, okay - I didn't say it exactly like that. When I want the answer to a question, I try to ask it as directly as possible without beating around the bush. Anyway, after asking my question to my friend, he immediately said, "No! Then she'd get on our cases about what we are doing with the Alberta oil sands!"

I had to admit even back then that my friend made a good point. There is a lot of controversy about what's being done with the Alberta oil sands, yet in these tough economic times, I can understand why what's being done there is permitted - those oil sands provide a lot of jobs. And even though I don't like what's being done in the Amazon rain forest, with so much of the Brazilian population suffering from poverty, I realize that what's being done with the rain forest provides a lot of jobs. Anyway, my friend's answer that day made me realize that no country, as well as no group of people in any country, is without fault. Just go around the world and look at any country, and you will inevitably find a number of disgraceful attributes about that country. Various faults range from extremes like the brutal rule of government found in North Korea right down to the poaching of various endangered animals in several African countries. It probably should come as no surprise that all of these various shames of countries have inspired a number of filmmakers to use these shames as topics for numerous feature films. Shames of the "man vs. man" kind are possibly the most popular kind of shames that have been filmed. One of the most popular over the years coming from Hollywood has been how the settlers of the American west treated Native Americans. But there have certainly been other kinds of genocide in this world that has been given the cinematic treatment. Hong Kong and mainland Chinese filmmakers have dealt with the Japanese occupation, for example. And there have been countless movies concerning what the Nazis did during the Second World War.

I've seen plenty of movies concerning themselves with various kinds of real-life genocide that has happened in our past. To tell the truth, there have been times when I have had the opportunity to see a lot more, but I turned down these chances because, to be quite frank, I often find Utuseeing depictions of real life abuse by people against their fellow man to be depressing. Seeing fictional abuse in a movie is one thing, but showing how ugly man has been in real life is heavy stuff. Despite this feeling of mine, I have to admit that when I came across the movie Utu, which deals with a real life kind of genocide, I was more intrigued than hesitant. It was a New Zealand movie based on that country's historic past more than a hundred years ago - something I knew nothing about. Also, while I haven't seen that many movies from New Zealand, what I have seen has been pretty memorable. Both those factors made the movie irresistible to me, and I brought it home to watch and review. The setting of Utu is New Zealand in the year 1870. The events of the movie surround a Maori named Manatiki Te Wheke (Wallace, The Quiet Earth), who at the beginning of the movie is a member of the British army. But when he discovers that the people of his village have been massacred by the British army, the grief-stricken Te Wheke deserts the army and declares utu - ritualistic revenge. He gathers a group of other Maoris who are against the foreign invaders, and they start a rampage of killing white settlers and soldiers. Colonel Elliot (Elliott, Young Einstein), commander of the British forces in the area, has one Lieutenant Scott (Kelly Johnson, Goodbye Pork Pie) take command of a band of soldiers to track down and stop Te Wheke, but it's not going to be easy, especially when one settler (Lawrence, Goodbye Pork Pie) starts hunting Te Wheke on his own after Te Wheke and his men kill his wife.

As more than one critic has pointed out, what we have here is a kind of south of the equator western, which may give this movie extra interest to those who are fans of the western genre. Though it is possible that even western addicts may be turned off by some problems that appear in the first few minutes of the movie, problems that sometimes resurface in the movie's remaining running time. One of the first problems is that in the movie's first few minutes, it pretty much spoils what happens in the end by suddenly showing us a flash-forward of how things are wrapped up several months after Te Wheke's village is massacred. I had a good idea about what would happen in the end of the movie before I started watching it - and probably you can come up with a good guess as to what happens. Still, I didn't like seeing this spoiler (if it can be called that) at all. If I had even just a little doubt as to what would eventually happen, I would be more interested in what happens - there would be some mystery, and I would be more eager to see what happens. But as it is, there's no doubt, and the inevitable question comes up in our mind as to why are we watching this - we know what's going to happen. But there's more problems that this at the beginning of the movie. There is the unanswered question as to why Te Wheke's village was raided in the first place. And since this raid is the opening sequence of the movie, we don't get a chance to see Te Wheke before this life-changing event happened. We don't see where he came from, how he was changed from a law-abiding man to someone with vengeance on his mind. He becomes less multi-dimensional than he could have been.

In fairness to Utu, I must point out that the version of the movie I watched was the 104 minute American theatrical version - I uncovered during my research of the movie that the original New Zealand cut runs fourteen extra minutes. So it is possible that some character development was cut along the way. It could possibly explain why Te Wheke, after starting his murderous campaign, isn't as strong a character as you might think. He has less dialogue than you might think, and it's often hard to figure out what he's thinking. The cuts during the movie's travel across the Pacific might also explain some big unanswered questions, like how Te Wheke, (very) shortly after deserting the army, all of a sudden has a sizable band of armed followers and is attacking the white population. It may also explain why a subplot about a complicated relationship between Lieutenant Scott and a young Maori woman doesn't always make sense. Still, while the characters may not have ended up being fully fleshed out either before or after the cuts, it didn't mean that the actors playing these characters didn't give the movie the best of the abilities. I thought the acting by everyone was above average. While the movie may not explore the character of Te Wheke very well, actor Anzac Wallace does give his character a constant feeling of intensity that makes you believe this is one determined individual. Kelly Johnson gives his character a touch of naivety, believable for a young soldier, though wisely not going as far to make Lieutenant Scott downright stupid. The standout performance, however, belongs to Bruno Lawrence. We see two sides to him, the loving and devoted husband at the beginning of the movie, transforming into a cold and ruthless killer after his wife is murdered by Te Wheke and his men. Lawrence seamlessly connects both these radically different sides of his character in a way that makes the transformation convincing.

Lawrence's character, after his wife is killed, constructs a unique weapon to aid him on his hunt for Te Wheke, two double-barrelled shotguns fused together. As you may expect, this weapon results in an eye-catching display of slaughter on the battlefield. But you might not be expecting is how the action sequences come across as a whole. The body count, while in the double digits, is somewhat less than you might expect. And the emphasis is not on glamor. When both sides fight and kill, it comes across as dirty business. We see the participants really struggle and panic as the bullets fly, with no one really in control. I'm pretty sure this unglamorous depiction is close to how real warfare is often like. Co-writer/director Geoff Murphy (who later went on to direct Hollywood movies like Under Siege 2) scruffs up the movie in other ways that also hold your attention. He isn't that interested in visual spectacle (there are very few "wide" shots of the attractive New Zealand landscape), instead zooming in close to show the rugged terrain and thick foliage the characters struggle with, often filming in cold and miserable weather that you see has gotten into the bones of the actors. Sometimes his direction comes across as amateurish (such as the scene where we don't realize someone has jumped off a cliff until they are subsequently shown landing in the water below), and sometimes the movie seems to be moving a bit too slow for its own good, but he does manage to keep the audience watching even during the clunkier moments. Most importantly, he shows that there were no real winners in this conflict. Both sides committed atrocities, and both sides suffered. Yet despite what the flawed but involving Utu shows us here, warfare and genocide have continuted to this day. What mankind really needs is more movies like this, otherwise a hundred years from now probably nothing will have changed.

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See also: Cheyenne Warrior, Dan Candy's Law, Duel At Diablo

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