‘Once Were Warriors’ Directed by Lee Tamahori and based on the novel by Alan Duff is a powerful, hard hitting film, seething with raw emotion and pride. It is a film about strength and power of culture and belonging and these ideas are displayed through the contrast of characters, setting and music and sound effects. Characters are the heart of this film. Complex and brutally real, they are portrayed in daring and passionate performances to create a universal and timeless idea about culture and belonging. Beth Heke (Rena Owen) is the epitome of this idea.
She is tough, feisty, proud, but still extremely vulnerable, especially in the urban world where she is cut off from her culture. With the extra pressure of a fierce and overpowering husband she is battered and bruised and trying desperately to hold together her slowly falling-apart family. The contrast between Beth and her vicious husband Jake (Temuera Morrison) throughout the film exemplifies the strength of culture and belonging. Jake is from a ‘long line of slaves’ and the only belonging he finds is within the unstable framework of the pub. When Beth calls on her strong, stable cultural base for support, she receives it.
The difference between the two characters is amplified in the last scene. When both parents are hit by the death of their daughter, Grace, Jake, who has no strong base to keep him together, falls apart and is reduced to ranting and raving outside the scummy pub. While Beth, who has found strength in her culture, is beautiful and powerful and can stand up to Jake. Now she can graciously and eloquently free herself from him. The stark contrast between these two, the admiration I felt for Beth and the begrudging pity I felt for Jake intensifies the contrast between them.
The characters in ‘Once Were Warriors’ have successfully communicated the idea that culture and belonging give you strength, something that Jake did not have. ‘Our people once were warriors, people with mana, pride and spirit. If my spirit can survive living with you for eighteen years, it can survive anything’ A dirty scummy pub and a sunlight marae are both examples of how the contrast in various settings of the film help to communicate the idea that culture gives you strength. The severe contrast between the pub and the marae shows the differences between a life with cultural and family support and one without.
The marae to Beth represents her strength and after taking Grace to be buried there ‘I want to bring her home, Auntie’ she becomes stronger. The cultural significance and the family support she has makes her stronger. In contrast with the marae, the pub is an uncultured and uncivilised place that always seems to be dark and dirty. The marae is shown as sunlit, natural, peaceful and clean, while the pub is smoky and violent. The fact that Jake, who has no culture or belonging feels most comfortable there intensifies the contrast.
As the pub is the place where Jake falls apart in the last scene, this shows that without culture you are weak. The last contrast which represents this theme is the music and sounds used. Music is used to associate with the characters. Predominantly the use of sweet music of the Koauan represents hope culture and Beth’s strength. While the eerie whirring sound of the purerehua represents Jake’s violence. The sharp contrast of the timbre of these two instruments creates an obvious difference. The purerehua in particular creates a tension that makes us scared of what Jake’s violence can create.
And in the last scenes where Jake is ranting and raving at Beth, there is no whirring sound and we do not feel as threatened by him. The music, like the characters shows the difference of life with and without culture. The theme of culture giving you strength in ‘Once Were Warriors’ applies to a universal, international audience. The strength of Beth compared to the weakness of Jake is a contrast which illuminates this idea. This contrast is helped by a contrast in setting and music. All these contrasts create a powerful and meaningful message that applies to everyone, no matter what race you belong to.