Sunday Morning At the Movies: Once Were Warriors

Civilization is often difficult to define. The Oxford dictionary defines it this way: the stage of human social and cultural development and organization that is considered most advanced.

National Geographic adds this: A civilization is a complex human society, usually made up of different cities, with certain characteristics of cultural and technological development. In many parts of the world, early civilizations formed when people began coming together in urban settlements.

The word I associate with a precivilization is tribal or tribalism, but defining tribalism is more difficult now because it’s become associated with the modern political idea of group loyalty, even within the context of a civilization. It formerly meant a group of related people living in a pre-civilized state.

A civilizational society and a tribal society coming into conflict is the dominant story of the world over the past 500 years. The Romans played the role of the dominate civilizational power for hundreds of years and they collided with the tribal people of Europe, people like the Gaul and the Celt, and later the Franks and various Germanic tribes. They also aged war on the tribal Jews, and knocked heads with other civilizations, like the Persians and Greeks.

When the Spanish broke out of Europe, they were the civilizational culture coming into conflict with the natives of Mexico, Peru, and the rest of Central and South America.

When the French and British formed colonies in North America, they brought their patterns of agriculture to the New World, as well as their religions, ethics, and legal structures. These patterns where incompatible with the world view of the Native Americans, who were nomadic and tribal, and their demise was inevitable.

The problem plaguing so much of the industrialized world is that the descendants of the tribal people so often never adjust to modernity, and they scrape along on the bottom, often unemployed, purposeless, and addicted, mostly to alcohol. In the past, tribal people could be absorbed by the dominant culture, as was the case with the many people defeated by the Romans. The people who were conquered by the European industrial engine that broke out of Europe in 1492 and exported itself to every corner of the globe in the ensuing 500 years rolled over the natives without killing all of them or demanding they adapt. In many instances, they were simply moved to the bottom of the social ladder, and there, they have stayed.

Complex issues of overlapping loyalties and identities are the backstory of the greatest film to come out of New Zealand, the 1995 sleeper hit Once Were Warriors.

The story centers on a poor family that lives in what Americans call ‘Section 8’ housing, and what the British call ‘council housing.’ The Kiwis call it ‘social housing’ or ‘state housing’ but whatever it’s called, the poor live there, often in a state of disorder and squalor.  

The Heke family in the film is large and disordered. There are seven of them; a mother, father, and five kids. The mother, Beth, holds the family together, but they are ruled by the violent, alcoholic father, Jake, also known locally as ‘Jake the Muss,’ muss standing in for muscle. Jake is strong, violent, hardheaded and cares mostly about hanging out with his ‘mates’ in a local pub.

At the start of the film, the two oldest Heke kids, both boys, are starting to seek out father figures other than Jake. The oldest, Nig, is attracted to the Māori gang culture which includes elaborate face tattooing. The next oldest, a sweet boy named Boogie, has gotten into trouble and since he’s underage, the state has taken him away from Beth and placed him in a state foster home where he is mentored by a man who knowns about the traditional Māori manhood rites and he teaches the boys there the Haka, a sort of war dance developed by the native Māori.

None of this sits well with Beth, but she is a passive participant in Jake’s irresponsible partying lifestyle. Raucous parties are common in the Heke house, even though both of the oldest kids are gone, and the remaining kids are upstairs trying to sleep. These parties often end in violence, and after Beth gets, as Jake puts it, ‘lippy’ he violently beats and rapes her.

But Beth carries on, forgives violent but charming Jake, and falls for his singing and ‘come on you know how I get when I’m drunk’ patter. Beth arranges for the family to rent a car and drive the distance to the state home where Boogie lives, but of course, Jake sabotages this with his drinking. They never make it to the state home, but they do visit the village where Beth grew up, and she fondly recalls her earlier life that occurred within the social context of the Māori people.

In this visit to her home, it is revealed she left her native culture to marry Jake. Jake is bitter about her family, who he sees as having rejected him for being a ‘slave’. He was considered, within their cultural viewpoint, a ‘black’ but what Jake really is connects to the modern disfunction of the losers in modernity. All of the officials in the movie, including the police and the court officials, are white New Zealanders, and they are who decides everything important, including who gets state housing, who goes ‘on the dole’ meaning gets free money, and under what conditions the state can take children away from a dysfunctional family. Jake is an unemployed loser, and even Beth’s Maori family pegged him as trouble.

A bit of New Zealand history is in order here. The British explorer James Cook discovered New Zealand in 1769 but it wasn’t until 1841 that the British formerly launched a colony there. They had to conquer the locals, the native Māori, which they did after decades of negotiation and battle, but a few decades later, other Pacific Islanders were brought in to do labor under conditions that could easily be called slavery. Jake, we can assume, was from this cohort of the population, and perhaps Beth’s family looked down on him for his heritage, but he proved their observations of his low character to be spot on.

Beth believes herself to be Māori, but she has strong Anglo-British features. There was clearly mixing going on in New Zealand history. Jake describes himself as ‘black,’ but he is marginally different from her, and so the complex ethnic mix in New Zealand is a driving force in the film. The complex social structure of New Zealand is a driving force in the story.

The family dynamic, however, is stark and simple and it is all driven by Jake. Over the course of the film, Jake does not change in the least; he doesn’t like ‘lippy’ women, he thinks his two older boys have moved away or been seized by the state because they’ve been spoiled by their mother, he enjoys drinking and songs with his mates, and he has no professional career of note. Beth found him to be charming enough to spend 18 years with him and have five of his kids, but when one of Jake’s friends rapes the middle child, 13-year-old Grace, Beth finally snaps out of her stupor. When Grace hangs herself, Beth is determined to return the girl to her ancestral homeland for burial and take the kids with her. She is returning to the Maori culture, after having realized that living on the bottom of the Anglo industrial culture, where Jake has found a sodden comfortable spot and so many of the decedents of the warrior class of Māori and other Pacific Islanders have landed, is a death sentence for her children.

Rena Owens delivers a great performance as Beth, but the film is owned by Temuera Morrison as Jake Heke. His performance earned him the role of Boba Fete in the Star Wars movie and he’s been busy with that ever since.

This movie holds up very well after nearly 30 years, and demonstrates that the clash between tribalism and modernity spanned the globe.

The trailer for Once Were Warriors
Jake The Muss