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  • Writer's pictureJames Rutherford

‘Once Were Warriors’: An Arresting 90’s-Era Depiction of Māori Culture in New Zealand

Movie poster for the New Zealand film Once Were Warriors starring Temuera Morrison

“Once Were Warriors” (1994) is a fierce and arresting drama from New Zealand that stars Rena Owen as Beth Heke, the mistreated wife of the hulking Jake “Muss” Heke (Temuera Morrison)—with whom she shares a home in South Auckland as well as five children.

A volatile brute, Jake is fired from his job yet shows little remorse, as he falls back on unemployment benefits while drunkenly whiling the day away at the local pub. As repeated abuse of his wife wreaks havoc on their fractured family life, their children ultimately splinter off in dire flights of emancipation and liberation. Their individual destinies become the emotional framework for this tale of degeneration and stark personal reckoning.

Based on the novel by Alan Duff and directed by Lee Tamahori (“The Edge”, “The Devil’s Double”), “Once Were Warriors” is a harrowing tale of savagery made palpable and absorbing via deft storytelling and striking performances from its entire ensemble. Profoundly alarming yet ultimately delivering shades of transcendent deliverance, it’s a powerful and unforgettable viewing experience.


View the trailer:


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