It’s a question of point of view, isn’t it? And the fact that a lot of the time, writers and directors seem to mistrust the bulk of the ticket-buying audience to put themselves in the shoes of someone outside their culture. And that means that, for better or worse (mostly worse), white guys have been our cinematic guides to non-white cultures.
Kevin Costner’s Civil War veteran, John Dunbar, was our ingress into Sioux culture in 1990’s Dances with Wolves, years before Tom Cruise flipped the script by playing, er, yet another Civil War veteran who finds solace in a foreign land in The Last Samurai (2003). Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence kind of gets a pass for Lawrence of Arabia (1962) seeing as it’s based directly on a true story, but surely the Bedouin rebels of World War I deserve better representation than a duskied-up Alec Guinness.
Thank your relevant deity, then, for The Dead Lands, playwright and filmmaker Toa Fraser’s ripping tale of revenge and righteous slaughter among warring Maori tribes. Written by Glenn Standring, The Dead Lands trusts that its viewers will have no issues plugging into the tale of young Hongi (James Rolleston of Boy and The Breaker Upperers), who teams up with a nameless, grizzled warrior (Lawrence Makoare) to avenge his slaughtered clan. It’s a robust, vigorous story, packed with action and emotion. However, what makes the film stand out from the field of superficially similar historical action movies is that it’s set in pre-colonial times, in an Aotearoa untouched by Europeans.
This puts the film in a fairly rarefied class. The overwhelming majority of historical films adopt a white, Eurocentric point of view, even when they’re delving into places and periods where that point of view was not the norm. The exceptions are mainly the product of non-Western national film industries – China, Japan and India being the most obvious.
In the West and, most notably, in countries with a recent history of Western colonisation, the viewpoint of the coloniser is lionised – even when he (it’s almost always a he) is learning that the native culture being oppressed is “better” than his own. See Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Farewell to the King, The Mission and so very many more.
New Zealand is not immune to this, even though respect for, veneration of and integration with Maori culture has been a bulwark policy for ages. The director of The Dead Lands co-wrote, with Vincent Ward, 2005’s River Queen, a sprawling, semi-successful epic set during the colonial wars of the 1860s. The film centres its narrative on a European woman played by Samantha Morton.
Much better is Utu (1983), directed by New Zealand filmmaking legend Geoff Murphy, which sees Anzac Wallace’s grieving Maori scout desert from the British army after his village is massacred and proceed to wreak bloody havoc upon the invaders. It’s a savage yawp of a film, grimly counting the cost of empire-building, corpse by corpse.
Still, we have to look further afield for more pre-colonial films, and the most prominent also concerns itself with matters of revenge. Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006) is set in the declining years of Mexico’s Mayan Empire, and sees a young Indigenous man, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) on the run from the cruel Mayan warrior Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo) after escaping from his intended fate as a sacrificial offering.
It’s a stripped down, muscular and at times shockingly bloody chase movie – Gibson’s interest in bodily butchery, as seen in Braveheart (1995), The Passion of the Christ (2004) and the more recent Hacksaw Ridge (2016), is on full display here. For our purposes, Apocalypto is interesting because its setting is immediately pre-colonial, with the final scene showing European ships arriving on the South American mainland.
Less successful is the 1994 curio Rapa Nui, a drama from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and Waterworld (1995) director Kevin Reynolds. It’s set in the pre-colonial culture that once lived on Easter Island and effectively tries to condense that society’s collapse into an action drama narrative that sees a young noble, Noro (Jason Scott Lee) compete with a rival, Make (Esai Morales), for the love of a woman, Ramana (Sandrine Holt). It’s light on historical accuracy, and it’s also light on Polynesian actors – at least in the main roles.
Closer to home there’s Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes (2006), a cheerful morality tale de Heer cooked up with David Gulpilil, who provides the English narration – all other speech is in Australian Indigenous languages. Set in Arnhem Land before the arrival of the Europeans, it’s a deceptively simple story within a story of a young hunter who covets his neighbour’s wife, and the fallout that arises from his rashness.
But that’s about it, which is a shame. With the entire sweep of history to play with, filmmakers seem content to confine themselves mostly to the events that occurred after the white folks showed up, which demonstrates a pretty appalling dearth of imagination. Still, as The Dead Lands shows, plenty of interesting things happened before the fleets dropped anchor, and hopefully we’ll be seeing more of them on the screen going forward.
The Dead Lands screens on Thursday, 14 March at 9.35pm on NITV.
Following a series of intimate conversations between a former couple who lived through two years of domestic abuse, A Better Man infuses new energy and possibility into the movement to end violence against women.
At a pivotal moment for gender equality in Hollywood, successful women directors tell the stories of their art, lives and careers. Having endured a long history of systemic discrimination, women filmmakers may be getting the first glimpse of a future that values their voices equally.