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Once Were Warriors
Directed by Lee Tamahori
Produced by Robin Scholes
Written by Riwia Brown,
based on the novel by Alan Duff
Starring Rena Owen,
Temuera Morrison,
Cliff Curtis,
Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell
Music by Murray Grindlay
Murray McNabb
Cinematography Stuart Dryburgh
Editing by Michael J. Horton
Distributed by Fine Line Features
Release date(s) January 10, 1994
Running time 99 min.
Country New Zealand
Language English
Followed by What Becomes of the Broken Hearted

Once Were Warriors is a 1994 film based on New Zealand author Alan Duff's bestselling 1990 first novel of the same name. The film tells the story of an urban Māori family, the Hekes, and their problems with poverty, alcoholism, and domestic violence, mostly brought on by the family patriarch Jake Heke. It was directed by Lee Tamahori, and stars Rena Owen and Temuera Morrison.


Beth Heke (Rena Owen) left her small town and despite the disapproval of her parents she married Jake "the Muss" Heke (Temuera Morrison) - Muss being short for "Muscles." After eighteen years they live in a slum and have five children. Their interpretations of life and being Māori are tested. Their oldest daughter, Grace, keeps a journal in which she writes about herself, and also stories which she tells her younger siblings.

At the start of the film, Jake is fired from his job, and for the rest of the film he is unemployed and spends most of the day getting drunk at the local pub with his friends. Here, he is in his element, buying drinks, singing songs and savagely beating any other patron who he considers to have stepped out of line. He often invites huge crowds of friends back from the bar to his home for wild parties. While Jake portrays himself as an easy going man out for a good time, he has a vicious temper when drinking. This is highlighted when his wife dares to 'get lippy' at one of his parties and he savagely attacks her in front of their friends.

Nig (Julian Arahanga), the Hekes' eldest son, moves out to join a street gang whose rituals include facial tattoos, in Maori culture called Tā moko. This usually shows the heritage of the person, in Nig's case, he only shows the heritage of his mother with the Moko located only on one side of his face. He is subjected to a savage beating by the gang members, then embraced as a new brother by the leader and is later seen sporting the gang's tattoos. Nig cares about his siblings, but despises his father for his thoughtless brutality.

The second son, Mark 'Buggie' Heke (Taungaroa Emile), has a history of minor criminal offences, and is taken from his family and placed in a foster home as a ward of the state due to the situation with his parents. Despite his initial anger, Mark finds a new niche for himself, as the foster home's manager instructs him in his Maori heritage.

Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell), the Heke's thirteen-year-old daughter, loves writing stories, as an escape from the brutality of her real life. Her best friend is a homeless boy named Toot who lives in a wrecked car.

Grace is raped in her bed by family friend 'Uncle' Bully (Cliff Curtis). After wandering through the city streets one night Grace comes home to an angry Jake. As she is about to go to bed, Bully asks for "a kiss goodnight". Grace refuses and her father tears up her journal and nearly beats her up. She runs out to the backyard. Beth returns home a minute later and goes outside, to find that Grace has hanged herself.

Jake is soon kicked out of home by a newly-defiant Beth after he refuses to change his lifestyle, and stays in the pub with his mates while the rest of the family is attending Grace's traditional Maori funeral ceremony. When Beth reads Grace's diary later that day she finds out about the rape and confronts Jake in the pub. Jake at first threatens Beth, but Nig hands him Grace's diary and Jake, true to form, reacts by severely beating 'Uncle' Bully. Beth then states her intentions to leave with their children and return to her Māori village and traditions, defiantly telling Jake that her Māori heritage gives her the strength to resist his control over her.

Differences between book and film

The book and the movie follow a roughly similar plot. The three major differences are the role of Beth; most of Nig's gang subplot is absent from the film; and the ending is significantly different. In addition, whereas the novel was set in the fictional town of Two Lakes, clearly based on the town of Rotorua where Alan Duff grew up ("Rotorua" literally translates as "two lakes"), the film takes place in Auckland.

In the book, Beth and Jake are roughly equal characters and Beth is a flawed but dynamic character who is almost as irresponsible as Jake. In the film, Beth is more central, especially as Jake's period of homelessness is completely absent from the film, but her character is less complex. The difference between Beth's character in the book and the film is illustrated by an episode in which the family rent a car in order to visit Boogie in borstal, but Jake ends up getting drunk in the pub as the family wait in the car with him promising to only have one drink. In the book, Beth hires the car using money she has saved by not drinking, but quickly joins Jake in the pub and only gets upset that they have not visited Boogie when it is too late. In the film, the rental car is obtained by Jake giving money to Beth that he won gambling on horse racing, whilst Beth waits in the carpark for several hours before resignedly joining Jake. Essentially, Beth spends the first three quarters of the movie as a passive character before Grace's suicide spurs her into leaving Jake, whereas throughout the book she makes several attempts to improve her life before improving both her family's life and her community.

The subplot concerning Nig's gang is a bigger part of the book than the film. We see Nig attempting to find a substitute family in the gang, but its members are either too brutal or too beaten down to provide him with the love and support he craves.

The most obvious differences between the plot of the novel and film is the ending. In the novel, Grace is not sure who rapes her, but thinks it may have been Jake. She writes this in her diary and when the rest of the family find it they confront Jake. He cannot remember what happened as he was too drunk. He then leaves the family, lives in a park and befriends a young homeless man. Meanwhile Beth begins a Maori culture group and generally reinvigorates the community.


Major characters

Minor characters

Production and awards

The film was produced by Communicado Productions, its first feature film. The film won best film at the New Zealand Film & Television Awards, Durban International Film Festival, Montreal Film Festival and Rotterdam Film Festival. It also became at the time the highest grossing film in New Zealand, surpassing The Piano.

The film was shot at a local Otara state house, located in O'Connor street. The film was filmed primarily in this house, with neighbours complaining on numerous occasions due to the film's late night party scenes.

The book had a sequel released in 1996, What Becomes of The Broken Hearted?, which was also released as a film in 1999. It was poorly received compared to the original. A third book in the trilogy, Jake's Long Shadow, was released in 2002 but has not been made into a movie.

Popular and critical reception

The website, which compiles mostly North American reviews, shows that 29 out of 31 were "fresh", or 94 percent positive. The reviews gave the film an average rating of 7.7 out of 10.


The film is rated  R16  in New Zealand and it contains graphic violence.

See also


  • Thompson, K. M. (2003). "Once Were Warriors: New Zealand's first indigenous blockbuster." In J. Stringer (Ed.), Movie Blockbusters (pp. 230 – 241). London: Routledge.

External links

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