by NEVIL GIBSON
It’s not often a film gets a second life after 30 years and can be presented as something new.
In the case of Utu Redux (NZ Film Commission), the film had been heavily re-edited for an international release and little remained of the original except a poor quality DVD transfer. (Redux literally means “brought back”.)
The cinematographer, Graeme Cowley, said: “I was shocked when I saw it on TV. There was virtually no colour, and the format was nothing like we had shot.”
It took years for Cowley to track down enough of the original negative to start again, and where he couldn’t find it he used some digital tricks to fill in the gaps.
The result is a fully restored digital print with an enhanced sound track, more of a focus on the narrative and no confusing flashbacks.
Older audiences may recall at least something of the original — the most likely being the opening scenes of a Maori village being destroyed by colonial soldiers and the gruesome revenge inflicted on a hellfire and brimstone preacher in front of his congregation.
Almost all Maori, they appear complicit in the massacre, giving an early indication of the film’s change in sensibility from an action show into something with more nuances.
These scenes are so embedded in New Zealand film history that the village attack is virtually repeated in the opening of White Lies.
Cowley admits that film-making in those days was more than a little slapdash, and the opportunity to go over everything again has added considerably to what was originally intended.
The result is more authentic looking than I expected, although the acting and dialogue haven’t changed. The story and setting are more derivative of the American Western than would be done today — River Queen is a good example of how bush warfare must have been — and the acting swagger less pronounced.
The central character, Te Wheke (Anzac Wallace), an army tracker who turns against the colonial army with an uprising, remains consistent, which is an advantage to the viewer given the shifting loyalties of many others. This is best depicted in the casual nature of the bicultural love affair between Kura (Tania Bristowe) and the boyish lieutenant (Kelly Johnson).
Te Wheke is pitted against a stereotypically foppish British commanding officer (Tim Elliott) and an eccentric farmer, Williamson (Bruno Lawrence).
The homesteader sequence is straight out of Hollywood, where director Geoff Murphy later made his reputation with action shows (Young Guns II, Under Siege). The siege provides a rousing central act as Williamson and his wife (Ilona Rodgers) fight for different values embodied in the settler culture.
This is reflected in another way when the superior forces are shown to resist the temptation for their own form of utu and stick to the letter of military law.
Utu Redux should introduce a new audience to one of the better examples of New Zealand’s cinematic history, as well as continue the debate of how the past is depicted.
by NEVIL GIBSON