Utu (film)

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Utu (film).jpg
DVD cover
Directed by Geoff Murphy
Produced by Geoff Murphy
Written by Geoff Murphy
Keith Aberdein
Starring Anzac Wallace
Bruno Lawrence
Kelly Johnson
Wi Kuki Kaa
Tim Elliot
Merata Mita
Tania Bristowe
Martyn Sanderson
Ilona Rodgers
Music byJohn Charles
Cinematography Graeme Cowley
Edited by Michael J. Horton
Release date
Running time
104 min.
CountryNew Zealand
Box officeNZ $600,000 (est) (New Zealand) [1]

Utu is a 1983 New Zealand film directed and co-written by Geoff Murphy. Anzac Wallace, who had done little acting up until that point, takes the starring role of Te Wheke, a warrior who sets out to get vengeance after British forces kill his people. The cast also includes Bruno Lawrence and Kelly Johnson. Sometimes described as "a Maori Western", Utu was reputed to have one of the largest budgets for a New Zealand film up until that time.

Geoff Murphy New Zealand filmmaker

Geoffrey Peter Murphy was a New Zealand filmmaker, as a producer, director and screenwriter best known for his work during the renaissance of New Zealand cinema that began in the last half of the 1970s. His second feature Goodbye Pork Pie (1981) was the first New Zealand film to win major commercial success on its own soil. Murphy directed several Hollywood features during the 1990s, before returning to New Zealand as second-unit director on The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Murphy was also at different times a scriptwriter, special effects technician, schoolteacher and trumpet player.

Bruno Lawrence New Zealand actor and musician

Bruno Lawrence was a British and New Zealand musician and actor.


The filmscreened out of competition at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, [2] and became the second most successful local movie released in New Zealand to that date. Positive reviews in America, including a rave review from Pauline Kael, helped win Murphy directing work in Hollywood.

1983 Cannes Film Festival

The 36th Cannes Film Festival was held from 7 to 19 May 1983. The Palme d'Or went to the Narayama Bushiko by Shōhei Imamura.

Pauline Kael American film critic

Pauline Kael was an American film critic who wrote for The New Yorker magazine from 1968 to 1991. Kael was known for her "witty, biting, highly opinionated and sharply focused" reviews, her opinions often contrary to those of her contemporaries. She was one of the most influential American film critics of her era.

Partly inspired by events from Te Kooti's War, the film tells of a Māori soldier setting out to get utu, or vengeance, on his former allies after the British army destroys his home village and kills his uncle. The film is set in the 1870s.

Te Kooti's War was among the last of the New Zealand wars, the series of 19th century conflicts between the Māori and the colonising European settlers. It was fought in the East Coast region and across the heavily forested central North Island and Bay of Plenty between New Zealand government military forces and followers of spiritual leader Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki.

Māori people Indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand

The Māori are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand. Māori originated with settlers from eastern Polynesia, who arrived in New Zealand in several waves of canoe voyages some time between 1250 and 1300. Over several centuries in isolation, the Polynesian settlers developed a unique culture, with their own language, a rich mythology, and distinctive crafts and performing arts. Early Māori formed tribal groups based on eastern Polynesian social customs and organisation. Horticulture flourished using plants they introduced; later, a prominent warrior culture emerged.

Utu is a Māori concept of reciprocation or balance.

In 2013, partly thanks to the longtime existence of an alternative cut of the film aimed at international audiences, which Geoff Murphy had never been happy with, he completed work on a restored and recut version. Utu Redux, as it is known, premiered at the Wellington International Film Festival on 26 July 2013.


Set in New Zealand's North Island during the New Zealand Wars, Utu follows Te Wheke (Anzac Wallace), a Maori Captain in the British army. When Te Wheke's unit comes across a village that has been slaughtered he, recognising it as his own, deserts the army and organises a guerilla force to terrorise the invading British forces. When the unit destroys the home of Williamson (Bruno Lawrence) and kills his wife, Williamson vows to hunt down Te Wheke and kill him himself. Meanwhile, army scout Wiremu (Wi Kuki Kaa) and recent Boer War veteran Lieutenant Scott (Kelly Johnson) aim to track down Te Wheke themselves, also using guerilla warfare techniques against the will of corrupt Colonel Elliot (Tim Eliott).

New Zealand Wars 1845–1872 armed conflicts in New Zealand

The New Zealand Wars were a series of armed conflicts that took place in New Zealand from 1845 to 1872 between the New Zealand government and the Māori people. Until at least the 1980s, European New Zealanders referred to them as the Māori wars; the historian James Belich was one of the first to refer to them as the "New Zealand wars", in his 1987 book The New Zealand wars and the Victorian interpretation of racial conflict.


Anzac Hohepa Wallace, also known as Zac Wallace, born Norman Pene Rewiri, was a New Zealand actor and former trade union delegate. He is best known for his role as Te Wheke in the 1983 New Zealand film Utu.

Tim Eliott (1935–2011) was a New Zealand actor. His mother died when he was one and he was brought up by aunts and grandparents until he joined his father in England after the war where he went to public schools in Bath and Bristol. He returned to New Zealand in 1950.

Wi Kuki Kaa New Zealand actor

Wi Kuki Kaa was a New Zealand actor in film, theatre and television. He was from the Maori tribes of Ngati Porou and Ngati Kahungunu.


Production of Utu was one of the largest film productions to have taken place in new Zealand until that point. Its grand scale warranted the use of a large second unit, which again was rare in the context of a young New Zealand cinema. [3]

During production Murphy was very interested in authenticity, trying to keep it as period accurate as possible. To accomplish this many of the extras used were local Maori and in order for Te Wheke's moko to look realistic, Anzac Wallace would spend 4 hours having it applied each day of shooting. [3]


The film's immediate reception was less positive than Murphy's earlier works, although still positive. Locally the film was very commercially successful, being New Zealand's second highest-grossing film at the time (behind Murphy's previous effort, Goodbye Pork Pie ).

Critically the film had a mixed positive reception. Filmmaker Costa Botes noted that “Utu’s shotgun approach to the great New Zealand film ultimately leaves it feeling episodic and tangled”. New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael however gave the film an exceptionally positive review, saying that “[Geoff Murphy] seems to be directing with a grin on his face, [...] the ferocity of these skirmishes and raids is played off against an Arcadian beauty that makes your head swim.” Similarly Variety described that “Murphy has produced powerful images and strong performances.” [4]

The release of the film prompted public discussion of a revisionist look at New Zealand history. Film academic Roger Horrocks pointed out that “Utu was an uneven film but succeeded in stirring up more discussion of New Zealand history than any recent book has done.” [4]

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  1. Mike Nicolaidi, "New Zealand", Cinema Papers, March 1986 p8
  2. "Festival de Cannes: Forbidden Relations". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved 2009-06-22.
  3. 1 2 Martin, Helen and Sam Edwards. New Zealand Film: 1912–1996. Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 87-88.
  4. 1 2 "Utu". NZ On Screen . Retrieved 26 June 2015.