Film analysis of Once were warriors – The theme of the warrior

Skolarbetet var en filmanalys av filmen Once were warriors (Krigarens själ) regisserad av Lee Tamahori.

Skriven av: Emma Wikström.

Film analysis of ‘Once were warriors’ – The theme of the warrior

It is clear that one of the themes in ‘Once were warriors’ is the theme of the warrior. At a first glance, one can notice the use of the traditional Maori warrior as an important symbol for traditional Maori culture. Although, the theme of the warrior can be interpreted in several ways. A definition of a warrior, especially a traditional one, is a brave or experienced soldier or fighter but this definition can include even more people in the film than just the symbol of the traditional warrior. Every important character in the film is struggling with life and has, therefore, a need to be strong. The family is struggling with the consequences of social alienation and is on the verge of collapse during the entire film.

The traditional Maori warrior plays an important part in the film. Jake Heke, the father in the family justifies his brutal violence through cultural determinism: “Us Maoris, man, we used to be warriors” (Holm, A.) Jake mistakes brutality for being a trait of the traditional warrior and is in that sense, not a true warrior. The oldest son Nig tries unsuccessfully to reconnect with Maori culture by becoming a member of a gang that mixes aspects of Maori culture. The second son known as Boogie is most successful. Boogie is sent to an approved school where he is taught Maori culture by a man. This man is the embodiment of the traditional Maori warrior of the film with his skills with the Taiaha (traditional fighting staff), pride and power. Boogie is empowered and commences taking pride in his cultural heritage.

Beth Heke, the mother and the daughter Grace can be seen as two of the more successful warriors in the film. Grace takes a lot of responsibility trying to hold the family together and is a true fighter. Examples of this are that she cleans up after a house party her parents had thrown, she cooks, she takes her younger sister and brother to bed at night, follows her older brother to court without a complaint. Moreover, Beth is in many ways not a perfect hero in the story, however, she shows several qualities. It is clear from the first scene when she walks through the neighbourhood that she is a strong woman who has not given up. She has been in an abusive relationship with Jake for 18 years but is still walking confidently which requires a certain strength. Although, despite the fact that her relationship with Jake clearly affect her and her children negatively, it is not until Grace takes her own life that Beth is able to leave her husband.

The Heke family and their community as Maori people can be seen as warriors in some ways. They are all victims of social alienation, marginalisation and discrimination much due to their ethnicity. When discriminated against, one is faced with more hardships in life than others which make many experienced fighters, even though their antagonist are structures rather than people. The social alienation can be seen in how the family lives in a decaying suburb right next to a freeway which they never travel on. The freeway shows how there is another society parallel to theirs according to Hayes in a review on ‘Once were warriors’. In addition, there are only Maori people living in their suburb which strengthen the feeling of alienation and marginalisation.

Some may argue that the theme of the warrior rather than being complex is problematic when making it the main symbol for Maori culture (Hayes, M). One could argue that when focusing on the Maori warrior the film does not reflect the true dynamic Maori culture. The Maori warrior is a strong image and is, therefore, a good feature in a film that is supposed to make money. Although, this does not contradict the fact that the theme of the warrior can be interpreted in different ways.

In conclusion, one can argue that the theme of the warrior can be interpreted in several ways. The theme in the film can be read as the important image of the traditional warrior, as the struggles Maori people are put through being discriminated, making many of them warriors and as people fighting in dysfunctioning families making some warriors, too.

Hayes, M. ”Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors”, in: Law Text Culture, 2, 1995, 270-274.

Holm, A. ”Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors”, in: Law Text Culture, 2, 1995, 266-269.