Utu (1983) Poster

(1983)

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10/10
Brilliant study of revenge
Rodney Smith7 November 2000
To me, a good movie uses the introduction to snap your tether of disbelief; the middle to entertain you and deliver you to the end; and the end to make it worth the journey.

This movie does it better than any other movie that I've ever seen.

The story is about revenge ("utu"), how the cycle starts, how it changes, and the price to be paid to end it.

The time and the place are not important, though the movie is beautifully shot and historically valid. The action is only a device to tell the story, though it is compelling and riveting. The subject matter is profoundly serious, though there are elements of comedy even during the most serious scenes.

Overall, this is one of the best constructed films that I have ever seen. The pacing of the scenes, the respect for the intelligence of the audience, the dark endearing humor, and the impact of the message all make this one of my favorite movies.

The director's cut provides additional scenes that explain some of the details that are missing from the original, but these extra scenes foul the sharp pacing that makes the studio cut work so well.
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7/10
Not a Great Film, But a Good, Entertaining One
Sturgeon5413 October 2011
Leonard Maltin, practically the only film critic who has written a review of this film, states that it is "downbeat, dull, and full of stereotypical characters - without the compensating power of Australia's not dissimilar 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.'" It's a shame that the movie has only this professional opinion from Maltin and no others, even though Maltin is a critic with whom I usually agree. Being one of the few people who has probably seen both films, I have to disagree with Maltin's assessment. While "Chant..." was a very serious meditation on the nature and effects of racism, this film was intended as a lighter, more entertaining Western-type movie filled with sudden dark humor - the kind of macho, action-filled movie that director Walter Hill in the U.S. used to make years ago. I don't think it aspires to be the masterpiece that "Chant..." was, but that does not diminish its qualities.

Really, for a simple Western revenge movie, there are several interesting themes here. The first is the difficulty of maintaining a conflict between two peoples living in such close proximity. The British settlers, and even members of the British army, seem to be social neighbors with the Maori natives - trading, speaking each other's languages, and even joining each other's armies. Not only does this make pure hatred nearly impossible, but makes it difficult to accurately assess the motives of the people around you. There is something universal in this theme - this may be one of the reasons the U.S. had such difficulty in the Vietnam War, in that it was both relying-upon and fighting a local people.

The second, more obvious theme, is the self-perpetuating effects of revenge, which never seem to dissipate. Every character here seems to have their own personal obsession with some kind of individual revenge. Ironically, the one character who seems the most internally-conflicted and the one with the most to hate - a socialized Maori who has learned English and French and even joined the Queen's army, witnessing atrocities on both side - is the only one who can carry out "without prejudice" a formal military execution.

I somewhat understand why Maltin disliked this movie. A possible flaw is that there is almost no expository on how the character Te Wheke metamorphosizes from a loyal British Army lance corporal to a heavily tattooed, brutal Maori warmonger who will kill anyone who gets in his way. But on the other hand, this movie is not a character-study of Te Wheke, it is more of an essay on the futility of pure revenge, or "Utu." Really, the best reason to see the movie is its technical qualities. Director Murphy has a real kinetic feel for visuals - like Scorsese, keeping his camera constantly moving among the chaos of 19th century guerilla warfare. The acting is generally good, and the feel for the New Zealand wilderness is excellent. Yes, this movie could have been better, and probably should have been better given the greater seriousness which this subject matter deserved. However, it's worth a rental if you can find it. And if you're not a New Zealander, I recommend watching it twice; it is very fast-paced on the first viewing and difficult to decipher - it gets better the second time.
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7/10
Somewhat confusing script mars an otherwise great film
BrandtSponseller9 June 2005
While it is slightly confusing on a first viewing for someone with scant background knowledge about the setting, Utu is still a largely entertaining, interesting and well made film with an odd tonal combination of a western, a war film, a Charles Bronsonish revenge flick and touches of macabre comedy.

Utu is inspired by true events in New Zealand circa 1870. We focus on a military-oriented motley crew of English, Caucasian New Zealanders, or Pakeha, and natives of Polynesian descent, or Maori. The general atmosphere in the film is similar to the pioneer atmosphere of some U.S.-oriented westerns set in the late 19th Century. The plot is catalyzed by fighting among the English, Pakeha and Maori with difficult-to-discern lines of division. To an extent, it seems that these oppositional groupings must have been somewhat chaotic in reality, and especially Maori are shown flitting from side to side.

The important points for the film, though, are that we're shown the massacre of a Maori village by Caucasians in the beginning, and we're shown the Maori Te Wheke (Anzac Wallace) happening upon the aftermath of the massacre, whereupon he swears revenge, or "utu", on the white men for their misdeeds. His chief opponent is Lieutenant Scott (Kelly Johnson) a very young Pakeha (who looks a lot like a young Jay Mohr) with a very multicultural band of military men under his command. A homesteader named Williamson (Bruno Lawrence) also becomes unwillingly involved, and Scott is under the command of a relatively staunch Colonel Elliot (Tim Elliott). On the "forest" level, the film is a relatively simple coming together of these characters as Te Wheke seeks his revenge.

In terms of action and the film's western modes, Utu is very satisfying. The attack scenes are thrilling, visceral and even occasionally gory. The western scenes are often accompanied by beautiful cinematography, sometimes with wide landscape shots showing the varied and gorgeous natural features of New Zealand. For voracious viewers of American films, the western material periodically feels more like a low-key Civil War movie. Writer/director Geoff Murphy meshes all of these styles together well.

The film's politics and ethics are kept complexly gray. Maybe a bit too gray, considering how difficult it can be to keep all of the characters and their sides straight, but on the other hand, Murphy is probably shooting for historical accuracy in the complexity, so it's at least understandable on that end.

Wallace makes a great anti-hero. At first, when he happens upon the aftermath of the Maori village massacre, we deeply sympathize with him, but shortly after this scene, he's hacking and shooting up everyone more like a serial killer, or a Maori Charles Manson. Still, sympathy with the character doesn't completely disappear, and it may be helped if one is familiar with New Zealand history--I would suspect that in general, the Maori received treatment from Caucasians something like American Indians did. The scene with Te Wheke undergoing a ritual scarification/tattooing is one of the best symbolic "obedient do-gooder to avenging hurricane" transformations I've seen, even though it is fairly understated. Wallace's role as a rip roarin' antihero is even more interesting in light of his offscreen history. Born Norman Pene Rewiri, he committed armed robbery as a youth, was sent to prison for a number of years, changed his name to Wallace, and became a union organizer. Utu was his first film.

Murphy also peppers Utu with a very interesting romance between Lt. Scott and a Maori woman, Kura (Tania Bristowe), who weaves her loyalties in and out of Te Wheke's gang. This is one of two tragic romances in the film--the other being between Williamson and his wife, Emily (Ilona Rodgers)--that fuel "big turning points" at other times in the plot in a deepening of the film's theme of karmic retribution, or as an earlier scene notes, "He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword". Thematically/subtextually, Murphy passes with flying colors.

The performances are good, and Murphy's direction in terms of blocking, tonalities, pacing, editing and so on is great. My score for Utu is really a "high 7". I wish I could have given the film an even higher score, and I can envision myself appreciating it more on subsequent viewings (provided I don't completely forget about all of the factual background material I've looked up since watching it), but my confusion with the plot and characters just wouldn't allow that, no matter how much I enjoyed the film otherwise. I know that some of the problems I had were with dialogue and pronunciations--this is definitely a film that could have benefited from subtitles.

But Utu has some great scenes, some excellent extended sequences (including the homesteader sequence and the climax--both were incredibly suspenseful), some memorable characters, and a wicked sense of humor--there were a couple times I almost felt as if the film were turning into a "black comedy". It's worth checking out if you're into world cinema or any of the film's genres, and probably even more imperative to watch if you have an interest in New Zealand history.
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Interesting morality tale
Elbow7 January 2000
Utu is quite a good film. Having said that, it is quite possible that we have seen it before in other settings.

Utu is unique in that it is one of the few films available in North America dealing with the Maori culture of New Zealand. Other than that, the film is basically an anti colonial sentimented film which could have taken place almost anywhere else in the world where colonialism was experienced.

Utu still manages to pack a punch in the very earnest way the main character sets out to rid his country of the white invaders. Utu, meaning revenge, is the basic theme of this story. The colonial army in the film pillages Maori villages. The Maori corporal who quits the army to fight against it seeks revenge. The story is simple, yet compelling.

The film examines imperialism in a light not uncommon to stories of this nature, but it is better in the sense that it does not try to gloss over the anger of the natives by arming them conveniently with western values. That is a crime many movies are guilty of. The level of violence in the film is typical by genre standards, and it actually lends itself to the films raw emotion. This one's worth a look.
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7/10
Cavalry vs. Indians, Kiwi-style.
jckruize4 February 2003
Well-made actioner could have benefited from a script that took more time to establish characters and historical context. The film opens with a horrific massacre of a Maori village, which drives native soldier Te Wheke (Anzac Wallace) to swear a blood vendetta ('utu') against the white man. Unfortunately, there is no explanation given for the massacre, and we know nothing about Te Wheke except that until then he was a soldier in the white man's army.

Despite this narrative gap, the action which follows is reasonably compelling in the manner of a Don Siegel or John Sturges Western. Besides the strong performance by Wallace, Kelly Johnson is good as the baby-faced army lieutenant charged with introducing new-fangled 'commando' tactics from the Boer War, and Bruno Lawrence has a field day as a gun-obsessed homesteader who swears his own oath of vengeance against Te Wheke after his wife is killed. (Wait till you see the shotgun he puts together in his shed!) Geoff Murphy's direction is straightforward, if sometimes muddled during shootouts, and other pluses are the authentic period production design and weaponry, along with mobile camera-work by Graeme Cowley on rugged New Zealand landscapes.

Not a profound work, but entertaining for its historical milieu, based on real incidents. Be warned that the DVD transfer is not the best.
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7/10
'Utu Redux' is the film the Director wants you to See.
cne-212 December 2015
Most reviewers have referred to this as a Western, but I feel that puts a label on it that is misleading. The setting involves a colonial power and subjugated indigenous people in 1870 New Zealand, but it could have been 1870 Australia or Canada or Mexico or United States or any number of other countries. It is a fiction based upon real people and events with a late 19th century New Zealand setting. One needs to view it without the preconceived notions and if so done, you will better enjoy it.

All that said, I would highly recommend viewing the recently released 'Utu Redux' version. It is a bit shorter with a greatly improved image and sound. It has been digitized and is now available on region free DVD and Blu-ray. Since its 1983 release, it was bastardized by various distributors with length changes and quality losses. The director, editor and original cinematographer spent much time and expense to get back the film they intended. 'Utu Redux' is that film.
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definitely worth a look
mattkratz4 January 2001
This movie might remind you of "Dances With Wolves." I enjoyed it, and thought it gave a good insight into Maori history and culture.

Leonard Maltin gave it a less-than-appealing review while another book loved it. I rank it more in the middle and more towards the "other book" with the second half redeeming it.

If you are into something different, try out this New Zealand western. I am a HUGE fan of kiwi actor Bruno Lawrence (Williamson in this film). I recommend it.

*** out of ****
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7/10
excerpt from my film studies essay on race in new zealand cinema
guypakeman2 December 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Utu is set during the Maori Wars of the 1850s and is the first contemporary film about this period in New Zealand history, although it definitely shows the influence of Rudall Hayward's earlier epics. It set out on the difficult task of keeping historical accuracy whilst incorporating modern day sensibilities. Murphy's basic message, that by working together the Maori and Pakeha will succeed in forming a better New Zealand, has obvious inferences to the modern day racial tension; the film being released around the time of the controversial Springbok tour of 1981, which had led to widespread violence. This message, however, is by no means clear cut, and throughout the film we are shown the situation from many differing perspectives, 'the film's shifts in sympathy, and refusal to identify with one group, could be seen as honestly reflecting the national uncertainty. ' There are definitely many points of view and racial origins to be taken into account, and the main characters come to symbolise either their race, or a particular group, both in the historical context, and the modern equivalent. So by examining these characters more closely it is possible to understand the different ideas that Utu evokes. The two most extreme characters on either side are Elliott, the British officer, and Te Wheke, who becomes the leader of the Maori fighting against the British led troops. There were many Maori groups who were heavily involved in the production of Utu , lending credibility to the Maori characters. Initially our sympathies lie with Te Wheke, when he discovers a village of his tribe has been killed, and the powerful scene where he compares the colour of his hand first to that of a dead Maori, and then to the hand of the white soldier he has been alongside. It is at this point where his transformation begins, and is followed by the tattoo scene, again it is very powerful, and along with his army's dress, strongly echoes the style of the Maori gangs of the 1980s. However Te Wheke does not keep the audience's sympathies for long as he becomes ultra violent, even ordering the deaths of some of his own followers, and by the time of his trial many characters are seeking 'utu' against him. Te Wheke is however not made to be a representative of the Maori; he is 'largely disowned by the race that produced him .' So, if Te Wheke is to blame on one side, it is clearly Elliott who shoulders the responsibility on the other. His extreme racism is reinforced throughout the film, from his condescending treatment of the Maori fighting on his side, to the continual, and it is assumed deliberate, mispronunciation of Te Wheke's name. Scott, on the other hand, the other main white character, himself a colonial, is, along with Wiremu, portrayed as an ideal New Zealander. Reid however takes a more cynical view of this, 'as Utu tells it, the increasingly easy-going Kiwi joker Scott, with his love for Kura, is free of any racist taint; while the pommie officer is a racist bastard. Which is very flattering for any Kiwi jokers watching the film. ' Whether this view of the British as opposed to the colonials is entirely accurate is questionable and the apparent desire not to attach anything negative to white New Zealanders isn't really in keeping with what might be expected, but is probably what the audience at home would have wanted. Wiremu is the character that is portrayed as the 'good' Maori, in stark contrast to his brother Te Wheke. If the main thrust of Utu is indeed to 'explore the subversive idea that Maori and Pakeha have more in common with one another than with the British ' then the character of Wiremu is a vital one. It is he who kills both Elliott and Te Wheke, the two most extreme characters, and he is well educated and willing to work alongside the British, seemingly for the good of the country as a whole. Disappointingly, we do not get much of an insight into his personality, and although his actions are memorable, such a complex character becomes, 'the most maddeningly under-developed character in the film. ' Utu was the first major New Zealand film of the 80s to tackle the issue of race, and whilst its setting is an historical one, its release came at a very difficult time for race relations in New Zealand. It has been criticised for being over complicated and not identifying more strongly with one point of view. Despite these negative comments, Utu is still very important in terms of how race is portrayed in New Zealand films, and, back in 1982, really brought the Maori into the consciences of movie-goers and filmmakers alike.
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very impressive!
mattkratz8 January 2001
Leonard Maltin gave this one a somewhat bad review, and another review book gave it its highest rating. I rank it in between and more towards the other book, with the second half redeeming it.

If you are into westerns, try this one from New Zealand. (Something different!) I am a HUGE fan of NZ actor Bruno Lawrence (Williamson in this movie), and he was good. The film might get violent, but you probably won't mind.

*** out of ****
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6/10
Needs to be seen more than once
jfgibson7317 February 2011
Warning: Spoilers
I didn't always know what was going on in this movie during my first viewing. On the simplest level, it is about a Maori soldier who declares war on white people for their crimes against his culture. He is a wild, unhesitant killer, yet maintains a certain charisma throughout the movie. In one scene, he goes to a church and cuts off the priest's head during the mass, sets it on the pulpit, and gives a speech. Like much of the movie, it shows terrible violence, but has a black humor along with telling a story from New Zealand's history.

The army begins tracking the Maori soldier and they have several battles. We meet numerous characters, sometimes without much introduction. Eventually, the Maoris become outnumbered, and their leader is caught and executed. I think that this movie would be even more enjoyable if I were to read about the history behind it and then watch it again. Some of the stuff that goes by fast or doesn't get explained might be better appreciated that way.
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3/10
Nice try, but ultimately fails
thorjansen-118 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
While this movie may somewhat accurately depict callous British imperialism towards native populations, and is sympathetic to the trod-upon Maori, "Utu" (Sumerian for sun, but for the Maori it means revenge) ultimately fails as a story and film because so few of the more prominent foundations that the film lays at the beginning are actually paid off at the end.

For instance, we see the settler Williamson (admirably played by Bruno Lawrence) understandably go mad in his quest to avenge his wife's death and loss of his home at the hand of Te Wheke, going so far as to construct a frightening, custom four-barrel shotgun. Yet does he actually end up using it in the end? He finally gets the opportunity to execute his wife's killer, only to inexplicably back down and instead allow a Maori soldier working for the "pakeha" (non-Maori, mostly for white man) to do the deed, apparently mesmerized by Maori chanting and suddenly becoming sympathetic to a culture and cause that is not his own.

Lt. Scott (well played by Kelly Johnson) is torn between his New Zealand roots (a "pake" born on the North Island) and his adherence to military life, but understandably seeks his own revenge against Te Wheke for the loss of his Maori lover. As we've seen in other films about the long arm of British imperialism, a soldier's military training ultimately wins out in the end. Yet he too backs down from his final judgment and chance to avenge, to allow the Maori soldier (revealed to be Te Wheke's brother) to perform the execution of Te Wheke.

Te Wheke himself is driven mad by his vengeance against his former employer (the military), when he came across the destruction of a Maori village at the beginning of the film. At first he is depicted as a cunning warrior out to save his fellow Maori, but he makes some very stupid mistakes in the end, ones that defy explanation and logic (unless you buy the "revenge always trumps intelligence" line). The soldiers are thus shown as ultimately superior intellects in warfare, and while they may have been, Te Wheke was taken so easily, almost casually so, after months of successful evasion. And why did he turn upon his own people? Does madness make him do this? If so, it's too easy and ultimately unbelievable.

As a prior reviewer posted, why was the Maori village destroyed at the beginning of the film? Should the viewers assume that this is because the British are on a campaign to wipe out the Maori to take their land? Or was it done as some sort of vengeance for supposed affronts to military authority? But this is never explained, so we must take it at face value that the British imperialists were pigs, yet superior nonetheless to the blundering Maori.

Bravo to the filmmakers for exploring the pointlessness and waste of British imperialism and of the concept of revenge, and for showing the dichotomy of Maori killing their own kind in service to a foreign military (as was seen done in India, Africa and countless other island nations and countries during the 1800's British imperialistic campaigns throughout the world), and in alluding to the latent homosexuality of one British officer, further denigrating the indigenous culture they are trying to oppress.

But moviegoers seeking to learn more about Maori culture and history should definitely look for other, more competent and complete sources.
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5/10
Needed Ennio Morricone, and others
mformoviesandmore14 October 2012
It is not too bad for an attempt at trying to make a movie that appeals to a wide audience as well as having a semblance of historical accuracy.

But it is a bad movie when it come to script and character development. In those aspects it is very like a lesser Spaghetti western. It is even more like one in some of the scenes that are created, including the small town in an open plain.

There is no decent music to carry the movie along. We also also don't get decent cinematography.

Bruno's eventual development of quadruple barrel gun provides some light relief, along with the ingenious method of loading. And then his his next role in the movie is to fall asleep! A few other stereo-types are thrown in along with subtitled maori language in place of bad dubbing of Italian.

At least they didn't make Utu 2.
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10/10
Classic Historical Flick
sydneyswesternsuburbs7 August 2011
Director and writer Geoff Murphy who also created another classic flick, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory 1995 has created another gem in Utu.

Starring Bruno Lawrence who was also in the classic television series, Frontline 1994-1997.

Also starring Anzac Wallace who was also in another classic historical flick, Rapa Nui 1994.

Also starring Tim Elliot who was also in an episode of the classic television series, Spyforce 1971-1973.

I enjoyed the violence and the settings.

If you enjoyed this as much as I did then check out other classic historical flicks, 300 2006, Apocalypto 2006, Ben-Hur 1959, Bodyguards and Assassins 2009, Braveheart 1995, Centurion 2010, Dersu Uzala 1975, Gladiator 2000, Ironclad 2011, Joan of Arc 1999, King Arthur 2004, The Last Emperor 1987, The Last of the Mohicans 1992, Lucky Country 2009, The Tragedy of Macbeth 1971, Mad Dog Morgan 1976, Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan 2007, The Musketeer 2001, Ned Kelly 1970, Pathfinder 1987, Pathfinder 2007, The Proposition 2005, Quest for Fire 1981, The Seekers 1954, Solomon Kane 2009, Spartacus 1960, Tristan + Isolde 2006, The Vikings 1958, The Dead Lands 2014, The 13th Warrior 1999, The Revenant 2015, Embrace of the Serpent 2015, Aguirre, the Wrath of God 1972, Viking 2016, The Naked Prey 1965, Outlaw King 2018 and The White Dawn 1974.
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