A big criticism of Hollywood movies is the portrayal of race and cultures. When hundreds of millions are spent on a period epic or translating a popular anime to live action, as was the case of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings and The Last Airbender, it’s easy for producers to get colorblind when it comes to casting. Both films distorted ethnicities in favor of dollar signs but neither garnered the audience it had wanted.
Unless you are Mel Gibson or James Cameron, two filmmakers that went to great lengths for authenticity with projects Apocalypto (entire dialogue is in the Yucatec Maya language) and Avatar (constructed a new language for the Na’vi – inhabitants of the fictional moon Pandora), chances are the film will have foreign concepts and ideals but the language will still be English.
Toa Fraser’s The Dead Lands leads by Gibson’s and Cameron’s examples in being an action/adventure epic that adheres to authenticity. The movie is in the Māori language and is set during the pre-colonial era of New Zealand’s history. Once Were Warriors (released 1994) presented an urban Māori family dealing with problems with poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence. The Dead Lands is a brutal tale of revenge and ancient tribal warfare. The film has been lauded by Cameron, who called it “great cinema,” and Peter Jackson, who feels it is “one of the best films to come out of New Zealand in a long time.”
The Dead Lands is good even though its vengeance story adheres to tropes we’ve seen countless times. Fraser matches cultural accuracy with fight scenes that are fast and brutal. It starts out with a bit of treachery when Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka) visits the cave graves of his ancestors in a territory occupied by another Māori tribe that bears its own respects for past blood spilled. The visit is to provoke a confrontation between the two tribes. Hongi (James Rolleston) witnesses the desecration to the tomb and admits the act to his father, the chief. The declaration is futile in promoting peace and a massacre follows at the hands of Wirepa and his men.
Hongi seeks to avenge his father’s murder after his tribe and family are slaughtered. Outnumbered and lacking a warrior’s instinct to kill when confronted, his only hope is to cross through the Dead Lands and make a pact with a most feared warrior (Lawrence Makoare). Alleged to be immortal, the warrior teaches Hongi his savage ways. But this isn’t a Mr. Miyagi/Daniel-San teacher/pupil relationship. For that Fraser bucks conventionalism in favor of never losing sight of the goal. The second act contains unneeded subplots that serve as a way to pad story to near the two-hour mark, but the dalliances with speaking to the dead and supporting characters help to bridge the few, yet memorable, fight scenes.
The fight choreography is impressive and Makoare shows his array of skills, having played Lurtz in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The action may be smaller in scale to Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s epic fantasy, but the fighting is that much more personal. The best incident may be when the enigmatic warrior squares off against someone who is younger and shows more determination in besting the “immortal.”
The Dead Lands is more than a spectacle. Though beautifully shot and adhering to Aotearoan history – Toa Fraser’s film feels authentic in terms of clothing, weapons and locations – the film shows that being a warrior is not all about the savagery it provokes. Honor is a crucial element of character and what Hongi does in the film’s final moments is an admirable about face.
The Dead Lands may have a generic story, but its violence, characters and aspiration for authenticity make this film about Māori culture worth your time.
Director: Toa Fraser Writer(s): Glenn Standring Notable Cast: James Rolleston, Lawrence Makoare, Te Kohe Tuhaka
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!