The Māori Battalion presents us with one of the great stories of our country. The ranks of surviving veterans are thinning out quickly, and within all too few years, the last of them will have gone into that night.
When we made the documentary we knew we were dealing with a tragic and noble, but vital part of our Nation's story. We treated it seriously and aimed beyond recording the mere facts of the war of these men - to trying to capture how they felt about it. I think we achieved that.
The process of filming the doco itself was pretty complex and difficult. It was an awful lot of work, but also an awful lot of fun.
The crew and I felt humble before all that they had done when they were young men. And I asked myself ... would I have gone to fight with the Māori Battalion, if I was them, way back then? And as much as I deplore war, I'd have to say yes. And actually, that frightens me.
Maori Battalion - March To Victory was produced in 1990 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Māori Battalion and it first screened during Anzac week of that year.
This feature documentary, directed and produced by Tainui Stephens, places the Māori war effort within a context of history and a national identity that is forged in war.
When it screened, New Zealand was only two generations removed from World War Two (and one generation from Vietnam). The country was also commemorating 150 years since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.
The screening connected the memories of the aging soldiers to an emerging awareness amongst its audience, particularly young people, of the sacrifices made by their tupuna during the war.
The (28th) Māori Battalion was part of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force during WWII and was formed as a result of pressure on the Labour government by the Māori MPs and groups throughout the country.
This Battalion, followed in the footsteps of Te Hokowhitu-a-Tu, the Pioneer (Māori) Battalion of WWI. It was divided into companies that were organised on a tribal basis. The formation of the battalion represented the first time that so many of New Zealand's Māori tribes united as one in battle.
Another landmark was that the Māori Battalion would produce the first Māori - Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa Ngarimu (Ngāti Porou, Te Whanau-a-Apanui) - to receive the Victoria Cross, the highest award for valour conferred on members of the armed forces of the Commonwealth. This was an ironic honour in that Victoria Crosses had been awarded to British soldiers fighting against Māori in the New Zealand Wars.
Sir Apirana Ngata cited the Māori involvement in the war efforts as being the ultimate price for the privilege of New Zealand citizenship. The death toll for the Māori Battalion was high: two-thirds of the 3500 thousand Māori soldiers were injured or killed. The loss meant post-war New Zealand was robbed of the potential of nearly an entire generation of Māori men.
The five servicemen profiled in the documentary represent the four ‘companies' (A, B, C and D) that comprised the Battalion. Ngarimu Moana, VC, who died in action, is represented by his grandniece Paula Walker. She accompanies the veterans as they recount their memories in true ‘war stories' style filled with laughter, fear, tension, wonderment, regret and tears.
Focusing on the sentiments was a self-conscious decision by Stephens "We treated it seriously and aimed beyond recording the mere facts of the war of these men - to trying to capture how they felt about it. I think we achieved that."
In Crete, Ben Porter recalls how he was shot at but survived because the German bullet went down the barrel of his own rifle. In the North African desert Bully Jackson remembers the shock and awe of war, and the loneliness he felt for the daughter who was born after he had left home. Don Stewart tells how it feels to kill; and at the Souda Bay cemetery in Crete, he weeps at the grave of his slain brother Horton.
Hemi Wiremu takes us to the small German town where he was once a prisoner of war and meets up with one of his former guards in what is now a police college. Padre Wi Huata delivers a eulogy to the Māori Battalion from Tebaga Gap in Tunisia where Moana Ngarimu fought, died, and earned the Victoria Cross. In Italy, the old soldiers share wine, food and song with the citizens who they once helped to liberate from Nazism and Fascism.
Maori Battalion - March to Victory features extensive archive footage. Images of the 1940 arrival of the Māori soldiers in England was found in European archives. It is shown for the very first time.
Other material includes Maori Battalion Returns, shot by the National Film Unit at the conclusion of the war. It features the arrival of the Dominion Monarch at Pipitea wharf and the return of these sons of the god of war to their home marae.
The documentary concludes with a moving tribute in image and song to the men of the (28th) Māori Battalion. It evokes the many and sometimes conflicting emotions that are spawned by the unbearable cost of war.
This is the coda to a story about brothers in arms: ordinary soldiers made extraordinary in the worst of times - and because of whose sacrifice we enjoy the best of times.
It was director Tainui Stephens' first production with full creative control. At the time he made this documentary he had been employed by TVNZ for five years, as a reporter, producer and director.
In 2006 Māori Television re-screened it as part of their inaugural all-day coverage of Anzac Day. Stephens was co-executive producer for that television event which won the 2007 Air NZ Screen award for Best Event Broadcast.