It's the 1870s, and Māori leader Te Wheke (Anzac Wallace) is fed up by brutal land grabs. He leads a bloody rebellion against the colonial Government, provoking threatened frontiersmen, disgruntled natives, lusty wahine, bible-bashing priests, and kupapa alike to consider the nature of ‘utu’ (retribution). Legendary New Yorker critic Pauline Kael raved about Geoff Murphy’s ambitious follow up to Goodbye Pork Pie: “[He] has an instinct for popular entertainment. He has a deracinated kind of hip lyricism. And they fuse quite miraculously in this epic ...”
For this documentary director Gaylene Preston goes behind the scenes during the making of Geoff Murphy's Utu — his ambitious 'puha western' set during the 1870s land wars. “It’s like football innit? You set up the event and cover it…” says Murphy, as he prepares to shoot a battle scene. In this excerpt, the film’s insistence on cultural respect is conveyed: Merata Mita discusses the beauty of ta moko as star Anzac Wallace is transformed into Te Wheke in the makeup chair, and Martyn Sanderson reflects on having his head remade to be blown off: “What’s the time Mr Wolf?”.
Geoff Murphy was the teacher and trumpet player who got New Zealand yelling in the movie aisles. After boning up on filmmaking while touring on the Blerta bus, Murphy turned out a triple punch of local classics: 1981 blockbuster Goodbye Pork Pie, historical epic Utu and last man on earth tale The Quiet Earth. The director worked with everyone from Wild Man Bruno Lawrence to Mickey Rourke; from varsity safecrackers to hobbits, with time for nail-biting hijinks in Wellington railyards and atop the LA Metro train.
In 1983, director Geoff Murphy stormed out of the scrub of the nascent Kiwi film industry with a quadruple-barreled shotgun take on the great New Zealand colonial epic. Set during the New Zealand Wars, this tale of a Māori leader (Anzac Wallace) and his bloody path to redress 'imbalance' became the second local film officially selected for the Cannes Film Festival, and the second biggest local hit to that date (after Murphy's Goodbye Pork Pie). A producer-driven recut was later shown in the United States. This 2013 redux offers Utu “enhanced and restored”.
Anzac Wallace made one of the most memorable debuts in New Zealand cinema when he starred as avenging guerilla leader Te Wheke in classic Māori Western Utu. The former trade union delegate followed it with movies The Silent One (1984) and Mauri (1988) and pioneering Māori TV series E Tipu E Rea. He passed away on 8 April 2019.
Geoff Murphy was a leading figure in the new wave of Kiwi filmmakers that emerged in the 1970s. His movie Goodbye Pork Pie became the first blockbuster of the local film renaissance. He completed an unsurpassed triple punch with Utu and sci-fi classic The Quiet Earth. Noted for his skill at action, knockabout comedy, and melding genres, Murphy spent a decade in Hollywood before returning home.