When I was a mere stripling of 17, the year I graduated from high school, I saw a movie that absolutely blew me away. I haven’t written on it here before simply because it’s hard to come by now, and I hate stirring an interest in something readers can’t get. But I can’t just pass it by, because it helped to set my moccasins on my path.
UTU tells a tale from the bloody frontier wars of New Zealand in the 1860s. Didn’t know there were savage frontier wars in New Zealand in the 1860s? Neither did I back then. That movie opened my eyes to the reality that the frontier world that had grabbed me from my earliest days was not just a North American phenomenon, but an international one.
Set in New Zealand’s North Island during the New Zealand Wars, Utu follows Te Wheke, a Maori Captain in the British army. When Te Wheke’s unit comes across a village that has been slaughtered he, recognising it as his own, deserts the army and organises a guerilla force to terrorize the invading British forces. When the unit destroys the home of Williamson and kills his wife, Williamson vows to hunt down Te Wheke and kill him himself. Meanwhile, army scout Wiremu and recent South African frontier wars veteran Lieutenant Scott aim to track down Te Wheke themselves, also using guerilla warfare techniques against the will of corrupt Colonel Elliot.
“Utu” is often translated as “revenge,” but it’s more than that — it’s a concept of restoring and maintaining balance. For Te Wheke, the bad acts of the settler army required redress and balancing. For him, regardless of his own brutality, his quest was for justice, not revenge. And the settler Williamson, too, was seeking utu.
The forests of New Zealand produced a conflict that closely resembled the frontier clashes of the North American frontier. There are close resemblances to the forest warfare of the Ohio Valley and echoes of the travails of the Apache Scouts. Greed for land and minerals drove the Anglo settlers to push the indigenous Maori off their lands, which, inevitably, created a forceful backlash. And, since the Maori are one of the great warrior peoples of the world, the fighting was hard. Sound familiar?
As in North America, some Maori cast their lot with the interlopers — for complicated reasons that don’t break down into neat little moral boxes. And rough New Zealand frontiersmen formed themselves into ranging companies. The Forest Rangers, armed with Bowie knives, revolvers and the unique Calisher & Terry breechloading carbine.
The New Zealand frontier wars to my young eyes looked so familiar and yet so strange — it was almost like a fever dream. I obsessed over UTU. I still have it on
VHS and ardently wish for a cleaned up DVD release.
The reason this all came up for me was that I stumbled upon some videos from a MaoriTV show that recounts tales of pre-contact Maori — including some exploration of the culture’s robust martial arts traditions, featuring staff weapons and a curious paddle-shaped club called a patu that strikes me as one hell of a handy weapon.
I also recommend the movie River Queen; it, too, is set during the New Zealand frontier wars of the 1860s.