Film Festival: Re-edit makes revenge sweeter

By Peter Calder

Made in the 80s, Utu emerges from re-cutting a modern masterpiece. Peter Calder sees it through new eyes

The enthusiasm of influential New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael for Geoff Murphy's 1983 film Utu has become part of New Zealand cinema folklore.

But the film that Kael and other enthusiastic Northern Hemisphere reviewers saw was not the one shown here. Producer Don Blakeney, disconcerted by lukewarm interest from US distributors, recut it, with Murphy's reluctant assent, but without his assistance.

He trimmed 15 minutes and, most significantly, recut the climactic bush court-martial of the rebel Te Wheke into a series of flash-forward sequences that culminated in the last scene.

Sales took off and it was launched with karanga outside the cinema in New York (the Te Maori exhibition had just opened at the Met) and a hangi for 600 in Los Angeles.

With its $3 million budget, which dwarfed anything before it, Utu was our first homegrown blockbuster and was the second most successful local film in the domestic market to that time, just behind Murphy's Goodbye Pork Pie.

To mark its 30th anniversary, a new director's cut hits cinema screens the length of the country, in every city and town where the International Film Festival is playing between now and early November.

Utu Redux was masterminded by Graeme Cowley, who shot it in 1982, and cut by Murphy and the original editor, Michael Horton. The sparkling print, a direct digital copy of the negative, which was shot on fine-grained Fuji stock, also rescues the film from the visual murk that so disturbed Cowley when he saw a screening on Maori Television in 2010.

"It shows it in pristine clarity for the first time," Cowley says, adding that Murphy and Horton, who "have a few more films under their belt now", have fine-tuned the story, while restoring the original shape, although it remains a few minutes shorter.

To watch it now is an exhilarating experience. Murphy's earlier Wild Man and the anarchic Mini-wrecking road movie Goodbye Pork Pie had a improvisatory and makeshift feel about them, which was a large part of their charm. Utu has some of the same jokey raffishness that moved Kael to describe Murphy as "a joshing, razzing director", but it gives way to a bizarre, almost hallucinatory, tone.

When one of Te Wheke's offsiders buries his face in a pile of flour and says he's a Pakeha, we chuckle; when he says a few moments later that "I've only been a Pakeha for five minutes and already I hate you Maoris", we laugh; but the same face above a supply wagon infiltrating the enemy defences like a Trojan horse is a disembodied ghostly and chilling presence. The film, which echoes the exploits of Te Kooti, is set in 1870, at the height of the Land Wars. Te Wheke (Anzac Wallace), one of the so-called kupapa (Maori who sided with the British), turns on his allies when his village is destroyed and his uncle slain by British forces; one of the first attacks in his campaign for utu, or revenge, is on a farmer named Williamson (Bruno Lawrence), whom he leaves for dead after killing his wife and torching their house. Soon Williamson is after some revenge of his own.

In making a Kiwi Western, Murphy tips his hat to John Ford, Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa, and John Charles' wonderful score makes use of the baleful tubular bells that Ennio Morricone used on Leone's soundtracks.

And there's firepower to burn. Unlike Roger Donaldson's Sleeping Dogs (1977), for which Murphy had faked all the shooting because they couldn't get permission to use real guns, the weaponry here, including Williamson's outrageously gigantic four-barrel shotgun, is all genuine and dated from the time.

The casting of the novice Wallace, who had done time for armed robbery and worked as a trade union organiser on the protracted Mangere Bridge strike, was a gamble that turned into a masterstroke: his pockmarked (later tattooed) face topped by a thicket of hair and a peaked cap, he channels his warrior energy into a performance that blends eerie mana with magnificent savagery.

Beyond the marvellous set-pieces (notably the sacking of the Williamsons' homestead) and the long chases in the back country of Hawkes Bay, the screenplay by Murphy and Keith Aberdein has a new pungency and seems a prescient rumination on ethnicity and cultural difference.

Much of this is located in the affair between a misguided lieutenant (Kelly Johnson) and a young Maori woman (Tania Bristowe), which has its own payoff. More ominously, when a soldier asks Maori scout Wiremu (Wi Kuki Kaa) how they know "you're not one of them", the Maori deadpans, "You don't," and gees his horse up.

Thirty years on, nearly 150 years after the time in which the film is set, the line sounds strikingly modern.

- NZ Herald

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