Land of the silver screen

By Jim Eagles

Jim Eagles scouts the country for the many stunning and varied locations that have made the New Zealand landscape a movie star.

'River Queen' was shot on the Whanganui River, one of many spectacular New Zealand locations used in the movie business. Photo / Ken George
'River Queen' was shot on the Whanganui River, one of many spectacular New Zealand locations used in the movie business. Photo / Ken George

If you're a film buff who likes to visit the places where notable movies were filmed, you don't need to go to the expense of a trip to Los Angeles, London or Paris, you can head instead for New Zeallywood - or should that be Hollyroa? - purveyor of scenic backdrops to the cinematic world.

Apart from the grand old castles where Harry Potter performs his magic, we've got it all: Mt Fuji's twin sister and the glowering slopes of Mt Doom where the great ring was forged; the theatre where King Kong made his ill-fated dash to freedom and the sandy beach on which Burt Munro raced the world's fastest Indian; the alpine valley where Aslan the noble lion fought the evil White Witch and the beautiful bay where Paikea's whale returned to his people.

Fans have been swarming from around the world to see the spectacular Lord of the Rings locations - Matamata even calls itself Hobbiton - but the burst of film-making in the past few years means there is a lot more on offer.

So come with us on a tour of Hollyroa's main movie sites.

The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise, wasn't a huge box office hit but it did give a big boost to Taranaki. Japan's Mt Fuji is regarded as perhaps the most classically beautiful mountain in the world but the shots of Fuji-san in the movie are actually of Mt Taranaki and they make it look even more lovely than usual.

For the film, New Plymouth was temporarily turned into a Japanese port and the city's charming Pukekura Park was the place where the rebel Samurai army was taught to use rifles.

The picturesque Uruti Valley, about 50km northeast of New Plymouth, was chosen for Japanese village scenes and also as the site of the film's big battle.

Whale Rider, which won awards at both the Sundance and Toronto film festivals, was filmed at the tiny East Coast settlement of Whangara, the hometown of author Witi Ihimaera.

Whangara is about 30km north of Gisborne and you can drive there yourself or take a three-hour tour from the Gisborne Information Centre, which takes in the house where much of the filming was done and a meeting with one of the film's cultural advisers.

Peter Jackson's latest blockbuster, King Kong, was largely filmed in New Zealand and includes several spectacular locations. The seas around the wildlife reserve of Kapiti Island and rugged Cook Strait were used to film the steamer Venture on its way to the mysterious Skull Island.

Skull Island itself was mainly set at Wellington's Lyall Bay while the huge wall which separated the giant ape from the rest of the island was built above the Massey Memorial near Shelly Bay. Seaview, in the Hutt Valley, was used for the set depicting New York in the 1920s. Auckland's Civic Theatre was where Kong finally broke free of his chains and escaped into the city.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was mainly filmed at a set in the old Hobsonville Air Base, in West Auckland. But Kiwi director Andrew Adamson also used some local scenery.

The grounds of the grand old Monte Cecilia House in the Auckland suburb of Hillsborough also served as the grounds of the mansion where the children were living when they discovered the entry to Narnia. When Aslan the lion returned to restore justice - and summer - to the land, his training camp was near Oamaru. Flock Hill Station, near Arthur's Pass, was the setting for the climactic battle between the armies of Aslan and the White Witch.

Vincent Ward's troubled movie, River Queen was mainly shot in the Wanganui area. The magnificent Whanganui River and its surrounding bush feature prominently. Patea Beach, in South Taranaki, was used for scenes involving the colonial forces arriving for the battle with local Maori.

Not only was much of The World's Fastest Indian shot in Invercargill, the hometown of motorcycle pioneer Burt Munro, it also featured many local residents, including Mayor Tim Shadbolt, among the cast.

Anthony Hopkins, playing the role of Munro, raced his motorcycle along windswept Oreti Beach just outside the city. Keen-eyed observers will spot Invercargill scenes in the movie. The film's Post Office was set in The Crescent and had 1960s phone booths and parking meters fitted for the shoot. And Munro's shed was a former bikie gang headquarters.

Visiting Lord of the Rings sites is a major industry. Tourist information offices in places lucky enough to have been chosen as The Shire, Lothlorien or Helm's Deep are only too pleased to provide details of the locations.

Many travel operators offer tours to places where Jackson filmed his spectacular scenes.

There are several good books on the subject, including the Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook (HarperCollins) and Lonely Planet's Lord of the Rings New Zealand Guide Book.

Among the main locations are:

Matamata - Hobbiton

Rangitikei River - River Anduin

The Volcanic Plateau - Mordor

Wellington - The Shire, Moria and Bree

Hutt Valley - Isengard, Rivendell, Minas Tirith, Minas Morgul and Helm's Deep

Nelson - Dimrill Dale

Takaka - Chetwood Forest

Canterbury - Plains of Rohan

Mackenzie Basin - Pelennor Fields

Queenstown - Lothlorien

Southern Alps - Misty Mountains

Milford Sound - Fangorn Forest

There's a detailed list of Lord of the Rings film locations here.

The great thing about these sites is that they not only have the razzamatazz associated with the movie industry, but most are also beautiful in their own right and well worth visiting.

- NZ Herald

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