New Zealand Cinema: Interpreting the Past

New Zealand Cinema: Interpreting the Past

by Alistair Fox
     
 

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New Zealand has produced one of the world’s most vibrant film cultures, a reflection of the country’s evolving history and the energy and resourcefulness of its people. From early silent features like The Te Kooti Trail to recent films such as River Queen, this book examines the role of the cinema of New Zealand in building a shared sense

Overview

New Zealand has produced one of the world’s most vibrant film cultures, a reflection of the country’s evolving history and the energy and resourcefulness of its people. From early silent features like The Te Kooti Trail to recent films such as River Queen, this book examines the role of the cinema of New Zealand in building a shared sense of national identity. The works of key directors, including Peter Jackson, Jane Campion, and Vincent Ward, are here introduced in a new light, and select films are given in-depth coverage. Among the most informative accounts of New Zealand’s fascinating national cinema, this will be a must for film scholars around the globe.

Editorial Reviews

Times Literary Supplement

"Ester Tinknell's analysis of the meaning and historical specificity of the fair-isle pullover in Heavenly Creatures and the crinoline in The Piano is an exemplar of the penetrating understanding of all the contributions to this collection of thirteen essays on New Zealand cinema. Such details help us to explore the complexities of life in a country that is global and local, past and present, Maori and Pakeha."

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781841504254
Publisher:
Intellect, Limited
Publication date:
05/15/2011
Pages:
350
Product dimensions:
6.70(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

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New Zealand Cinema

Interpreting the Past


By Alistair Fox, Barry Keith Grant, Hilary Radner

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-525-1



CHAPTER 1

Rudall Hayward and the Cinema of Maoriland: Genre-mixing and Counter-discourses in Rewi's Last Stand (1925), The Te Kooti Trail (1927) and Rewi's Last Stand/The Last Stand (1940)

Alistair Fox


Michel Foucault and Hayden White, among others, have taught us to recognise the shaping power of discourses whenever any attempt is made to make sense of the multivariousness and apparent disorder of experience. A discourse, according to Foucault, is determined by the "group of relations established between authorities of emergence, delimitation, and specification" with respect to "objects." These "discursive relations" are necessary "to speak of this or that object, in order to deal with them, name them, analyse them, classify them, explain them, etc." The problem, however, as White has argued, is that "discourse always tends to slip away from our data towards the structures of consciousness with which we are trying to grasp them." Correspondingly, "the data always resist the coherency of the image which we are trying to fashion of them." In short, any attempt to assert a particular discourse as the means of interpreting experience inevitably conjures up the possibility of other, alternative ones.

These inseparably linked processes can be seen in the series of historical epics on the New Zealand Wars between Maori and Pakeha of the 1860s made by Rudall Hayward, considered the father of New Zealand filmmaking. In this chapter, I shall argue that Hayward's distinctive practice of mixing different genres resulted in films that acknowledge and animate a variety of competing discourses with the aim of correcting the simplicities of any single one. The tropes that constitute a particular genre carry with them an inherent and inherited latent meaning. For this reason, a fictive recreation of historical events that combines elements from a diverse range of genres is potentially capable of achieving a more complex, multifaceted representation than is liable to be constructed through more mono-dimensional representational means. As I shall demonstrate, Hayward's New Zealand War epics achieve this kind of complexity because of his ability to draw upon the signifying resources of a range of cinematic and literary genres that were popular at the time in order to find a new way of construing the meaning of the past. In doing so, he demonstrated the usefulness of cinema as an instrument for the interpretation of history itself.


Origins of Hayward's interest in New Zealand history

Hayward's interest in New Zealand history, as he later recalled, began when, as a schoolboy at Whanganui Collegiate College, he became fascinated by James Cowan's The Adventures of Kimble Bent: A Story of Wild Life in the New Zealand Bush, published by Whitcombe and Tombs in 1911. This narrative, recorded by Cowan from the oral account of Kimble Bent himself, tells how Bent, a British soldier who deserted during the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s, went over to the opposing side, and lived as a Pakeha-Maori in Taranaki during the campaign of Titokowaru, war chief of the Ngati Ruanui iwi, and the prophet Te Ua Haumene, founder of the Pai Marire movement, against the colonial government. The adventures described by Kimble Bent were thrilling indeed, especially in their account of Maori "primitive war-methods" that were terrifying to the Europeans, such as the revival by Pai Marire of ancient rites, including the removal of the hearts of enemy soldiers, and cannibalism. Accordingly, his account is replete with "frightful scenes," as when one of Titokowaru's war-parties tomahawks, cuts to pieces, cooks and eats a trooper named Smith, "who had incautiously ventured out to look for his horse beyond rifle-range of the redoubt," or when the Maori Kupapa (Maori troops fighting on the government side), "mad with the lust of killing," decapitate and savagely mutilate the bodies of their Hauhau enemies. Cowan's vivid rendition of these events, Hayward recalls, started him thinking about putting New Zealand history on the screen, because he realised that intercultural wars of the nineteenth century provided material as fascinating as any to be found in the American westerns that had been made popular by D. W. Griffith and his contemporaries.

Hayward also appreciated that Maori subject matter, including myths and legends, could exert a powerful appeal at the box office on account of its exoticism and ethnographic interest. From the 1870s onwards, literary works began to appear that combined elevated or lyrical descriptions of New Zealand's sublime and picturesque landscapes with stories that presented the Maori as variously noble, ferocious and romantic. Dusky Maori maidens were depicted as seductive in their beauty and "wantonness," while Maori warriors were presented as matchless in their valour and martial pride. This was the literature of "Maoriland," the alternative name for New Zealand that was popular up until the 1930s. It included works such as Alfred Domett's gigantic epic poem, Ranolf and Amohia (1872), Alfred A. Grace's Maoriland Stories (1895) and Elan Westerwood's romantic epic, Maoriana, written in 1880 and published in Dunedin by Whitcombe and Tombs circa 1916.

As explained in the previous chapter, such literature had already provided New Zealand cinema with the subject matter of its earliest feature films, in the Maoriland films made by Gaston Méliès in 1913: Loved by a Maori Chieftess (1913) and How Chief Te Ponga Won His Bride (1913). Hayward had also been influenced by the succession of films depicting the legend of Hinemoa and Tutanekai, a kind of Maori Romeo and Juliet, including the version made by Méliès in 1912, although Hayward had not actually seen it; George Tarr's Hinemoa (1914), which Hayward thought was "a beautiful film"; and Gustav Pauli's The Romance of Hinemoa (1925/1927), which Hayward considered to be "by far the most advanced." He declares himself to have been particularly thrilled with Tarr's shots of Maori canoes on Lake Rotorua. Hayward's interest in these two sources of local subject matter – the conflicts of the New Zealand Wars on the one hand, and the exoticism of "Maoriland" romance on the other – meant that when he came to make fiction feature films himself, he would attempt to combine them.

The germs of this approach can be seen in his first feature film, the settler romance, My Lady of the Cave (1922), which takes aspects of the Maori idyll – a romance between the hero and heroine in a remote, exotic location (although in this instance, the beauteous maiden is white, as dictated by Hayward's allegorical purpose) – and blends them with scenes, presented in flashback, showing the earlier strife between settlers and the Maori. Set in 1890, the film presents the "dreaming soul" of an adventurous youth in "uncharted isles," and thus functions as a trope for the colonising enterprise itself. Beryl Trite, the heroine, is described in an intertitle as a "sea-nymph beauteous," implying that she may be a personification of Zealandia herself. This figure, with her Grecian attire, makes frequent appearances in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century New Zealand as a southern Britannia. Zealandia appears, for example, on the New Zealand coat of arms, on the New Zealand Penny Universal stamp of 1901, and in literature, as the symbolic embodiment of the colony, and later the dominion, of New Zealand. In Hayward's romantic fantasy, Beryl, in her role as Zealandia, waits to be liberated, at a metaphorical level, from her sequestered existence under the guardianship of the Maori Rau. Although loyal and devoted to Beryl, Rau, because he is mute and emasculated as a consequence of the warlike practices of his own people, cannot himself provide the heroine with what she needs to realise her full potential. That can only happen when she is free to marry the adventurous youth, for whom she "longs," who represents the civilising mission of the Pakeha colonists. As interesting as My Lady of the Cave may be, in terms of its symbolic evocativeness, and the adroitness with which Hayward deploys the emerging techniques of visual cinematic narrative, its imperialist vision is grotesquely paternalistic, conventional and simplistic. His next feature film, the first version of Rewi's Last Stand (1925), and his subsequent films on the New Zealand Wars would offer a much more complex view of the colonial experience. In the rest of this chapter, I shall explore how and why this more subtle and ambivalent vision was achieved.


The influence of James Cowan's The New Zealand Wars

A crucial event that occurred between the making of My Lady of the Cave and Rewi's Last Stand was the appearance of The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period, a magisterial account written by James Cowan – the historian whose earlier work had fired Hayward's imagination while he was still at school – and published by the Government Printer in 1922. The great value of Cowan's work was twofold: first, it provided Hayward with several heroic "episodes of the quality which makes the true romance," as Cowan put it, and, second, it presented him with a discursive interplay that suggested a much more complex view of the colonial past than the one he had reproduced in My Lady of the Cave.

In Cowan's The New Zealand Wars, two rival discourses compete with one another. On one hand, he reproduces the discourse of colonial imperialism, including its Darwinian assumption that colonisation entailed an inevitable march of progress towards civilisation. On the other, he introduces a counter discourse that expresses unease about the motives of the colonisers, and about the justice of their dealing with the indigenous Maori. Noting the parallel between New Zealand's colonial history and "the white conquest in America," Cowan observes that

[t]here was the same dual combat with wild nature and with untamed man; there was the necessity in each land for soldierly skill; the same display of all grades of human courage; much of the same tale of raid and foray, siege, trail-hunting, and ambuscade.


In this discourse, Maori, like native Americans, are inscribed as primitive and barbaric, needing to be tamed in the name of civilisation and progress, and the settlers as the heroic agent of that civilising mission.

Accompanying this discourse, however, is a second discourse that subverts the assumptions and certitudes of the first. This counter-discourse is revealed in Cowan's recognition of a heroism and dignity in the Maori defence of their lands and way of life that not only questions the justice of British actions in depriving them of those things but also establishes a relation of equality between the races, rather than one marked by the superiority of the one and the subservience of the other. Indeed, as Cowan puts it, the trial of strength on the battlefield led to a situation in which "[e]ach admitted the other's pre-eminence under certain conditions, and each protagonist came to admire the primal quality of valour in his opponent."

The Maori Wars ended, he concedes, "with a strong mutual respect, tinged with a real affection, which would never have existed but for this ordeal of battle." By the time Cowan has finished recounting the final suppression of Kingite resistance in the Waikato, on the occasion when Rewi Maniapoto and 120 members of his tribe were overpowered by 1800 imperial troops, in what, effectually, was an act of genocide, he concludes:

The story of the last day in Orakau imperishably remains as an inspiration to deeds of courage and fortitude. Nowhere in history did the spirit of patriotism blaze up more brightly than in that little earthwork redoubt, torn by gunfire and strewn with dead and dying.


Gone is the condescension of the opening of Cowan's history – this is no longer a barbarous race of savages being described, but rather a people of immense valour who are resolute in their determination to defend their land and way of life. Not only has condescension been replaced by respect, but the terms in which Maori resistance has been described betrays the presence of a latent awareness that perhaps the violent actions of the colonial troops amounted, in reality, to a perpetration of gross injustice.

Others in the colony shared a similar unease about the actions of the Government in confiscating Maori land and suppressing resistance. One of the most telling expressions of this disquiet was a poem written by Jessie Mackay, "The Charge at Parihaka," which satirically commemorates the event in 1881 when 1600 armed government troops stormed the village to crush a non-violent campaign by Maori to reoccupy their own land, which had previously been confiscated. In verses that parody Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade," Mackay mocks the false heroism of the colonial troops in order to expose the hypocritical self-interest of the whole venture:

Children to right of them,
Children to left of them,
Women in front of them
Saw them and wondered.

* * *

When can their glory fade?
Oh! The wild charge they made,
New Zealand wondered
Whether each doughty soul
Paid for the pigs he stole:
Noble Twelve Hundred!


The very degree to which Cowan (and others) assert the heroism of the Maori defenders at Orakau suggests a counter-compensation that masks the feelings expressed more directly by Jessie Mackay. Although the British had prevailed in their contest with the Maori, they were not proud of themselves. Thus, even though Cowan, as a historian, professes to be giving a facsimile record of the actual events of the Maori wars, the presence of these competing discourses attests to a degree of irresolution in his understanding of their significance.


The first version of Rewi's Last Stand (1925)

In adapting Cowan's account of Rewi Maniapoto's heroic resistance at Orakau for the screen in 1925 as Rewi's Last Stand, Hayward was responsive to both the imperialist discourse in Cowan's history, and also the counter-discourse that accompanied it. Traces of the former are present in the romanticised celebration of "the beloved Von Tempsky" and his Forest Rangers, who are presented as heroes, and in a contrasting episode in which "Te Waro, the fierce old Pagan Tohunga, seeks to make sacrifice to Uenuke, his God of Battle, by burning the heart of the first enemy killed." The counterposing of episodes like these betrays the presence of the conventional colonial mythos equating the Pakeha with civilisation and the Maori with the primitive. Having activated this mythos, however, Hayward immediately intercepts it by having Rewi himself intervene to stop the barbaric practice his tohunga is about to commit, by asserting that "we [the Maori] are fighting under the religion of Christ." Not only does this assertion ennoble the Maori side, but it also equates Maori and Pakeha in terms of the civilised/barbarous polarity found, for example, in so many classic American westerns.

Hayward's modification of the conventional mythos was also intensified by his importation of elements drawn from a range of literary and cinematic genres that were popular at the time. In doing so, he was undoubtedly prompted by his awareness of what would appeal at the box office. The generic mix that constituted that appeal is suggested by a poster advertising The Te Kooti Trail (1927). Audiences can anticipate, the poster proclaims, "Red-Blooded Drama, Uproarious Comedy, Tender Romance, Whirlwind Action, amid the Glorious Scenery of the N.Z. Bush." In other words, the film will combine elements from popular silent-era cinematic genres including the action/adventure film, the slapstick comedy, the historical epic and the romantic drama, along with scenic attractions.

Rewi's Last Stand (1925) embodies exactly the same mix of generic attributes. For the raw material of "Red-Blooded Drama" and "Whirlwind Action," Hayward needed to look no further than Cowan's historical account, which included the account of the perilous scouting mission conducted by Von Tempsky and Lieutenant Colonel Thomas McDonnell at Paparata, as well as a description of the siege at Orakau itself, both of which feature prominently in the movie. Hayward also sought to introduce "uproarious comedy" by creating a fictional miles gloriosus in the form of "Colonel" Dobby (Fred Mills), described as "one of Auckland's 'wags'," who claims that he is a "pussonal friend o' the Dook o' Wellington." Colonel Dobby, like his antecedents (such as Falstaff in Shakespeare's Henry IV), is farcical, both in appearance and actions. "Every pawn-shop in the Colony," we are told, "had contributed something to the Colonel's uniform." The fact that he is overage and has flat feet renders his bellicose military posturing merely ridiculous, while his attempts to play the gallant with the ladies are equally ludicrous.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from New Zealand Cinema by Alistair Fox, Barry Keith Grant, Hilary Radner. Copyright © 2011 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Alistair Fox holds a personal chair in the Department of English and is director of the Centre for Research on National Identity at the University of Otago. Barry Keith Grant is professor of film studies and popular culture at Brock University. Hilary Radner is foundation professor of film and media studies at the University of Otago.

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