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Medieval movies set in the Pacific

Medieval movies set in the Pacific

By Murray Dahm

Our world tour of movies set in the medieval period takes us to the Pacific – the bad news is there don’t seem to be many. The good news is that they reward a viewing!

Rapa-Nui (1994) is set at an unspecified pre-contact date on Easter Island. It therefore dates to before 1722 when Europeans first reached Easter Island and may not technically be medieval. As we’ve seen, however, many pre-contact cultures persisted for long periods relatively unchanged back into the medieval period. And so, in some cases, such films present a picture of those cultures as they would have appeared in the medieval period.

The film was directed by Kevin Reynolds, his first picture since 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Rapa-Nui was also produced by his Robin Hood, Kevin Costner). Reynolds also wrote the film. Aspects of the film’s depiction of history have been questioned even though several parts of it have been well attested (the Birdman cult, the deforestation of the island). Moai are there too although ongoing research into Moai may make the theory of their meaning (to appease the gods) outdated. Indeed, research into Easter Island continues to raise new theories, especially in this age of climate change.

The conflict between the classes (or tribes) of people, the Hanau epe ‘long-ears’ and the hanau momoko ‘short-ears’, comes from a controversial legend on the island although there is (disputed) evidence of a battle dated to around 1676. According to the legend the short-ears killed all but one of the long-ears. There is warfare here with spears and clubs and it is relatively well done in the context of a tribal class uprising. The film used a large number of Pacific Island and especially Maori actors (except for the three main cast members – Noro played by Jason Scott Lee of Hawaiian/Chinese descent, Make played by Esai Morales of Puerto Rican descent, and Ramana played by Sandrine Holt of Chinese/French descent). The fighting techniques look fine although it is impossible to know if they are accurate.

Unfortunately, Rapa-Nui was an appalling flop, severely criticized by reviewers and not even making $1 million back on its $20 million budget. Kevin Reynolds’ bad luck continued – his next film was Waterworld (1995) (also with Kevin Costner) which cost (and lost) even more money; 187 also lost money in 1997. Reynolds did better with The Count of Monte Cristo (2002) but his greatest successes came on television with Hatfields & McCoys (2012) and Risen (2016). We’ll be meeting him again when we look at a peculiar (but fascinating) group of films on the Tristan and Isolde myth (his film came out in 2006).

The Disney film like Moana (2016) has aspects of medieval Polynesian culture and warfare at its core. The figure of Maui places Moana in a folkloric realm but, in several Pacific Island cultures, he has a specific historical setting (and even though tales of Maui, present across virtually all Polynesian cultures, vary considerably). Polynesian sea exploration spanned a remarkably long time, from roughly 1500 BC to about AD 1100 and the exploration at the core of Moana is medieval. There are links with Hawaiian culture too, and the Polynesians first reached Hawaii in AD 400-500. Moana’s home of Motonui is fictional although she sets sail on a Fijian camakau outrigger canoe (and, for the attentive, a Motonui is mentioned in Rapa-Nui). The importance of women as chiefs and navigators is also reflected in the reality of many Polynesian cultures.

The producers were sensitive to cultural accuracy and formed a trust to ensure they respected Polynesian culture; this resulted in the alteration of several aspects of the film. Accuracy in fishing, building and farming techniques are easily missed (even though the early wisdom of Moana’s management of her island’s resources are important). There are several aspects of Polynesian warfare present from tattoos and dress to war dances. The Maori Haka is the best known of the Polynesian war dances but Hawaiian warriors also performed a Haka, the Tongans a Sipi Tau, the Fijians a Cibi, and the Samoans a Siva Tau. There is a video from 2011 of the New Zealand national rugby team performing their traditional Maori Haka to their opposition, the Fijian national rugby team who then perform the Cibi in response. It is a very medieval passage of time on a modern sports field.

Toa Fraser’s The Dead Lands (2014) is a pre-contact Maori film from New Zealand, shot in the Maori language, on location in New Zealand and set in an unspecified time before European contact. The first European contact in New Zealand was in 1642 with the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman (a brief visit which ended badly – he named the place where four of his sailors were killed, Murderers Bay) and the next European contact was 127 years later by Captain James Cook in 1769.

The Maori themselves arrived in New Zealand between approximately 1250 and 1300 AD. The film does not use Maori pa (fortified village) and these began appearing in around 1500. So that gives a possible earlier date still although there is a fort. The film therefore represents a medieval Maori culture, which remained unchanged up to European contact in the 17th century. The film is a quest/revenge/coming of age film, with the fifteen year-old son of the chief avenging his father’s death at the hands of a perfidious rival tribe.

Inter-tribal warfare dominates the film and it is brutally and bloodily portrayed with no small amount of skill. Traditional weapons are all present: a variety of clubs including the long-handled taiaha and short, hand-held, varieties (patu): in bone, ponamu (a New Zealand jade), and wood. There are also adze (toki poutanata) and huata (long throwing spears). Maori warfare was almost exclusively hand-to-hand (throwing spears were the exception but there were no bows or slings). There was no armour; warriors wore kilts (maro) and occasionally cloaks (pauku) and warfare was fought for reputation (mana) and vengeance (utu). All are present in this film. This style of warfare persisted – and cultural remnants can still be found in contemporary New Zealand – long after contact with Europeans – traditional weapons were carried and used by Maori, fighting in the 28th (Maori) Battalion of the New Zealand Army during WWII.

The Dead Lands is a remarkable film; all the performances are good – Lawrence Makoare as ‘the Monster’, an outcast warrior, is magnificent. He may be familiar as Lurtz, Gothmog and the Witch King of Angmar from The Lord of the Rings films (and Bolg from The Hobbit trilogy). His training session on patu techniques is first rate and suffers none of the stereotyping of sword training scenes in (European) medieval films. The bloody combat is very well done and the visceral nature of the wounds is wince-inducing. The culture and language is all authentically portrayed – including architecture, and even the sounds of the native New Zealand bush. These all add a sense of place – you don’t get birdsong like that anywhere else – believe me, as a New Zealander, hearing those sounds of language and birdsong places you immediately in New Zealand. The film does not shy away from aspects of Maori tribal culture which might be considered off-putting – such as cannibalism which is refreshing to see, even if the cutting up of enemies or drinking their blood is not for the squeamish. This places The Dead Lands with only two other films, The Other Conquest and Eréndira Ikikunari which, as we saw, depict human sacrifice in a positive light.

If you can, track down The Dead Lands, it will reward your search. Alas, Rapa-Nui might not but looking at a film like Moana through a medieval historian’s lens is a fascinating process.

Murray Dahm is the movie columnist for Our Site. You can find more of his research on Academia.edu or follow him on Twitter @murray_dahm

Top Image: Te Kohe Tuhaka in The Dead Lands (2014)


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