Once Were Warriors (1994) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • A family descended from Maori warriors is bedeviled by a violent father and the societal problems of being treated as outcasts.

  • Set in urban Auckland (New Zealand) this movie tells the story of the Heke family. Jake Heke is a violent man who beats his wife frequently when drunk, and yet obviously loves both her and his family. The movie follows a period of several weeks in the family's life showing Jake's frequent outburst of violence and the effect that this has on his family. The youngest son is in trouble with the police and may be put into a foster home while the elder son is about to join a street gang. Jake's daughter has her own serious problems which are a key element in the plot.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • This film is about a Maori family living in Auckland, New Zealand. The parents, Beth and Jake Heke, moved to the city when their tribal elders disapproved of their relationship. Beth (Rena Owen) was descended from the tribal leadership, and seems to have been next in line for leadership when she ran away. Unfortunately Jake (Temuera Morrison) was descended from people who were considered slaves (captives of inter-tribal wars). Rather than be separated they ran away, moved to the city, and got married. They have five children.

    The film opens with Jake coming home with gifts for his wife and family. He then reveals that he has just been laid off and his wife, Beth, is less than pleased. The viewer almost feels sympathy for Jake at this point. He seems like a man who wants his family to be happy. The truth turns out to be different.

    Jake has a horrible temper, especially when he drinks. He gets angry easily, and after consuming alcohol he gets violent. Often after a night of drinking at the bar, Jake takes the party home where dozens of intoxicated people flood their home and drink into the early morning. They sing and carry on, even though the children are upstairs trying to sleep. Beth joins in with the drinking and it becomes quickly apparent that they both have a problem. Beth and Jake are very hospitable to their friends, feeding them and allowing them to spend the night. This proves to be problematic in several ways, especially since Jake is unemployed and has 5 children to feed. The children often do not have any food to eat the next day. Jake also savagely beats Beth when he is drunk, which seems to be often. While the physical violence seems to be mostly directed at Beth, it has obviously affected the children as well.

    The eldest son Nig (Julian Arahanga), is angry and rebellious. He soon joins a gang who sport traditional Maori facial tattoos and think of themselves as warriors. However they seem to have forgotten the honor of traditional Maori warriors, and are really just a gang of violent thugs. It is telling that Nig would rather be with them than his own family.

    The next oldest son, Mark nicknamed Boogie (Taungaroa Emile), is constantly getting arrested for breaking laws and has to go to court for his most recent encounter. Beth misses her sons court date because of how badly her husband Jake beat her up the night before. The court determines that Boogies parents are not capable of supervising him, and they send him to a boys group home. While Boogie initially resists being in the boy's home, the program director is a strong man who inspires Boogie to look within for inner strength and teaches him the old ways of the tribe, including their traditional chants and martial art: Mau rakau.

    The oldest daughter, 13 year old Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell), has taken on a maternal role in the family. After her parents drunken parties she gets up and cleans up all the empty bottles and gets her two younger siblings ready for school. She even accompanies her brother Boogie to his court date. Her best friend Toot (Shannon Williams) is homeless and lives across town in a car. She goes to him for comfort and escape from her family's violent home. She loves him (platonically) and visits him often to read him stories she has written in her journal.

    Back at home, nothing has changed and the nightly loud drunken parties still continue. One night, one of Jake's best friends, sneaks into Grace's room and rapes her. He threatens her not to tell anyone. Traumatized about what happened and not knowing who she can turn to, she closes up inside, even pushes away her best friend. When her father disciplines her for not being respectful to the same friend who raped her, she hangs herself in the backyard.

    Beth knows that the violence in the family caused Grace to kill herself but she does not know about the rape. Devastated, she takes Grace back to the tribe to be buried traditionally. The funeral brings all of the kids back together in unity and in Grace's memory. After the funeral, Beth reads Grace's journal and finds out that Jake's friend raped Grace. Outraged, she goes to the bar to confront Jake and the friend. Jake doesn't believe Beth until she shows him the journal, and then he realizes what happens and commences to beat his friend to death.

    The movie ends with Beth leaving Jake for good, but unfortunately that will not bring Grace back. Beth closes the movie with the words "Our people once were warriors. But unlike you, Jake, they were people with mana (power), pride; people with spirit. If my spirit can survive living with you for eighteen years, then I can survive anything."

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