top of page

Ka Whawhai Tonu: The Battle of Ōrākau finally told through the eyes of Māori

By Riria Dalton-Reedy, Te Rito Journalism cadet

Today marks the 160th anniversary of the Battle of Ōrākau, with a new film commemorating one of the most pivotal battles of Aotearoa’s first land wars.

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Ka Whawhai Tonu – Struggle Without End gives a historical account of the 1864 Battle of Ōrākau in the Waikato region.

Iwi gathered today at the battle site, located east of Kihikihi near the Pūniu River, to commemorate the battle were also fortunate to see first glimpse of the film’s trailer.

This battle has been told on screen before - Rudall Hayward’s 1925 silent film - but this is the first time it’s been told from a Māori perspective in te reo.

Director Michael Jonathan (Tainui, Mātaatua, Te Arawa) says Ka Whawhai Tonu is possibly the first of its kind on a national and international scale.

“With my commitment to partnering with multiple indigenous iwi, hapū and whānau to produce a film that carries an authentic narrative based on real accounts of the survivors of the siege at O-Rākau,” he says.

Jonathan beams with pride over his cast and crew, many of whom are uri [descendants] of those who fought in the battle.

“To fight on forever for their land, culture and language. This is a significant story for us as Māori, Pākehā, Pasifika and others to acknowledge, learn and unite.”

In an Instagram post, Jonathan acknowledged the time and dedication that had gone into the project, writing: “An eight-year journey to get to this point. We are done - the tank is empty”.

He was also a keynote speaker at Hawaikirangi – the 2024 World Indigenous Content Conference - where he revealed that despite a remarkable film-making career spanning over 30 years, Ka Whawhai Tonu is the first feature film he has directed.

The movie stars some of Aotearoa’s most renowned actors, including Temuera Morrison (Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Maniapoto) in the role of Rewi Maniapoto - rangatira of Ngāti Maniapoto and a key leader in the Battle of Ōrākau.

Morrison says it’s incredible to be a paddler for the film’s “waka” and telling Māori stories.

“My first day on set, I asked [a colleague] to bless me and a white butterfly danced around me. I heard Carey Carter call ‘karawhiua’ instead of action!,

“A deep voice rose from within [me] - ‘E hoa, ka whawhai tonu mātou mō ake ake ake!’ [Friend, we will fight on forever, forever and forever!]”.

This phrase references the famous reply of Rewi Maniapoto to British commander General Duncan Cameron’s call for surrender.

Also featuring in the film are Cliff Curtis (Ngāti Rongomai, Ngāti Pikiao), Miriama Smith (Te Arawa, Tūwharetoa) and newcomers Paku Fernandez (Ngāti Porou, Ngāi Tahu) and Hinerangi Harawira-Nicholas (Ngāi Tūhoe).

British actor Jason Flemyng (X-Men: First Class, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) also shared some perspective on his involvement in the film.

“I have made 140 movies in nearly every corner of the world, but no country and no people have moved and thrilled me like the community I found in New Zealand,

“It is and will, I suspect, always be my lifetime’s favourite place. My people. My country. Always”.

Ka Whawhai Tonu will be released over Matariki weekend on June 27, 2024.

bottom of page