Earliest films lost
Many early films are irretrievably lost. The highly inflammable material used for prints, the small number of prints made, and a failure to recognise their historic value have all contributed to their disappearance. What remains of the country’s early feature films is preserved by Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision.
Méliès in Maoriland
During his travels through the Pacific and Asia, Gaston Méliès planned to cast local people in his feature films. However, this was only successful in New Zealand, where he was able to work with a Rotorua Māori cultural group formed by the Reverend Frederick Bennett. Bennett co-directed members of the group with Méliès. Later, a US member of Méliès’ team said, ‘The Maoris are born actors. In this respect they knock all the other natives we ever came across endways.’1
First feature films
Walter Brown (later known as W. Franklyn Barrett) is believed to have made the first fictional films in New Zealand. He filmed a staged boxing match in 1901, and in 1902 made A message from Mars. Three years later Joseph Perry filmed a re-enactment of James Cook's 1769 landing in Gisborne.
Short dramatic narratives were made by Gaston Méliès, a French film-maker who brought an American film crew to New Zealand in 1912. The results included three short romance stories (two based on Māori legends), shot in Rotorua using a mostly Māori cast. They screened in the United States but not in New Zealand.
Hinemoa (1914), regarded as New Zealand’s first feature, was shot in eight days in Rotorua by George Tarr. None of these early films have survived. However, they paved the way for other overseas film-makers interested in exploiting the novelty value of New Zealand’s locations and indigenous culture.
One early local film-maker was Southland-born Edwin (Ted) Coubray. He began as second camera operator on The motor bandits (1921), directed by Harrington Reynolds, which featured significant moments in New Zealand history. Coubray went on to shoot Dane Gustav Pauli’s Under the Southern Cross (1927) and The romance of Hine-moa (1927). Next, he made Carbine’s heritage (1927), a story about the successful racehorse, which was advertised as New Zealand’s first sporting picture. His numerous innovative technical inventions included a camera-stabilising tripod and the sound-on-film system.
Jack Welsh acquired Ted Coubray's camera equipment and perfected his own sound-on-film system. He used this on New Zealand's first film with sound, Down on the farm (1935). Welsh recorded sound on two more films, The wagon and the star and Phar Lap's son? (both 1936).
American director Alexander Markey exploited and offended local people and acquired taonga by dubious means while shooting Under the Southern Cross (not to be confused with Gustav Pauli's 1927 film of the same name) in New Zealand in 1928. He was sacked by his producers midway through the production but returned two years later to make Hei tiki. He spent two years shooting around Taupō and created further ill feeling among local Māori. The film, based on a Māori legend, received bad reviews when released in New York in 1935.
The most significant early film-maker was Rudall Hayward, sometimes described as ‘the father of New Zealand film’. In his 50-year career, and with considerable input from his first wife, Hilda, and second wife, Ramai, Hayward made a great number of short comedies, educational films and newsreels. His first four feature films were silent. Two were romantic melodramas, while the original version of Rewi’s last stand (1925) and The Te Kooti trail (1927) dramatised incidents from the New Zealand wars.
In 1936 Hayward shot his first sound film, On the friendly road, with the famous radio broadcaster Colin ‘Uncle Scrim’ Scrimgeour playing himself. Rewi’s last stand (1940) was a remake of Hayward’s 1925 film, and To love a Maori (1972) was the first colour feature made by a New Zealander.
In all his films, Hayward’s inclusion of a Māori perspective and his critical perspective on race, gender and class are of great interest.
Pacific Films and John O’Shea
The Pacific Film Unit was founded in Wellington in 1948 by Roger Mirams and Alun Falconer. In 1952 John O’Shea, who has also been described as ‘the father of New Zealand film’, joined the company. While most of its work was non-fiction, Pacific Films, as it was widely known, was the only company to produce features in the period from 1952 to 1966.
At the time many non-fiction films were made by the National Film Unit (NFU), which had been established by the Labour government in 1941 to support the war effort. O’Shea was critical of the NFU and aimed to create a viable, independent film industry.
The pioneering Broken barrier (1952), directed and produced by O’Shea and Mirams, reflected the state of race relations in New Zealand in the 1950s and promoted biculturalism as a desired goal. Runaway (1964), directed and produced by O’Shea, was an allegory of New Zealand’s declining trade relations with Britain and received a lukewarm response from local audiences. However, Don’t let it get you (1966), a light-hearted musical featuring local performers, won more positive responses, preparing viewers for the idea that New Zealand could make quality local feature films.