River Queen (2005) 



Director:  Vincent Ward. 

Cast:  Samantha Morton (Sarah O'Brien), Kiefer Sutherland (Doyle), Cliff Curtis (Wiremu), Temuera Morrison (Te Kai Po), Anton Lesser (Baine), Rawiri Pene (Boy), Stephen Rea (Francis), Wi Kuki Kaa (Old Rangi), Mark Ruka (Hone), Tyson Reweti (Tommy Boy), Grayson Putu (Young Wiremu), Nathan Passfield (Boy at 7 Years), Laura Coyte Douglas (Theresa), Julie Ranginui (Old Puhi), Brandon Lakshman (Timoti).

in the 1860s a young Irish woman her family find themselves torn between the British and Maori during the British colonization of New Zealand


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

In the 1860s some of New Zealand's Maori tribes made a last ditch attempt to stop the tide of white settlers.  Some tribes fought for the colonists believing alliance was the best strategy for retaining their land. 

A woman looks out to sea.  She says that Private Doyle often served as her friend and adviser.  He was the one who told her to write down her thoughts so that she could review her life.  We learn that her name is Sarah O'Brien.  She lives on the frontier between hostile Maori to the north and the white man's fort on the Te Ananui River.  She lives with her father and sister and her young six year old boy (named creatively (?) as Boy) whom she conceived with a Maori boy named Tommy.

Frontier garrison, 1854.  Sarah the narrator says that the Maori children would come down river to play with the white kids.  That's when she fell in love with Tommy.  Tommy later died of the choking sickness, which also wiped out his entire village.  He left Sarah with her child. Her father did not want her to keep the "half-caste" baby, but he did not force the idea upon her.  She says that for the next six years they were happy. 

Sarah's father is assisted in clearing his land by Private Doyle who was assigned the duty.  Old Rangi is Boy's grandfather and her family has trouble with him.  One day Boy is playing hide and seek with his mother near the river.  He gets out of his mother's sight and he is grabbed by a Maori man.  Sarah calls out for him to no avail.  She asks for Private Doyle's assistance and he runs down to the river.  He sees Boy  in a net in a Maori canoe being with and Old Rangi being taken up river. 

Working the land was too hard on her father and one day he just quit.  He and her sister left the fort, while Sarah stayed behind.  Sarah liked Private Doyle but she says that she only had room for Boy in her heart.  She traveled around for seven years trying to get her son back.  Then the white soldiers were given the assignment of clearing the natives off the land in the area.  Wiremu, a Maori who serves with the white soldiers, says these actions will come back on them.  She arrives at a fight at a village that is already being burned.  She sees grandfather Rangi and tries to reach him to talk with him about her son.  But before she can reach him, Major Baines shoots and kills Ragni.  And now it is all out war between the two sides. 

Sarah the narrator says that Chief Te Kai Po reigned down terror on all of us.  There is a very tough fight at the fort.  Sarah gets in a boat that is heading upriver for awhile to get away from the Maori.  Doyle fights on for a while, but also hops into the boat. 

Main Garrison, Castlecliff.  Sarah's fort was destroyed by the Maori.  Sarah, who learned medicine from her father, serves as an army assistant to the surgeon.  The Maori soldier Wiremu, the brother of Tommy, comes to her and asks for her help.  Wiremu tells her that he will take her to her boy if she cures the chief, who has the coughing sickness.    She agrees to go with him upriver to the Maori camp in the hopes that he will help her get her son back.  It is a long canoe trip upriver.  Sarah is blindfolded so she won't know where the camp is.  A young boy, about the age of her own son, talks to her and tries to scare her a bit about what might happen to her at camp.

The chief's face is all deeply tattooed, the last of the chiefs to do so.  Sarah immediately has the chief taken down to the river where they keep dunking him so his fever will break.  The young boy sings "Danny Boy" in Maori.  Sarah succeeds in healing the chief and he tells her he will be forever grateful to her.  Sarah learns that the young boy is, as she suspected, her Boy.  Wiremu has raised him as his son.  (His wife divorced him because she did not like the white man's uniform he wore.)  He tells Sarah that the Maori will let her go.  She asks Boy to return with her, but he declares: "I am home."  Sara wonders to herself is she could find a new home her among the Maori. 

Sarah speaks with the great chief.  He says that he will eat the human flesh of the whites.  Then he has her read a message he is sending to the whites at Castlecliff.  The message asks that the whites cease using the road to come into Maori land.  The chief remarks that the message should raise the temperature a bit.  The messenger delivers the note to the whites.  Major Baines has a marksman wound the messenger as he starts to ride back to his camp. 

Boy has a gun and tells his mother "I will die in battle.  You will see."  The Maori learn that the whole Castlecliff garrison is coming to fight them.  The Maori have built a palisade and trenches to help defend against the whites.  One of the little girls walks in a direction leading to the white soldiers.  One of Wiremu's sons chases after her to bring her back.  One of the Maori fighting for the whites jumps at the boy and kills him with his club. 

Boy sings "Danny Boy" as the troops get closer and closer.  They are foolishly too bunched up along the river.  Many of the soldiers are killed in the first volley from the Maori.  Boy keeps yelling in English commands that spread chaos among the soldiers' ranks.  During the fighting, the chief has sex with a woman.  Sarah shoots and kills a Maori trying to kill Boy.  Private Doyle is shot by Wiremu.  Sarah rushes over to help Doyle.  Wiremu then runs to the two of them to provide assistance.  Major Baines sees Doyle, Wiremu and Sarah altogether and is none too pleased.  Sarah tells Wiremu that she is not leaving Doyle.  The soldiers have to fall back for their own survival. 

Sarah sees Boy hatchet wounded soldiers to death and then stripping them naked and taking all their belongings.  She watches as he approaches Doyle.  She aims her pistol at him.  She is thinking of shooting him if he tries to kill Doyle.  But Boy does not kill Doyle.  He just strips him naked and takes all his belongings.  Back with the army  at Castlecliff the surgeon removes the bullet from Doyle's leg.  Sarah takes Doyle to a hiding place where she can be sure he is nursed back to good health.  Sarah the narrator says that her life had been her son.  But no more. 

Wiremu walks over near the hiding place.  Sarah sees him and goes to him.  They have sex against a tree by the river.  Then Sarah returns to nurse Private Doyle, but he is dead.  She buries him and returns to Castlecliff.  There Wiremu approaches her.  He tells her that he bribed the guard to get in to see her.  He wants her to return to his camp with him.  She only says:  "How can I?  Doyle is dead."  And she shows Wiremu the bullet taken from Doyle's leg.  She says: "This is all wrong" and runs to the soldiers.  Wiremus leaves. 

Rourke's Landing.  The chief knows that the longer they wait the more allied tribes will come.  News comes that their allies have arrived.  Sarah is with the army still serving as the surgeon's assistant.  She goes with the army upriver for another battle with the Maori.  The soldiers' dogs discover Boy up in a tree watching the troops.  He is forced down and taken prisoner.  Wiremu learns that the army has captured Boy.  In Major Baines's tent, the officer asks Boy who the spy is in the army unit.  Boy won't talk.  Sarah is brought in to the tent.  Boy says that he has no mother.  And he still won't talk.  The Maori soldiers hang Boy over the river tied to a long pole.  One of the soldiers is Wiremu's cousin.  Wiremu approaches his cousin and asks him what he wants to release Boy.  The cousin smiles and says the trigger finger might be needed.  Wiremu, to the shock of the soldiers, cuts off his trigger finger with his hatchet. Sarah runs over to Boy and Wiremu.  Boy is released and the three make their escape.  They head down to the river with the soldiers firing at them.  All three jump in the river.  All three get away safely. 

The Maori tribe alliance has been broken.  The allied chief tells everyone that the great chief had sex with his wife.  The great chief then tells Sarah that he can no longer protect her.  The allied Maori leave.  The soldiers attack and Major Baines enters their encampment.  He tells his soldiers to find Sarah and Boy.  But Sarah, Wiremu and Boy are all hiding in a small cave by the river.  Sarah says that they need to be a family so she has her face tattooed so she can never return to the whites.

Major Baines tells his soldiers:  "White woman joining the rebels.  Can't allow that."   After the tattoo, Sarah walks into the river.  There she is shot by a Maori soldier from the cliff on the other side of the river. 

Sarah the narrator says that no one won the war.  Rumors flew in the Maori tribes that a woman called Queenie crossed over.  Sarah works with the crops on her land.  A grown-up Boy and Wiremu return from a trip.  Boy hugs his mother.  Then all three have a group hug. 


Pretty good movie.  But I did not really like it, although it kept my interest.  I did not like it because of the terrible character of the main character Sarah.  Sarah seems to be suffering from a mental illness, as well as being immature.  She has the problem of obsession.  Sarah as the narrator says that she had no room in her heart except for her son.  (Can you imagine if all women thought liker her?)  She could not love her favorite soldier Private Doyle because of her son obsession.  And because of the obsession she commits treason against Great Britain.  While in the army, she agree to go with her medical bag to cure the Maori chief of the coughing sickness during a time of war.  She committed an act of treason for which she theoretically could have been executed.  (There were the extenuating circumstances, however, of her being a woman and her feeling that this way she might get her son back from the Maori.) 

When Sarah finds her son, she finds herself a bitter lad who refuses to even be nice to her.  He acts like he is one of the fiercest and cruelest of all the Maori warriors.  When in battle, Private Doyle is badly wounded in the leg, she devotes herself to his return to health.  Sarah the narrator says that her son was her whole life, but no more.  So it seemed as if she might be able to love the kind Private Doyle.  But when Wiremu shows up she immediately goes to him and has sex with him.  (I guess she has a mental love map that only includes Maoris.)  When she returns, Doyle is dead. 

When Wiremu returns for Sarah, she rejects him and stays with the whites.  Fickle little thing I would say.  But when her son's life is threatened she returns to her son and Wiremu.  And she finally has her face tattooed so she can't go back to the whites.  Probably knowing her who capriciousness, she wanted to stop herself from any more switching sides.  And again this is another act of treason.  Major Baines wanted her dead, but he could not catch her. 

My wife went much easier on the woman.  And I had to admit there were extenuating circumstances.  But how can one admire a character that is obsessed to the exclusion of all others but her son, commits treason twice, flits back and forth between men, and is capricious and immature?  I like my hero characters with some character, please. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


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