The Tangiwai Movie – Why They Got It Wrong

On Sunday night I sat down with a couple of friends for a Kiwi film we’d all decided was a must-watch, Tangiwai – A Love Story. Within minutes we were squirming in our seats, at the half-way point I felt mildly ill and as the end credits rolled I’d declared it the worst film of the year.

Friend Graham said, “That’s why I don’t watch much TV!” while friend Cathy was more gentle in describing it as “patronising.” The minor tragedy in all this is that the movie itself is about a major tragedy: the Tangiwai train disaster of Christmas Eve 1953 where a lahar washed away a rail-bridge in the central North Island, causing the deaths of 151 people as the train plunged into the river below.

What’s more, the overall grief had a personal, tangible face in that of New Zealand cricketer Bob Blair who stunned a crowd 23,000 South Africans cricket fans into silence as he walked out to bat, tears in his eyes, hours after hearing his fiancee had died in the crash. Blair wasn’t even thought to be at the ground.

I don’t have any issue with movies based on real events taking some liberties with fact in order to speed up the narrative or to heigthen tension, provided they are not rewriting important moments of history. But the odd thing about Tangiwai was the omission of more interesting fact for less interesting fiction. The real Bob Blair said there was no conflict between him and his fiancee Nerissa Love’s family, yet the first half of the film is about Catholic / Protestant stubborness and a spectacularly evil mother-in-law to be. I just didn’t buy that the one dimensionally sweet Nerissa Love could have such a one dimensionally evil mother, though at least they had the number of dimensions in common.

The movie’s first hour played out like a bad romantic comedy with its attempts at scene setting barely able to breakthrough the tirade of cliches: the disapproving in-laws to be, the more worldly-wise, sexually active, chain-smoking best-friend of Love’s, the blokey jokes with the cricket team and all the over-acting of a high school play.

The second half was much better with the Weta Workshop model trains the centrepiece in a realistic disaster scene, although again, this was let down by the script. If watching Tangiwai with no historical knowledge of the event, you would be led to believe the bridge was washed away because an old Maori woman didn’t like train tracks on the land and what? Put a curse on the train causing a surge of water to wash away a bridge? That she was clairvoyant and predicted a disaster but didn’t tell anyone?

This part of the script is cloying in that while attempting to be sensitive to Maori it insults because it leads viewers to believe there was no explanation for what washed away the bridge. Indeed, there is no mention, nor footage of the lahar coming down from Mt Ruapehu, merely a surge of water seemingly predicted by spiritual means. The very real geological explanation for the disaster is never given.

The bandaged Bert Sutcliffe.

As for what really happened in that cricket test in South Africa, the movie strangely opts to decrease the tension at the expense of fact. Bert Sutcliffe’s trip to hospital having been hit in the head at the hands of some ferocious South African fast bowling is not even shown. A play about the same story focused heavily on Sutcliffe going to hospital and returning to bat against doctor’s orders. The drama! To give credit, Tangiwai does a decent job of showing how the bandaged Sutcliffe then demolished the same bowlers who’d ripped through the Kiwi batting, smashing 80 not out with a staggering seven sixes.

And if you haven’t seen the movie or don’t know the story, when the ninth wicket falls the players start to leave the field, New Zealand is one player short with Blair thought to be alone in his grief back at the team’s hotel. All of sudden he appears on the field, ready to bat, but tears streaming down his face. It was known by the South African public what had happened in New Zealand and some reports suggest many in the crowd were also crying as he walked out to bat. Blair himself smashed a six and while New Zealand lost, their bravery and courage is rightly remembered to this day.

It is a phenomenal story and the best and worst thing about is that it’s true. I know we don’t have the money for big budget films for New Zealand stories, but that is a better defence of bad special-effects than average acting and a weak script. Indeed, the special-effects, costumes, sets and cinematography in Tangiwai were quite lovely. Lack of budget is also no defence for tone and the tone of Tangiwai jarred. If Titanic is the blueprint of a love story / disaster movie hybrid, then think what its tone was. Was Titanic a romantic comedy? No. It was a love story, yes, but certainly not a romantic comedy and in terms of tone, it was appropriate to those lives who were lost. Tangiwai sadly fell short.

Normally I like to write with positivity about things I like, the music and people who inpsire me and the amazing places I’ve been. Writing a negative piece like this is not done with glee, but more-so from the point of view of someone who loves history and loves cricket and had looked forward to this film for a long time.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    pretty much bang on tim. although they did show bert (dean o'gorman reprising his role from the almighty johnsons?) being hit by the ball and leaving the field.

    Got to say i loved watching iain o'brien charging in as a saffa.

  2. Anonymous says:

    And I always thought the Tangiwai disaster all happened because the Queen was visiting ;)Seriously, it was a shame they couldn't have made the movie, or that part of it, closer to the truth, Good read Tim.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I cried my eyes out last night – for me it was a beautiful tragic story

  4. Anonymous says:

    I feel sorry for the amount of families, friends and lovers that were affected by this tragedy. I was not at all mislead in any of the detailing of the movie however I would love to read the book… RIP to the victims may your memory live on. Aroha tino nui Bob Blair, hope with time your wound has healed over xoxo Te Puke

  5. Evan Herbert says:

    I liked the film, the writers choice to proceed how they did. Like or not like.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I really enjoyed it. im not much into love stories and came across it by accident, as i was touching up on NZ history with my interest in trains. I have a different opinion from the above, but i guess its all due to my little knowledge in all parts the film touched on, marriage between 2 religions, Maori sacred grounds. And for a NZ film i thought it was well done. With kiwis being laid back and relaxed and the humor that went into it would show the world who we used to be. i give this film the thumbs up, and i think thats pretty impressive when most movies i watch are the likes of fast and furious and would rather play games 🙂

  7. Mike Alton says:

    Lost my wife last year and i loved the film.A nice love story.

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