Film poster for Broken Barrier.

1940s - 1970s

Learn about some of the defining films from mid-twentieth century New Zealand.


Rewi’s Last Stand / The Last Stand

Rudall Hayward, Frontier Films, 1940

The Last Stand was the first New Zealand feature film to screen on local television – in 1970 – some 30 years after the film was first released.

In 1938, Rudall Hayward began the sound remake of his 1925 silent film Rewi’s Last Stand. Using James Cowan’s The New Zealand Wars and working with the Te Awamutu Historical Society, Hayward was determined to reproduce an episode of New Zealand history with as much accuracy as possible.

Released in 1940, it was the first of Hayward’s films to secure an international release. Screened in Britain as The Last Stand, the original negative was recut to meet the strict requirements for a B Feature (to meet the required length).

No prints of the original (Rewi’s Last Stand) are known to survive, although the cut-down version – The Last Stand has survived – and it has been confused with Rewi’s Last Stand ever since!

Christmas at Manly Beach

Alec Douglas Lambourne, 1941

New Zealanders were quick to adopt home-movie cameras and many thousands of feet of family home movies have been created.

Covering a diverse array of topics such as holidays, new cars, birthday and Christmas parties, weddings, parades, local personalities and events, they are a reflection of home life in New Zealand from the 1930s to the 1970s. The home movies by Alec Douglas Lambourne are a good example.

Weekly Review 361. RNZAF in Fiji

National Film Unit, 1948

The National Film Unit (NFU) was established in 1941 under the recommendation of British documentary maker John Grierson, who was invited to New Zealand by the Government to establish a ’film centre’.

Stanhope Andrews was the first director, but programming was government influenced.

Weekly Review was a series of documentaries about New Zealand, which included propaganda about the war effort, national enterprise and scenic films.

The Story of a Store

Pacific Film Unit, 1949

Corporate-sponsored films were the bread and butter for many fledgling independent film companies.

While it is likely they all had big, ambitious plans for feature films and worldwide recognition, there was little opportunity, or money, for such creations.

Promotional films – such as this one for the Hays Department Store in Christchurch – enabled filmmakers to pay the bills and to keep staff on the books. In a time before film schools, they were also invaluable training grounds for crew.



Morrow Productions, 1952

Morrow Productions – an international, award-wining animation studio – was formed in Levin in 1950.

Formed by Bob Morrow and Mike Walker, they specialised in making animated films. An experienced animator who had trained with Disney, Morrow brought his expertise first to Wellington and then Levin – where he set up a sophisticated studio with rooms for drawing and design, filming cels, background paintings and even a music studio.

A cartoon film about forest fire prevention, Trees was commissioned by the New Zealand Forest Service and Rivers Control Council. The film’s painterly appearance was achieved by means of a set of drawings in watercolour.

Find out more about Morrow Productions.

Broken Barrier

John O’Shea and Roger Mirams, Pacific Films, 1952

Broken Barrier was one of only three independent feature films created between 1940 and the establishment of the New Zealand Film Commission in 1978 – the other two being Runaway and Don’t Let it Get You – all by John O’Shea for Pacific Films.

This film clip is the trailer of Broken Barrier.

Broken Barrier was directed and written by John O'Shea and produced by Roger Mirams and O'Shea.

John O’Shea claimed that Broken Barrier was a disguised documentary based on real people. The pioneering film examined cultural complications in a romance between a Pākehā journalist (Terence Bayler) and a Māori nurse (Kay Ngarimu, also known as Keita Whakato Walker). It was the first New Zealand film to acknowledge racial inequity and discrimination.

You can see John O’Shea and Roger Mirams in this footage at the world premiere of Broken Barrier at the Regent Theatre in Wellington, 10 July 1952.

Pictorial Parade. Pumicelands

John Feeney, 1954

In 1950 the National Film Unit (NFU) was restructured and the Weekly Review was replaced with Pictorial Parade.

This film shows how the Central Plateau of the North Island was transformed into fertile pastureland by the Land Settlement Board and the Lands and Survey Department.


Flight to Venus

Fred O’Neill, 1960

With “a movie camera, modelling clay and imagination”, Fred O'Neill built himself an international reputation as an animator.

Based in Dunedin, O'Neill directed animated films in his spare time. He meticulously created a world: from inventing his puppet characters, designing and making their costumes, building and lighting the sets, to filming the action. This was a painstaking process with the filming of an eight-minute segment taking anything up to 500 hours, followed by an intensive editing process.

Birth of a City

Hilda Brodie-Smith, 1962

This amateur film surveys the development of Porirua. Amateur films such as these are invaluable insights into New Zealand life.

Amateur filmmaker Hilda Brodie-Smith is unique because it was generally men behind the camera, and the subject matter was usually family and local events, such as birthdays and street parades.

While Brodie-Smith filmed family life, she also created films such as Birth of a City, which looks at the development of Porirua, and Wool Story, which starts as a reading of a nursey rhyme and develops into the story of wool from shearing and auction to wool stores and products.


John O'Shea, 1964

The Pacific Film Unit was founded by Roger Mirams and Alun Falconer in 1948. John OʼShea joined in 1950.

Pacific Films kept independent filmmaking alive, producing the only three New Zealand features made here between 1940 and 1970. They were Broken Barrier (1952), Runaway (1964) and Don't Let it Get You (1966) – all of them directed by John O'Shea.

Runaway was a sophisticated attempt to emulate the European art cinema of the period. It paid less attention to continuity editing, cause-and-effect driven narrative and a goal-oriented protagonist, and more to the exploration of themes.

Don’t Let it Get You

John O’Shea, Pacific Films, 1966

Having almost single-handedly kept independent feature filmmaking alive in New Zealand between 1940 and 1970, John O’Shea also created New Zealand’s first musical film with his 1966 comedy, Don’t Let it Get You.

Influenced by The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964), the film introduced uniquely New Zealand elements – including bottle drives and raffles, marching girls and Rotorua’s natural phenomena.

Made on a shoestring budget of £40,000, the film features a lot of product placement by sponsors who helped to get it over the line. This excerpt, featuring singer Lew Pryme, also promotes Boron petrol.


Gone Up North for a While

Paul Maunder, 1972

With the arrival of television in the 1960s, the National Film Unit was no longer the sole provider of government-funded news and documentary. Filmmakers seized this chance to experiment.

Gone Up North for a While tells the story of a young woman who gets pregnant and is encouraged to move away to hide it.

The film not only experiments with a non-linear narrative but is a strong political statement about the unjustness of her situation. Informal filming using hand-held cameras and improvised acting also adds to the film’s sense of realism.

To Love a Maori

Rudall and Ramai Hayward Film Productions, 1975

To Love a Maori was the first New Zealand feature film made in colour.

A romantic documentary made on "half a shoestring", To Love a Maori tells the story of two young men who leave their country marae for Auckland and the racial discrimination they face once they arrive in the city.

Intended as a dramatic documentary highlighting the problems and successes of Māori urban migration, the film portrays many of the social problems of the times.

To Love a Maori was the seventh, and final, feature film made by pioneer filmmaker Rudall Hayward.

Sleeping Dogs

Roger Donaldson, 1977

Sleeping Dogs won the race with Solo (also released in 1977) to be New Zealand’s first 35mm feature of the decade.

The film’s screenplay was based on CK Steadʼs novel Smithʼs Dream and Bill Pearsonʼs essay "Fretful Sleepers", which imagined New Zealand as a fertile breeding ground for fascism.

The film is influenced stylistically by American cinema from the late 1960s and 1970s.