The Seekers Review
The latest rarity to be disinterred by Odeon’s ‘Best of Britain’ range, 1954’s The Seekers is reputedly the first colour film to have been made in New Zealand. It’s certainly glossy adventure fare, making the most of its location scenery as it tells the tale of Jack Hawkins’ early nineteenth century explorer and his encounters with the Maori tribes of the Bay of Plenty. Adapted from New Zealander John Bodie’s 1952 novel of the same name (written under the pen name John Guthrie), this is a film of romance and revenge set to Eastmancolor exoticism. Nothing more, nothing less - the colour, the gloss and the exoticism are the key.
If this suggests a certain shallowness to The Seekers, then such suggestions would be correct. The first act is sufficiently pacey as Hawkins stumbles across a Maori burial chamber and has to go through a series of challenges to prove his manliness otherwise be killed by the tribe. The subsequent return to England maintains this snappiness as Hawkins is wrongfully accused of smuggling and jeopardises his impending marriage to Glynis Johns. But once we head back to New Zealand, as Hawkins and Johns embark on their new life, the film settles into a so-so narrative of good tribes and bad tribes, good white men and bad white men, and a hint of miscegenation as Hawkins’ eye is caught by a young Maori girl. Kenneth Williams also crops up - many years before either Carry On or Round the Horne - in a very un-Kenneth Williams role to stir the waters and enhance the tensions between tribesmen and settlers.
Excepting the cause of Hawkins’ adulterous glances, all of the tribesmen were played by genuine Maoris. Approximately 60 were hired as extras or for more significant roles, whilst almost 400 Maori girls were reportedly interviewed for that central female role which would eventually go to the Dutch-Javanese dancer Laya Raki. Understandably the genuine Maori presence adds to the authenticity of The Seekers, as does the use of New Zealand settings. (Maurice Carter’s art direction and Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography ably blends this location photography with Pinewood’s studio sets.) With that said, it is also somewhat unfortunate that, despite so many Maoris in front of the camera, their treatment remains less than exemplary. Initial introductions are oftentimes looming close-ups of manic eyes, gurning faces and, of course, their tattoos - in other words emphasising the ‘other’-ness. Subsequent shots find them startled and/or bemused by horses and Glynis Johns’ sole white woman. And towards the end of The Seekers many are reduced to mere cannon fodder as Hawkins, Williams and the rest combat spears with rifles. At other times they become reduced to the cinematic exoticism that used to get trotted out for any non-white ethnicity. In this case Maori ‘traditions’ are summed up by plenty of chanting whilst Raki indulges in a sultry dance dressed in only a feather bikini and grass skirt.
The chants (and the rest of the score) were composed by William Alwyn, the man responsible for the accompaniment to many a classic documentary (Desert Victory, “Fires Were Started”, Daybreak in Udi), not to mention features ranging from The Crimson Pirate to Odd Man Out. He’s just one of a number of players reduced to empty exoticism, whether it be director Ken Annakin (who, thanks to his recent Disney pictures The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men and The Sword and the Rose, was becoming something of a dab hand at colour adventure flicks; Swiss Family Robinson was to follow in a few years’ time) or screenwriter William Fairchild (who, arguably, was much better at small-scale tales such as John and Julie than he was adventure yarns). Only the art direction of Carter and photography of Unsworth really stand out, but then their efforts are exactly what The Seekers is all about: shoot a film in a foreign country and make it look as beautiful as possible.
Your mileage with the film is therefore likely to hinge entirely with how far the gloss goes. The Seekers is solidly made and as well performed as you would expect given the likes of Hawkins and Johns heading up the cast list. It’s an entirely professional production and one that Rank were no doubt proud of back in 1954 (they even held the world premiere in New Zealand), but also one of very few surprises. Indeed, the only genuine curiosity factor is unexpected presence of Williams and, moreover, in a role that he acquits himself extremely well too despite our potential retrospective misgivings. (According to his diaries Williams hated the experience and complains of being cold and wet during the filming of his action sequences.) As such we’re left simply with a rather thin tale and, predominantly, some very pretty pictures. If that sounds sufficient for 90 minutes entertainment then so be it; others should be more wary.
The Seekers arrives onto DVD in the UK in a manner we’ve come to expect from Odeon’s ‘Best of British’ range. The disc itself is encoded for all regions and is dual-layered despite containing only the feature, a still gallery (consisting black and white production stills and colour lobby cards) and a handful of cross-promotional trailers. The presentation quality is best described as satisfactory. We get The Seekers in its original Academy ratio with mono soundtrack, but the print and transfer are both a little haphazard. At times the film looks wonderful, demonstrating fine detail and strong colours. Unfortunately this isn’t consistent throughout the entire duration and so we also get scenes which appear too murky, others in which the detail seems to have deserted the picture, plus some very heavy grain. With that said, the print is entirely free of dirt and damage and, ultimately, remains watchable, though be aware that this is not one of Odeon’s better looking disc nor is it amongst their worst. Thankfully the soundtrack has no such issues and remains crisp and clean throughout. Enclosed is a booklet containing notes by Steve Chibnall, author of monographs on Get Carter and Brighton Rock and co-author of The British 'B' Film.