Arjan van Diemen is a renowned Afrikaner commando leader of the Second Boer War, and a master tracker. After the end of the war, after the defeat by the British, he emigrates from South Africa to Auckland in the British colony of New Zealand, but is recognised by Sergeant-Major Saunders, a British soldier who also fought in the Second Boer War, and is arrested upon entry. However Major Carlysle, also a British Boer War veteran, and now the officer in charge of the British garrison in Auckland, respects van Diemen as a former opponent and releases him.
Meanwhile, Kereama, a Maori harpooner on a whaling ship, sleeps with a prostitute in an army stable. A drunk Sergeant-Major Saunders arrives with two of his comrades expresses his anger at the Maori coupling with "pure British women". He and his comrades then beat and taunt Kereama, who fights back; in the confusion Saunders accidentally kills one of his own men. Saunders evades responsibility by blaming Kereama, and the prostitute is intimidated into confirming their story. Kereama knows that he will not have a fair trial and runs. After Saunders convinces a sceptical Major Carlysle of Kereama's guilt, Carlysle with Bryce, a civilian tracker, and a posse of soldiers pursues Kereama. Carlysle knows that van Diemen is a master tracker and offers him a substantial reward to help them.
On the beach at the mouth of a river, Kereama disguises his tracks to look as if he has continued along the beach, whereas he has in fact turned inland. Van Diemen is the only one not fooled and while the soldiers follow the false trail, van Diemen continues after Kereama. Eventually van Diemen surprises and captures Kereama. Kereama pretends to speak only Maori, but van Diemen does not fall for the ploy, and they start a conversation while they walk. Van Diemen shows Kereama a photograph of his wife and three daughters.
Kereama persistently protests his innocence of the murder of the soldier as van Diemen takes him back, and says he will not have a fair trial. When van Diemen pauses to bath in a river Kereama succeeds in surprising him and there is a tense standoff with both Keremea and van Diemen holding guns on each other. The standoff is finally broken when Kereama knocks out van Diemen and leaves, but then returns to rescue the unconscious van Diemen from the river so he does not drown. Kereama ties van Diemen to a tree and taunts him while going through his belongings. However, van Diemen manages to surprise and overwhelm Kereama once again. They continue on the long walk back to the town and along the way Kereama appeals to van Diemen, exclaiming, "You fought the British in the Boer War, I fought them too. We both hate the British!" Van Diemen rejects the statement and claims that he fought for independence while all Kereama did was commit crimes. This prompts Kereama to explain his painful family past and his people's own war of independence. He explains how the British burned down his village and forced him to watch as they hanged his father. Kereama then confesses that when his grandfather asked for help all he did was run away. This obviously connects to van Diemen, who reveals that his farm was burned by the British during the Boer War when he was away and that all of his family had disappeared presumed killed. However, notwithstanding their common traumas at the hands of the British, van Diemen still refuses to release Kereama and after Kereama again escapes the tension finally culminates in a bloody hand-to-hand fight where Kereama gains the upper hand. However, as he is about to kill van Diemen, Carlysle and his men arrive and arrest the Maori.
On the walk back, Saunders unexpectedly joins the party. Van Diemen notices the tension between the Saunders and Kereama and, while sharing a meal, asks for details of his alleged crime. Van Diemen then explains that the old African man who taught him to track was lynched by his neighbour for allegedly stealing a duck, and quietly leaves a knife with Kereama. Kereama escapes and both the soldiers and van Diemen pursue him again. Van Diemen goes ahead and lays a false trail for Carlysle and his men to follow. He helps Kereama to reach a holy place where both say prayers for their respective families. Van Diemen and Kereama are then cornered by the soldiers and as they close in, Kereama accepts the futility of trying to escape and asks van Diemen to kill him and let him die honourably rather than being dragged back to Auckland and hanged without honour. While Kereama is performing a Haka to prepare himself for the afterlife, van Diemen apparently shoots him. When Carlysle arrives, van Diemen gives him a severed index finger (a reference to earlier in the film where van Diemen reveals that van Diemen cut off their British prisoners' index fingers so they could not shoot a rifle again) as proof of Kereama's death. Saunders tries to take Kereama's head, but van Diemen defends his body and asks Carlysle to bury it. Carlysle refuses, claiming "too much time has been spent on him". Van Diemen and the soldiers return to Auckland.
A day later, Carlysle suddenly realises that he did not inspect the body and that he has been tricked; the Maori is alive. He orders soldiers to every dock and port to be on the lookout for a "Maori with his right index finger missing". He confronts van Diemen, who is on the beach waiting to leave for Australia, and tells him that although Kereama may be alive he cannot leave New Zealand and will be captured. It is revealed that Carlysle had been present at the burning of van Diemen's African farm, although he says that van Diemen's family were not inside the farmhouse when it was burned.
In a flashback, it is revealed that van Diemen shot into the air and knocked Kereama out instead of killing him. Meanwhile, Kereama arrives at a harbour and, in front of soldiers, signs onto a whaler, revealing that he has all ten fingers. Van Diemen is shown in the boat taking him to the Australian ship with only nine fingers; he cut off his own finger. Arjan van Diemen then looks at a picture of his family, smiles and sails off for a new home.
The filmmakers describe the story's background as follows:
The Second Boer War, a conflict between the British Empire and the two independent Boer republics in South Africa, lasted from 11 October 1899 until 31 May 1902.
With the British in nominal control of the republics by 1901, the Boer farmers adopted guerrilla warfare tactics: strike fast and hard causing as much damage to the enemy as possible, and then withdraw and vanish before enemy reinforcements could arrive. This strategy proved effective and the British were forced to revise their own tactics.
The British retaliated with a “Scorched Earth” policy, bringing the Boers to their knees. As British troops swept the countryside, they systematically destroyed crops, burned homesteads and farms, poisoned wells and interned Boer women and children in concentration camps.
In the aftermath, many of the defeated Boers were unable to return to their farms at all; others attempted to do so but were forced to abandon farms as unworkable given the damage caused by farm burning and salting of the fields in the course of the scorched earth policy. Thus, many drifted to the far corners of the empire, in search of a new home...
The cast consists of British and New Zealand actors.Ray Winstone as Arjan van Diemen
Temuera Morrison as Kereama
Gareth Reeves as Major Pritchard Carlysle
Mark Mitchinson as Sergeant-Major Saunders
Dan Musgrove as Private Rennick
Andy Anderson as Bryce
Mick Rose as Sergeant Leybourne
Jodie Hillock as Lucy
Jed Brophy as Corporal Barker
Director: Ian Sharp Writer: Nicolas Van Pallandt The film is a co-production of the UK Film Council and New Zealand Film Commission.
It was shot around the Queenstown lakes area of South Island.
Tracker opened in the UK on 22 April 2011. The film went to DVD in June 2011, distributed internationally by Kaleidoscope Entertainment.
Tracker made official selection for the Toronto and Valencia film festivals.