“Effectively it was a whole year of filming,” Neill told RadioTimes.com. “I actually decided I didn’t want to do any acting for a year and I would just devote my time to this. It was such a profoundly engaging project."
Now, 250 years on from Cook’s famous voyage, Neill endeavoured to take a modern view of the story in this latest documentary. “What we were taught at school is kind of misleading,” said the Irish-born New Zealand resident. “Cook didn’t discover these places. It’s not a discovery and it’s not yours if there are people already on that beach, but he was the first European to set foot in so many of these places.”
While Cook’s exploits originally inspired Neill to make the documentary, the end product tells viewers about the diversity of the Pacific’s great navigators. The actor noted the importance of acknowledging indigenous peoples in the documentary, saying: “It’s a third of the world’s surface, the Pacific, and the great Polynesian navigators could navigate without compasses, without GPS, without sextants, with pin point accuracy.”
As a result, Captain Cook’s Pacific with Sam Neill is very much classical history, viewed through a modern lens. Indigenous people are remembered, and credited, and the historical role of Europeans in the Pacific is questioned.
“I think history is being taught very differently now” said Neill. “We’re much more aware of our past in New Zealand than we were when I was at school. There was ten years of the army versus various tribes, wars in the 1860s, they were called the Maori Wars when I was a kid. Now they’re called the Land Wars which I think is rather more appropriate. People use the Maori term, ‘Aotearoa’, instead of ‘New Zealand’ and I don’t think anyone talks about Cook discovering New Zealand in 1769 anymore.”
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While filming, Neill met many New Zealanders who resented Cook, his personal hero who he describes as “a visionary”. The residents of ‘Poverty Bay’ near modern Gisborne, are particularly unhappy that that name stuck, especially given the regions prosperous modern history. Neill met Hawaiians too he said, who took great delight in telling him, “My forebears ate James Cook”, referring to his ultimate violent demise on the island.
Neill is an old hand at documentary-making but, in committing a year of his life to this latest on-screen venture, he was reminded of the unique appeal of the documentary format. “From the ice in Alaska to the ice in Antarctica, we swam with whales and in Tonga we climbed live volcanoes,” he said. “It was really the adventure of a lifetime and you don’t get that with doing feature films.”
He added, “I have to say I came out of this with greater respect than ever for Cook, as a seaman, as a cartographer, as a leader of men, as a visionary really.”