'Breaker' Morant

(Australia - 1980)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Edward Woodward, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, John Waters, Charles 'Bud' Tingwell, Terence Donovan, Rod Mullinar, Alan Cassell
Genre: War/Drama
Director: Bruce Beresford
Screenplay: Bruce Beresford & Jonathan Hardy from Kit Denton's novel The Breaker
Cinematography: Donald McAlpine
Composer: Phil Cunneen
Runtime: 107 minutes

"This is guerilla war not a débutante's ball. There are no rules here" - Captain Alfred Taylor

Would you trade three soldier's lives for potentially thousands and the "win" of the war? The answer is quite simple when you are talking about nameless victims, faceless pawns. You don't even need any concept of the military to do the math, and once the soldiers are dead does it really matter who killed them? Of course, that doesn't make it morally right, but at this point in the war could any morality be expected? In any case, the primary reason for the military court marshal of Lieutenants Harry 'Breaker' Morant, Peter Handcock, and George Ramsdale Witton is to sacrifice them as the scapegoats of the war.

Britain sees an end to The Boer War (1899-1902) in sight. By proving they can inflict "justice" impartially, the renegade Boers may quit resisting. More importantly, the Germans won't have a reason to enter the war on the Boer's side. Germany, of course, could care less about the Boers, but like England they like the diamonds and gold of South Africa. The funniest line in the film for me is when Major Bolton (Rod Mullinar) defends British imperialism over German by saying "They lack our altruism, sir" and Lord Kitchener (Alan Cassell) replies "Quite." Speaking of caring less, a key issue is the racism of the British. They aren't sacrificing their own; they are sacrificing three Australian professional soldiers.

A death sentence is pending on the charges that the Lieutenants shot Boer prisoners and a German missionary. One of the biggest aspects that makes 'Breaker' Morant so good is, while the Lieutenants are the protagonists, the main two are not heroes or anti-heroes. They most likely perpetrated the acts they are being charged with. While the hot-tempered war weary horsebreaker Morant (Edward Woodward) & fast living wisecracker Handcock (Bryan Brown) are great at what they do for the British Empire, they aren't doing it out of any sense of loyalty, patriotism, or justice. They are there because there's nothing for them in their homeland.

Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) is a victim. He's just a junior officer, so can he be expected to refuse the orders of his seniors even when he knows they are morally wrong? In any case, his trial is ludicrous because he was just doing his duty overseeing the firing squad whose existence he'd protested when one of the Boer's that was to be executed tackled him. Witton shot the Boer while they were rolling around struggling on the ground, an obvious case of self-defense. Witton's trial is mainly a case of guilt by association as well as expendability. While he doesn't deserve to die, it's hard to root for Witton because he's so naïve and oblivious. He still believes he was fighting a good war for the honorable British.

The only true hero in this decidedly anti-war film is the defense attorney Major J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson). He somehow manages to conduct a powerful defense despite the deck being totally stacked against him. The British selected this Australian because he has no experience handling cases of the sort. He was the country town solicitor before joining the armed forces, so he dealt with things like wills. Handcock, always good for sarcasm, immediately notes "that might come in handy." Thomas has been given one day to prepare his case, which is humorously depicted by him regularly fumbling through crinkled little pieces of paper during the first day of the court marshal.

Hypocrisy is not just running rampant in the courtroom, it's off the charts. Thomas has no legitimate witnesses because the men in Morant's squad, the Bushveldt Carbineers, that would have a good word for the Lieutenants are off fighting in India. Meanwhile, the prosecution presents a collection of has-beens with grudges against Morant, largely because they were reprimanded or discharged for violations while he was leading the Carbineers. One of the most ridiculous testimonies is by Captain Robertson (Rob Steele), an Australian hater that attempted to command the Bushveldt Carbineers for a while. He reprimanded Handcock for what he considered a serious breach of the rules of war, placing prisoners of war in open wagons in front of train engines. Of course, the purpose was to stop the Boers from blowing up these train engines and when Robertson saw that Handcock's idea was indeed successful, he didn't discontinue the practice in spite of his "objections."

The key question of the warfare is if there's any limit to what can be done, and if so where does this line get drawn? The Bushveldt Carbineers were not a traditional British troupe that wore bright red uniforms and alerted the enemy to their presence by beating the drums. This was guerilla warfare against Boer commandos that were supposedly bands of disorganized rebel peasants following none of the "established rules of combat." The Carbineers were hired for the precise reason of combating this uncivilized warfare with their own. In that case, is the question still right and wrong or is it limited to effective or ineffective?

The high exalted Lord Horatio Kitchener - field general, chief of staff, most senior soldier in the British army, and mastermind behind the bent trial of the three Carbineers - presumably gave an order to kill all Boer prisoners of war. We presume it is unwritten not because it's a fabrication, but because such a tactic would be an embarrassment to the empire were it to become public knowledge, which it did. While fundamentally I'm totally against the idea of shooting someone that surrenders, in warfare, especially of this type, one has to consider practicality as well. The Carbineers were traveling on horseback and fighting battles in open hillside territory. They didn't have enough food to feed them. They didn't have forts and prisons nearby to store the prisoners in, at best they had a couple shacks to hold themselves up in. With only 50 men in the outfit, they didn't have the manpower to be sending soldiers off every time they captured somebody. Was there a legitimate alternative to killing the prisoners? Or were the alternatives letting them go so they'd soon be back to fight you (at least indirectly) or finding a tree to tie them to so they could starve to death unless they were rescued (nothing more than an inhumane version of the former)?

You can blame yourself for engaging in this type of warfare, but you cannot blame your troops for following their orders. Even if they didn't exist, Morant could only be expected to operate under this new rule because his predecessor told him it existed and had been carrying it out. However, Morant didn't follow orders because a duty of the leader is to make sure his outfit operates under the rules and code of the country's armed forces. He obeyed the rules he believed in and disobeyed the ones he didn't. Although his predecessor and mentor Captain Simon Hunt (Terence Donovan) and most likely Captain Robertson did kill Boer prisoners, Morant didn't believe in the practice until Hunt was killed in a failed raid of a loaded Boer holdup that was only supposed to have 8 tired men. Wounded during the charged, Hunt ordered his men to retreat (leaving him) and was later found mutilated. All the killings Morant is on trial for were not done out of necessity, they were cold-blooded revenge murders. "It won't bring him back, but it's the next best thing."

The trial scenes in 'Breaker' Morant are actually believable. While movies, even if based on a true story like this, will always make the material more exciting, most Hollywood courtroom movies simply strike me as false. Even good ones like Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder are marred by James Stewart constantly being allowed to show off and get away with all kinds of things he'd never really get away with. Meanwhile, it's hard to find Stanley Kramer's Judgement at Nuremberg authentic when all the nazi's are speaking English, even when they are talking amongst themselves. 'Breaker' Morant does have the defendants inserting their funny and ironic commentary too often. However, as there's no audience or jury you kind of get the idea that the key prosecutors don't care because the figure these outbursts only make the defendants look undisciplined, insolent, and quick tempered (much of which Robertson accuses them of early on). These scenes are actually some of the most telling about the accused in the great script that received the film's token Oscar nomination.

Morant is an Australian film, perhaps the finest the country has produced. While it sympathizes with Australians that were wrongly accused, it doesn't make them overly sympathetic or acquit the country's government in the process. It is mentioned that the Australian government will approve the executions to "dissipate any lingering impressions of a frontier colony, frontier behavior." However, there's no criticism of the Australian people or government for supporting Britain in tactics obviously designed to increase Britains wealth rather than improve conditions for the natives in the occupied country. Luckily, the film doesn't try to manipulate you with music or pound points into your head, not that it would need to because the material is powerful enough to evoke genuine emotion.

There's no doubt in my mind that 'Breaker' Morant is one of the most thought provoking war movies ever made. It does a great job of using the scenes the Lieutenants aren't involved in to show how the corrupt political machine that's led to their trial works. However, it could have been that much more thought provoking had it done more to open up possibilities rather than close them. As the film is made from the perspective of the British government and the Australians that were helping them, it unfortunately chooses to support that side's justification of the war without considering the Boer's. Although the film never gets into this, most prominently the British justification was the protection of their prospectors mining what would have been Boer territory of the richest source of gold the world had seen at that time. While most sources seem to consider the Boer's in the right and the British guilty of trumping up a war, this is a topic there will always be some debate about. That doesn't bother me, but the film which in its defense is uncluttered by side plots, skirts most of the British atrocities other than what the Carbineers are on trial for. Taylor mentioning a few he participated in is done in defense of his clients, and goes too far in making it seem like everything done was justifiable given the conditions and the enemy.

Lord Kitchener's policies (no doubt also unwritten) included most farms, villages, crops, provisions, and livestock being destroyed. Furthermore, the Boers that weren't killed, almost all women and children, were hoarded into concentration camps where allegedly 10-12 people starved in one camp and when you combine that with disease and other problems the end result was 27,927 of 116,572 died. The supposedly evil uncivilized Boer commandos, outnumbered about 4-1, were essentially what was left of their forces after they'd lost most of their towns and railways. With the British pillaging and destruction in mind, it's hard to imagine the Boers as the evil ones that brought all these horrible barbarous war tactics on themselves as the film, at best, takes for granted even though it's very much against the resulting actions. In a way, that's precisely what the film is going for because it is an anti-British film, but it's anti-British because it's a film about the injustices of war and this tale centers around certain atrocities they committed. For the most part the morals could just as easily be transplanted to any number of wars, especially ones where a small country used knowledge of their homeland to their advantage against the unwanted major power. That said, the film could be more morally ambiguous than it is. While it's a positive that the film doesn't get sidetracked with irrelevant subplots, getting into the colonial exploitation of the Boers rather than just passing that off as what the Germans would do and implying it about the Australians fighting for the British could have improved the overall understanding of the situation.

All the performances are strong. The film doesn't have any annoying melodrama, instead the actors make you believe these people really existed, which obviously should be important in a movie that purports to be recreating a real incident. It's consistently gripping and succeeds almost as well as a character study as it does as a courtroom drama and anti-war film.

Jack Thompson, who won Best Supporting Actor at Cannes, gives the best performance as the zealous defense attorney who won't take crap from the witnesses. He transforms from a calm unprepared man to a fierce interrogator who won't let the witnesses get away with vague halfhearted answers and to some extent intimidates them into telling as much of the truth as they'll let out. He's particularly brilliant during his summation. Bryan Brown does his best work here providing much of the sarcastic entertainment. "You couldn't lie straight in bed Drummond," he says after the Sgt. Major gets away with perjuring himself on the stand. Then he smirks when warned he'll find himself in serious trouble and says, "While, I'm just wondering how much more serious things could be?" Woodward has probably the most difficult role because he's a dignified educated man of the arts who is making his living killing as many Boers as possible. His performance has the most subtlety and elegance, which makes the scenes where he's so hardened, angry, and cynical stand out that much more.

'Breaker' Morant swept the 1980 Australian Film Institute Awards, winning 10 categories. At quick glance, one might think it actually lost two nominations. However, Edward Woodward lost Best Actor in a Lead Role to Jack Thompson and both Lewis Fitz-Gerald and Charles "Bud" Tingwell lost Best Actor in a Supporting Role to Bryan Brown. To me the big strengths of the film lie in the balanced and compelling script, the acting (where the film really blows away the overrated Paths of Glory), and overall believability.

For a film that won basically all the technical awards, it's really not that great of a production. Bruce Beresford is basically a competent director that presents material concisely and doesn't show off. Certainly there's nothing revolutionary about the still camera, mainly long shots in the fields and mid to clasps in the courtroom, with all straight cuts. The film does do an excellent job of evoking the look of South Africa during the period, especially considering the budget was pretty tight.

Most of the film takes place in the dark bland inquisition room, which looks like it would be the back gym if it were only a little wider. This is not all that surprising considering 'Breaker' Morant was adapted from the successful play, but obviously filming plays rarely makes for a masterpiece of cinematography. During each testimony, there's at least one flashback to what actually happened. Normally such scenes would be visualizations of what the witness was describing in testimony, but here it's the truth sandwiched between the bullshit that's being passed off under oath. During these scenes, the work of cinematographer Donald McAlpine is quite impressive. His shots in the field have a certain distance, coldness, and blurriness that's so fitting for this material.

There are two scenes that really stand out from the rest. The three Lieutenants are temporarily released to help fend off a Boer attack in the morning before the court marshal starts that day. Although that's not why they fight, this should earn them a pardon. In this scene the cuts are sped up, so the disparate shots of men riding their horses firing, men getting gunned down, and various explosions brings out the unpredictable and chaotic nature of battle. One of the most effective scenes is the entrance to the camp being blown off by a fistful of dynamite. It's composed of a mid-shot of the door being blown off, a mid-shot of the Lieutenants diving toward the camera to avoid being blown up, and a long shot from 5 o'clock of the door being blown off. What makes it effective is in the quick sequence we get brief segments of each in that basic rotation, which cuts together well in spite of the angles being totally different because the action is always flying toward the camera. What this Boer attack really brings out is that to end the war Britain is persecuting some of their finest fighters, fighters that allowed them to be competitive in the first place.

I can't provide the context of the other scene without spoiling the end of movie, but it's an incredibly powerful scene set at the top of a hill with the camera tilted upwards so the top half of the screen is the mountains in the distance and a blue and purple sunrise. Morant & Handcock walk into the shot, which holds until they make it to the edge of the field, and lock hands in friendship. After this there are some excellent shots into the rising sun where the people are so dark they could be shadows because she glowing sun is behind them.


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