Screenplay : Bruce Beresford, Jonathan Hardy, and David Stevens (based on a play by Kenneth Ross)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1980
Stars : Edward Woodward (Lt. Harry Morant), Jack Thompson (Maj. J.F. Thomas), John Waters (Capt. Alfred Taylor), Bryan Brown (Lt. Peter Handcock), Rod Mullinar (Maj. Charles Bolton), Lewis Fitz-Gerald (Lt. George Witton), Charles Tingwell (Lt. Col. Denny), Vincent Ball (Lt. Ian "Johnny" Hamilton), Frank Wilson (Dr. Johnson), Terence Donovan (Capt. Simon Hunt)
The historical event behind Bruce Beresford's stunning military drama "Breaker Morant" is really nothing more than a minor blip in Australian history, but it contains a wealth of understanding of power, politics, war, and human nature in general. It depicts with painful clarity the confusion that ensues when crass politics and civilized morality are introduced to war, and how those in power are willing to sacrifice innocent men if it might further their cause.
The film takes place near the end of the Boer War (1899-1902), which was fought between British forces and the mostly Dutch Boers over control of South Africa. When the film begins, the British forces have taken control of the country, but there are still numerous skirmishes with Boer guerrilla forces composed mostly of non-uniformed farmers. This is the first time England has dealt with such tactics, so they create the Bushveldt Carbineers, a special force meant to deal specifically with guerrilla warfare.
After a controversial episode in which six Boer captives are executed and a German missionary is mysteriously killed, Lord Kitchener (Alan Cassell), the highest-ranking British officer, comes under pressure from Germany who is threatening to enter the war on the Boer side. In order to deflect that pressure, he uses the episode to make scapegoats out of three Australian members of the Bushveldt Carbineers: Lt. Harry Morant (Edward Woodward), Lt. Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown), and Lt. George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald).
Morant, nicknamed "Breaker" for his ability to tame horses, was the leader of the soldiers, after the brutal killing of its previous leader, Capt. Simon Hunt (Terence Donovan), at the hands of the Boers. Dragged in front of a court-martial, the three men are accused of massacring the Boer prisoners as a reprisal for Hunt's death. The attorney for the accused, an inexperienced but determined Australian named Maj. J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson), proves numerous times that the orders to kill the prisoners came from the top, from no less than Lord Kitchener himself, but to no avail. The three men are made into political pawns, and the trial has nothing whatsoever to do with justice.
Despite the fact that the majority of the film takes place in a courtroom, the theme that comes out strongest in "Breaker Morant" is the ugly, uncontrolled nature of war itself. It shows how terms such as "war crimes," "rules of war," and "civilized warfare" are essentially meaningless -- war is, in and of itself, ruthless and lawless. It's hard to forget Martin Sheen's infamous line in "Apocalypse Now" -- "Charging a man with murder in this place is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500."
Of course, he was referring to the situation in Vietnam, but it is still applicable to "Breaker Morant." As a matter of fact, it will be hard for anyone -- especially Americans -- to watch this film without relating it to Vietnam. The scenario in the Boer War was essentially the same: a superior force in both numbers and technology being systematically defeated by a small group of guerrilla fighters. Several times during "Breaker Morant," characters refer to the fact that they are essentially fighting farmers, women, and children, and it's sometimes difficult to tell who is the enemy and who is not.
And that is what makes this kind of warfare, new to the British army, so difficult. As one character points out during the court-martial, the point of war is to kill as many of the enemy as possible, which is exactly what the three Australians did. But, because it was politically advantageous to make them scapegoats, the context of their actions had no meaning. It has only been in recent years, with the advent of technology and refined manners, that man has been silly enough to conceive of the notion of established rules for killing the enemy. And "Breaker Morant" makes the point that those human-mandated rules are inherently flexible, but only so that they serve those in power.
The irony is never so thick as during a scene in the middle of the film when the Boers attack the fort where the men are being held and court-martialed. Soldiers release them from their cells, hand them guns, and order them to kill the attacking Boers. When the skirmish is over, they are put back in their cells, and in the next scene we see them back in the court being tried for killing. This episode shows how ridiculous it is to try these men for "murder" when their job is to kill.
The film was directed by Bruce Beresford, who along with Peter Weir, Philip Noyce, and Nicolas Roeg, was an integral part of the Australian film renaissance of the seventies and early eighties. Beresford was unknown in America before "Breaker Morant," but once it was released his name was assured. His screenplay, co-written with Jonathan Hardy and David Stevens from Kenneth Ross' play, was nominated for an Oscar, and the film swept the Australian Academy Awards. Beresford then went on to America to direct such classics as "Tender Mercies" (1983) and "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989).
In "Breaker Morant," Beresford brings tension to the courtroom proceedings, and he takes time to allow his outstanding actors to etch each of the major characters into memorable humans. Morant's hard-nosed honor and refusal to be broken, Handcock's caustic sarcasm and sly wit, and Witton's youthful fear of early death are all aspects that emerge both in the courtroom and during flashbacks of the actual events. Beresford does a fine job of pacing the film, allowing bits and pieces of the story to emerge as the film unfolds, but never allowing it to bog down into overly melodramatic courtroom antics.
"Breaker Morant" represents what is best in cinema. It tells a gripping story about believable characters in a well-established time and place, while also probing recognizable themes that are essentially timeless. As long as human live on earth, there will probably be war, and "Breaker Morant" makes it clear that war always has been and always will be an ugly matter that cannot be dealt with in civilized terms. The physical battles of war may kill men on the battlefield, but it is the backroom politics that often make casualties of honorable men who were simply following orders.
©1998 James Kendrick