‘Breaker’ Morant


Bruce Beresford says that by 1980 most Australians had forgotten that their countrymen had fought in the Boer War, and this scathing condemnation of England’s scapegoating of commonwealth volunteers had a big impact. Stars Edward Woodward, Jack Thompson and Bryan Brown front a protest from the past, in one of the most respected Aussie Renaissance features of the late ’70s.

‘Breaker’ Morant
The Criterion Collection 773
1980 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic widescreen / 107 min. / Street Date September 22, 2015 / 39.95
Starring Edward Woodward, Jack Thompson, John Waters, Bryan Brown, Lewis Fitz-Gerald
Cinematography Don McAlpine
Production Design David Copping
Film Editor William S. Anderson
<Written by Bruce Beresford, Jonathan Hardy, David Stevens from a play by Kenneth Ross
Produced by Matt Carroll
Directed by Bruce Beresford

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Bruce Beresford’s ‘Breaker’ Morant is one of the stronger entries in the late ’70s — early ’80s upsurge of quality movies from Australia and New Zealand. Two earlier DVD releases tried to do it justice, and Criterion finally comes through with a definitive disc presentation.

In Apocalypse Now, Captain Willard muses about Vietnam: “Indicting men for murder here is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.” That sentiment is at the center of 1979’s ‘Breaker’ Morant, a true story from the Second Boer War at the turn of the last century. Kenneth Ross’ stage play is transferred to the screen with a clarity that illustrates but does not oversell the issues at stake. If war is hell, military justice is institutionalized murder. Peter Weir’s Gallipolli made a strong case against war policies that waste the lives of fighting troops. ‘Breaker’ Morant sees ordinary soldiers paying with their lives to further political agendas. While conspiring to send three of his own soldiers to a firing squad, England’s Lord Kitchener never doubts the altruism of English colonial policy.

The disorganized war being carried out against the Boers results in a lot of scattered troops reverting to guerilla tactics. Lt. Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant, Lt. Peter Handcock and Lt. George Witton (Edward Woodward, Bryan Brown & Lewis Fitz-Gerald) are court-martialed for the murders of Boer prisoners. The prosecution removes potential defense witnesses by re-assigning them to India, and gives defense attorney Major J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson) a single day to prepare his case. Thomas puts up a good fight, uncovering lies by the prosecution witnesses and showing that the defendants acted in good faith to carry out policies mandated by their superiors. The court dismisses most of the defense’s points. The trial is really only a formality: to keep Germany from entering the war (and cutting off England’s access to the rich gold resources of the Transvaal), the High Command needs good propaganda to promote the efficiency of English military justice.

‘Breaker’ Morant is a sane look at the kind of hypocrisy that can pluck three men out of the chaos of a guerilla war and charge them with violating civilized rules of conflict. Films that criticize the military or suggest injustice in the ranks have been historically rare, mainly because most war pictures are pro-military, even if they’re anti-war. In America, cooperation from the Army is only extended to pre-approved scripts. Films with blatant anti-military themes must do without tanks and airplanes or be filmed in other countries: Attack!, Paths of Glory, Apocalypse Now.

Stanley Kubrick’s fine film Paths of Glory shows the limitations of ’50s liberal filmmaking. Three French WW1 soldiers are unjustly executed for cowardice. They’re pointedly innocent; the Evil French generals make examples of the unlucky three to ‘motivate’ the troops. Star Kirk Douglas is the righteous, outraged defense lawyer. Instead of being pragmatic and quietly blackmailing the generals into doing the right thing, Douglas screams at them and calls them degenerates. The resulting execution resembles a crucifixion.

Paths of Glory’s injustices seem remote, as if the story is happening in 1817, not 1917.  As far as the audience knows, the ‘Evil’ in Paths of Glory is a problem with just those two specific officers. There’s nothing for the viewer to protest against, because army policies are now much more civilized, right? The film was considered courageous for speaking out, but the only risk in making Glory was the unlikelihood of getting it distributed in France. United Artists would never have attempted to distribute a film criticizing the conduct of the American command in the Philippines or China.

‘Breaker’ Morant connects all the dots to give us a logical and unemotional picture of how modern wars are really fought, on the battlefield and at headquarters. The big difference here is that Harry Morant and his two co-defendants are not wholly innocent of the specific charges leveled against them — they did kill the Boers. Morant was convinced the prisoners were responsible for a massacre that claimed the life of their commander, and that the civilian they killed was a Boer spy. Their standing verbal orders are to shoot Boers in British uniforms, and then to shoot all prisoners, because feeding them and attending to their needs is impractical.

The Boer war introduced the term ‘commando,’ which refers to fighters without uniform that use the civilian population as cover. Today the Boer veldt fighters would be lumped under the demonizing term ‘terrorists.’ Morant was part of the Bushveldt Carbineers, a unit given a wide range of discretion to fight the commandos with their own dirty methods. This placed the English command in a tight spot, public relations-wise. The politicians and liberals back home needed to front the lie that the war was being conducted on ‘honorable’ terms, that only the despicable enemy resorted to barbaric means. It’s the same P.R.  problem that was faced by some American troops in Vietnam, when compelled (or ordered) to commit atrocities that the command later decided to downplay. Publicizing ‘unsporting’ conduct gives aid and comfort to the enemy. Criticizing the war means criticizing the troops.

These issues were certainly not new in the Boer War. Improved, rapid communication just made them harder to cover up. We’re told that the Boer war also introduced the modern concentration camp, an invention of the English. Thousands of civilian women and children died in these camps. The negative publicity did much to demonize the English in the minds of Europeans of the first half of the 20th century.

The trial in ‘Breaker’ Morant is a sham. The officers in charge are disturbed by the sterling defense put up by Major Thomas and ignore his sound arguments. They introduce perjured testimony, even from Lord Kitchener’s top aide. It’s also obvious that the Brits are comfortable with the murder trial because the accused are two Australians and one Englishman who has ‘picked up bad habits’ in Australia — the prejudice against colonial troops is pernicious, as was shown in Gallipolli.

The script (by Beresford, Jonathan Hardy and David Stevens) puts across many fine points of detail, such as ‘tame’ Boers singing at an officers’ dinner. The only idealized character is the defense attorney, whose courtroom skills are worthy of Perry Mason, not a country lawyer accustomed to writing wills and land contracts. The flashbacks to the battles and killings are well staged and integrated into the present-tense trial format, and we quickly understand that the defendants acted as good commandos in a dirty war. Harry Morant did fly off the handle when he ordered the prisoners executed, but it was his understanding that he was acting within his orders. Harry is shown as a sensitive Englishman who until the scandal of the trial had hopes of returning to his fiancée. Nicknamed ‘Breaker’ for his renown as a champion horse tamer, Harry also writes poetry.

Peter Handcock is a rougher Australian officer who takes living off the land to heart; on the day that he shoots the civilian spy, he also ‘visits’ two welcoming Boer farmwomen. Young George Witton killed a prisoner in complete self-defense, yet is lumped in with the other two to face possible execution. All he knows is that he was sent off to find honor and glory in the Army, only to end up in this sorry fix.

We know the trial is hopeless after the three prisoners help repel a Boer attack on their own prison compound. According to British Army tradition their bravery could reasonably be rewarded by a pardon, but the court immediately dismisses any such notion.

In the end, the men realize that they have become ‘scapegoats for the Empire.’ Morant even offers the remark, “This is what comes of empire-building, boys.” Alone until the end, Morant and Handcock hold hands in a gesture of solidarity, a moment that’s powerful yet doesn’t overstate the case — these are common men, not Christ on the cross. ‘Breaker’ Morant is an exceptional film because it raises a question that even our media won’t touch: when ordinary soldiers are accused of killings or atrocities on the battlefield or in military prisons, responsibility for their actions rarely rises to the higher ranks where the policies originate, even when top army staffers and civilian administration officials are on the public record condoning the ‘uncivilized’ behavior. ‘Breaker’ Morant is much more relevant now than it was in 1980. The outright lies from distant battlefields are now uncovered in days, not months.

Bryan Brown and Jack Thompson became international stars for a few years after ‘Breaker’ Morant. This is regarded as a career high point for actor Edward Woodward, of UK TV fame and well-remembered films like The Wicker Man. The film is no epic yet it never seems limited by production concerns; its action scenes and historical detail are excellent.

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of ‘Breaker’ Morant finally gives this fine movie an unqualified excellent presentation. Earlier DVD editions came with few extras, but Criterion produce Curtis Tsui has rounded up a 2004 Bruce Beresford commentary, and created new interviews with Beresford, cameraman Donald McAlpine and actor Bryan Brown.

Beresford remembers that getting his production funded was dependent on signing Jack Thompson, and also that the whole film was shot in an area near Adelaide that looked just like photos from South Africa. Bryan Brown has plenty of opinions to offer. He criticizes a fellow actor for giving him advice, and compares Harry Morant to Vietnam’s Lt. William Calley Jr., who he says got a similar bad rap at My Lai. An older interview with Edward Woodward is included as well. Historian Stephen Miller hosts an excellent new featurette piece about the Boer War, a colossal mire of slaughter and concentration camps. It basically happened because the British wanted to annex (steal) South African territory laden with diamonds and gold.

Also present is an okay 52-minute 1973 docu on the real Harry Morant, with an introduction by its director, Frank Shields. Shields comes back in a newer addendum, a sort of confessional offering evidence that Morant and Handcock were not as blameless as they are now seen. Neil Sinyard offers the insert pamphlet essay.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, ‘Breaker’ Morant Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary, interviews old and new, docus on Boer War and Harry Morant; insert pamphlet essay by Neil Sinyard.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 11, 2015

Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson