During the Boer War, three Australian lieutenants are on trial for shooting Boer prisoners. Though they acted under orders, they are being used as scapegoats by the General Staff, who hopes to distance themselves from the irregular practices of the war. The trial does not progress as smoothly as expected by the General Staff, as the defence puts up a strong fight in the courtroom.
Edward Woodward ... Lt. Harry 'Breaker' Morant
Jack Thompson ... Maj. J.F. Thomas
John Waters ... Capt. Alfred Taylor
Bryan Brown ... Lt. Peter Handcock
Charles 'Bud' Tingwell ... Lt. Col. Denny (as Charles Tingwell)
Terence Donovan ... Capt. Simon Hunt
Vincent Ball ... Col. Ian 'Johnny' Hamilton
Ray Meagher ... Sgt. Maj. Drummond
Chris Haywood ... Cpl. Sharp
Russell Kiefel ... Christiaan Botha
Lewis Fitz-Gerald ... Lt. George Ramsdale Witton
Rod Mullinar ... Maj. Charles Bolton
Alan Cassell ... Lord Horatio Kitchener
Rob Steele ... Capt. Robertson
Chris Smith ... Sgt. Cameron
After first encountering "Breaker" Morant during a bout of insomnia in 1984 on cable, I have repeatedly come back to this film as one of my all-time classics--covering war, politics, tactics, transitions to manhood involved in all wars--and injustice.
Although set during the Boer War, the account of three officers tried for murder during a war in which the opponents were dressed as civilians has its obvious parallels to the 21st Century. It is absolutely amazing how similar a court marshal can be out on the "velt" of South Africa, in Washington, D.C., or during a purely uniformed war in which all protagonists are easily identifiable.
Three Australian volunteers for the "Bushvelt Carbineers", recruited to fight against civilian-clad commandos (reportedly the first use of the term), find themselves charged with murder, and set as an example by the British in order to prevent Germany from entering the war on the side of the Boer (Dutch) inhabitants of South Africa. In one incredulous encounter between a British officer and Lord Kitchener, the officer spouts the British line "they lack our altruism" (referring to German interests in the gold and silver mines of South Africa), to which Lord Kitchener grudgingly responds, "Quite." A sham trial from start to finish, the Australians are defended by military attorney with experience in "land conveyancing and wills" to which one of those charged, "the latter might come in handy." The film is replete with irony and tragicomic circumstances, as this "new war for a new century" presages many of the conflicts that would come later in the 20th century, and many of the clear paradoxes and trying aspects of the war against terror--again, in which one side is not uniformed, does not conduct war according to any known "rules" of "civilized warfare" (an oxymoron if ever there was one). It has lost none of its cutting edge in the 25-odd years since its release.
"'Breaker' Morant" is based on true events, and deals with the court-martial of three subalterns during the closing stages of the Second Boer War (1899-1902). The officers are members of a mostly Australian unit called the Bushveldt Carbineers, created to fight the Boer commandos (in the original sense of the word) by employing their own tactics against them. The charges against them are that they committed murder by summarily executing captured Boers. That they have done so in not in question, but in their defence they argue that they were acting in accordance with standing orders, not least because the operational nature of the Carbineers would be hampered by having to keep prisoners under guard. The British command is keen to distance itself from this claim for various reasons; it might galvanise Boer resistance, and give Germany an excuse to provide material support to the Boers (thus extending a war which was already a serious drain on the British Empire's resources), and (though this is left unsaid in the film) cause discontent about the conduct of the war in those parts of the Empire supplying the manpower for the war, i.e. Britain, Australia and Canada. Instead, the British command clearly wishes to portray the three protagonists as "rogue elements" and sacrifice them for the sake of political expediency.
"'Breaker' Morant" is about injustice, hypocrisy and incomprehension. The injustice is not that lieutenants Morant, Hancock and Witton are innocent of the charges brought against them--they're not. The Second Convention of The Hague may have been only two years old at the time, but the custom of not killing prisoners was well-established long before, and at no point do we see any of the protagonists object to the standing orders. The injustice lies in the fact that the body which is trying them for their crimes--the British army--is the very body which ordered them to commit these crimes in the first place.
The incomprehension is that of the home front; in a brief flashback of Witton's relatives giving a going-away party, we see the expectation among the civilians that "our boys will knock 'em for six" but behave like gentlemen while doing so. Brief as the scene is, it is plain that the civilians understand only in the most abstract way, if they understand at all, that war is a messy business in which winning requires killing people in unpleasant ways. As Major Thomas, the protagonists' defence counsel, comments, "The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men. The tragedy of war is that these horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations." While I can agree with this observation, it does not alter the fact that the acts committed by the protagonists were of such a nature as to be have been formally outlawed, even within the context of war, two years previously.
Another trope, which occurs in this film but repeated in every war of the 20th century, is that "only a combat soldier can judge another combat soldier." As it happens, I am a former soldier (who never saw combat) who later helped prosecute war criminals while a civilian; I think this line is unadulterated bullsh*t. That said, this opinion comes with a caveat, which is that those civilians and non-combat soldiers who would pass judgement should understand that expecting soldiers to both fight cleanly and to win may be (and often are) mutually exclusive.
Of course, standards have changed somewhat since 1901; when Morant remarks "it's a new kind of war, George; it's a new war for a new century," the difference he indicates is that it is the first time white men visit atrocities upon each other which both had been quite content to inflict upon non-whites for most of the previous century. At one point in the film, Lt. Hancock pulls a dum-dum round from a Boer's ammunition pouch as an indication of the Boers' disregard for the laws of war. However, a (somewhat apocryphal) story from the opening stages of the Boer War (not in the film) tells of how the Boers lodged a protest with the British after finding dum-dum rounds in a killed British soldier's ammunition pouch; the British reportedly apologised profusely, explaining that the soldier had been issued these rounds in error, as these were intended only for use against blacks. The Boers accepted this explanation without further complaint.
But however you may feel about the politics underlying this film, it is a joy to watch. The quality of the production values is top notch, and had I not been familiar with Edward Woodward and Bryan Brown, I could have believed this film was made this year, rather than in 1980. The directing and acting are also superb. At the heart of this is the script, which carried no dead weight of unnecessary scenes; likely, this is due to the fact that it was originally written (and written well) for the stage. The story might easily be transposed to any number of conflicts since the Second Boer War in which military victory demands taking nasty measures; it could easily be rewritten to Iraq in 2003 ("Well, Peter, this is what comes of empire-building."), and for that reason it deserves more recognition than it's received. Magnificent; see it ASAP.
We don't see very many films or dramas on the history channel here in Britain . I know the American version shows them because American reviewers have mentioned this on this very website , but I'm not very keen on this happening over here because before you know it we might be seeing THE GREEN BERETS , BRAVEHEART and WE WERE SOLDIERS appearing on the channel , poor movies and poor history to boot in my opinion . At the weekend we were treated to BREAKER MORANT . As I said I'm not keen on the history channel transmitting feature films but I'll forgive them this time because it's a very good movie and very good history .
BREAKER MORANT is the dramatisation of a real life incident during the Boer war , the first " dirty war " of the 20th century , where three Australian officers Harry Morant , John Handcock and George Witton are on trial for their lives for the murder of boer POWs and of a German missionary . What I love about this film is that unlike a lot of other movies with an anti-war / anti- military injustice agenda is that it shows the difficult situations soldiers will always find themselves in . The men on trial are victims , victims of politics and of a wider picture . With the killing of the missionary Germany wants to intervene in the conflict on the side of the boers , not to protect the noble South African farmers from British aggression but to get their hands on the region's gold and diamond mines . In order to stop this happening the British government needs scapegoats in order to hang and Morant , Witton and Handcock were to be hung out to dry so it's the politicians of the time who are to blame for this miscarriage of justice , not the military , and it'd be interesting to note what people who campaign for pardons for the British soldiers shot for " cowardice " during the first world war make of this tale . The three characters on trial here are victims of a grave injustice but you can't help feeling because they " were only obeying orders " sympathy for them will be in short supply from a modern day perspective . I'm probably correct in saying that anyone who's served in the military can see far more clearly the injustice done than any of the " professional anti-war brigade " . BREAKER MORANT isn't a movie than can be used for anyone's hidden agenda , and for that we should be grateful
It's fairly obvious BREAKER MORANT is based upon a stage play . The central setting is a military court room with much of the story told in flashback . Director Bruce Beresford handles the action scenes very well but in this type of story the most important aspect is the cast and their acting , and the director gets the best out of his cast especially Edward Woodward ( Normally an actor I don't like ) who gives a career best performance and Jack Thompson . My only criticism of the casting is that a couple of actors playing British characters let their Aussie accents slip a little , but I'm nitpicking .
Just to sum up this is a very intelligent story of a dirty war , dirty politics and dirty justice which will appeal to serious historians and former servicemen rather than professional pacifists
* The location of Burra and its surrounding environs was chosen because it resembled the South African veldt, particularly the British Military Camp, Fort Edward and Pietersberg areas of the South African Transvaal where the 1902 Boer War incident occurred.
* "We shot them under Rule 303" is a reference to the.303 calibre rifle gauge.
* Principal photography was delayed due to problems with casting.
* Producer Robert Bruning left the production in February 1979 due to creative differences. His component was bought out by the South Australian Film Corporation.
* Rod Steiger was the early main contender to play Lieutenant Harry "Breaker" Morant and later, Australian actor Terence (Terry) Donovan was highly considered and became the favorite for the part. Donovan had worked with Director Bruce Beresford in the South Australian Film Corporation's earlier 1979 production, "Money Movers" . Terence Donovan was eventually given another part, that of Capt. Simon Hunt, as the lead role went to "Callan" star, Edward Woodward due to a desire to have an international star in the leading role following Alan Bates declining it.
* Other stars that were touted to star in the film in major roles were John Mills, Donald Pleasance, Michael York, Arthur Lowe (of Dad's Army), John Henry and Australian actors John Hargreaves, Ray Barrett and Roger Ward.
SPOILER: During the filming of the final execution scene - as the two men walk to their deaths, Edward Woodward put of his hand towards Bryan Brown, who takes hold of it. This was an unscripted moment improvised on the spot between the two actors - and this was the take used in the finished film. Years later Woodward was shocked to learn that in reality Morant and Handcock had held hands in this exact same fashion.