Fighting as volunteers for the British in the South African Boer War of 1901, three Australian anti-guerrilla troops are brought up on trial for their lives, courts-martialed for the murders of Boer prisoners and a German cleric. Lord Kitchener arranges a trial that is a simple formality: the three are to be executed to curry favor for the brass and to appease political interests ... the Kaiser is related to Queen Victoria, after all. Lieutenant Harry Morant (Edward Woodward) is a serious and well-respected officer known as 'breaker' for his superior horsemanship. Lieutenant Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) is a rough-hewn soldier who joined the army to find employment. And young Lieutenant George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) is just beginning to get some experience when arrested; he fervently believes in fighting to help keep the Empire together. Their defender is Major J. F. Thomas (Jack Thompson), who is given less than a day to prepare their case. But what matter? The outcome of the trial seems already predetermined, and Thomas is further hampered by the fact that the three do indeed seem to be hiding some of the details of the events that led to their arrest.
There are plenty of anti-war films, like Oh! What a Lovely War!, which hammer away at their target long after the point has been made. Back in 1930, All Quiet on the Western Front was desperately needed just as public education; it's a founding pillar of the noble genre of films that actually help to form public consciousness and policy over controversial issues. This year's Traffic certainly belongs to this group. Breaker Morant is a less-strident variation on the anti-Army Paths of Glory, which in 1958 boldly assailed the honor of the French Army by dramatizing what is never officially admitted: In wartime, those that give the orders sometimes callously 'murder' the men under their command, whether by sending them to meaningless certain death, or hypocritically condemning them after the fact, to cover up military blunders.
Kubrick's film was so forceful, it overcame a Stanley Kramer-ish liberal undertow, the kind that says, "I'm standing up strong and firm against injustice", when the injustice involved happened fifty years in the past. Bruce Beresford's simple and direct movie lays out the plain facts, that the flags for which soldiers risk their lives (sometimes gallantly, sometimes not) are not immune from class barriers and national prejudice. These three are condemned not so much for any crime, but because it is convenient for a military machinery that sees them as expendable. What gives Breaker Morant depth beyond whining about injustice are the details. Morant and his men aren't idealists who expect fair play all around. And they have no illusions about the war, in which England is putting down a rebellion not out of principle but to retain the rich mineral rights of the Transvaal. They are also guerilla soldiers following orders and creating their own to deal with a ruthless enemy in a dirty war. In such circumstances, the routine savagery that goes on makes the courts-martial, with its prim illusion of orderly, honorable combat, a farce. Breaker Morant goes so far as to imply that the three (or at least one of them) are indeed guilty of the specific charges they face. And the point is military hypocrisy. Prosecuting someone for murder in the midst of a no-rules guerilla war is an ugly joke. The film has special value because it implies a larger picture. It's not limited to a couple of corrupt generals, as in Paths of Glory, but about Armies and war itself - the lie that war and combat can be in any way clean and morally tidy - from anyone's point of view.
The four leads are riveting, especially Woodward, who genre fans will remember well from The Wicker Man, due out this summer from Anchor Bay, incidentally. Bryan Brown went on to fame in the two FX movies, and Jack Thompson has remained a familiar face as well. Breaker Morant has been opened just enough to disguise the fact that it is a filmed play, but the performances do not seem to suffer. The improvised, anything-goes aspect of the guerilla fighting scenes contrast well with the trial material, where the stuffy English Lords have the privilege to define what is true and what is not.
Most people remember the film for its harrowing conclusion, which Savant is happy to say still has a maximum impact. The sentences given the three carabiniers, and the way they receive them, are hard to shake off. Set exactly 100 years ago, the events of Breaker Morant still seem to be happening.
The DVD of Breaker Morant is a better than average disc from Fox Lorber, which has an enviable stable of foreign film but not always the best prints. Letterboxed at 1:85, this already looks far better than the flat eyesores that showed up on cable channels. But the picture looks neither like a new transfer nor from the best of elements. Just the same, the glaring dawns around the stockade and the dim trial interiors fare very well. With the exception of some of the battle action, this isn't the kind of movie one watches to see breathtaking scenery.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Breaker Morant rates:
Packaging: Mysterious "push here" yin-yang case
Reviewed: March 13, 2001