'Breaker' Morant is a disturbing example of the adage "the more things change, the more they stay the same." Though this eloquent and thought-provoking drama (based on real events) is ostensibly about supposed atrocities (at least according to the British accusers) committed during the Boer War of over a century ago, shadows of more recent atrocities (e.g., Abu Ghraib) will hang over any viewer even slightly aware of today's world events.
Though the Boer War is perhaps little remembered nowadays (other than through this film itself), it was a complex and ultimately futile struggle for Britain in its seemingly unstoppable empire building mode--unstoppable, that is, until it came up against a new kind of warfare featuring Commandos (a Boer word) and guerrilla tactics that the organized British armies had never before experienced. Several republics in South Africa (notably the Transvaal and Orange Free State), largely settled by the Dutch, did not take kindly to Britain's sudden claims of ownership once gold and diamonds were discovered. Until the riches of the inlands had been unearthed, Britain had assumed that its coastal colonies would always maintain the upper hand economically in the African subcontinent, and had concerned themselves little with states further to the north.
The film, based on a play, deals largely with the court-martial surrounding 'Breaker' Morant (he received his nickname due to his ability to break wild horses), played in an admirable performance by Edward Woodward, and two of his underlings, essayed by Bryan Brown and Lewis Fitz-Gerald, both giving equally excellent performances. The three soldiers had shot some Boer insurgents whom they had briefly taken as prisoners, and later a German missionary they were certain was collaborating with the enemy, without going through "accepted" military channels, though they argued they had been given the verbal go-ahead by none other than Lord Kitchener himself. However superb this trio is (and they all have never been better), the acting honors here go largely to Jack Thompson, as Defense Attorney Maj. J.F. Thomas, a character with no previous courts-martial under his belt, and actually no real trial experience. Thompson does an amazing job of showing the quick evolution from a somewhat bumbling counselor to an outraged and belligerent advocate for these three soldiers whom he feels are being scapegoated in order to facilitate a peace agreement from the Boers.
There's little doubt of where director Bruce Beresford's sympathies lie in this film, but he does do a relatively objective job of at least showing Morant's impetuous behavior, as well as (perhaps more predictably) some of the more questionable elements of the British involvement in this conflict to begin with. There's a palpable distaste of the British running not very far beneath the surface of this film, perhaps borne of the longstanding resentments between Australia (Beresford's birthplace and the country of the forces being court-martialed in a British trial) and England.
Beresford also wisely opens up the proceedings, with frequent flashbacks giving context not only of the shootings, but also the backgrounds of the three accused. As with all of Beresford's best work, there's a fine recreation of time and culture, with some beautiful location shots helping to alleviate the claustrophobia of the court-martial proceedings.
Though the actual facts of this sad debacle are perhaps more ambivalent than Beresford's presentation of them here, 'Breaker' Morant is an apt meditation on the abuses of power, both individually and politically, and is a riveting examination of those who insist they were "just following orders."