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In Francis Coppola's 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 taken up in more detail in 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, Lord Kitchener is assured of the altruism of English colonial policy.
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. A rather poor Fox Lorber DVD has been available since 1997. Image and Castle Hill's new release finally supercedes it.
'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 approved scripts. Films with blatant anti-military themes (Attack!, Paths of Glory, Apocalypse Now) must do without tanks and airplanes or be filmed in other countries.
Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory is a fine film but also an example of the limitations of 50s liberal filmmaking. In it three French WW1 soldiers are unjustly executed for cowardice. They're pointedly innocent; the Evil French generals are exercising their right to 'motivate' the troops by making examples of them. Star Kirk Douglas gets all the juicy dialogue as the righteous, idealistic outraged defense lawyer; instead of quietly double-crossing the generals into doing the right thing (that would be dishonest), Douglas screams at them and calls them degenerates. The trio of luckless soldiers is dispatched in a scene that resembles a crucifixion.
Paths of Glory's injustices seem remote, as if the story is happening in 1817, not 1917. There's nothing for the viewer to protest against, because everyone 'knows' that army policies are now much more civilized, right? The film was considered courageous for speaking out, when the only risk in making Glory was limited to getting distribution in France. Nobody in America cared if the French were slandered. Kubrick & United Artists would never have attempted to distribute a film criticizing the conduct of American troops in the Philippines or China.
'Breaker' Morant connects the dots, giving us a logical and unemotional picture of how modern wars are really fought, on the battlefield and at home. The big difference here is that Harry Morant and his two co-defendants are not innocent of the specific charges leveled against them -- they did kill the prisoners. 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 were to shoot Boers in British uniforms, and then to shoot all prisoners, because attending and feeding them was 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 Carbiniers, 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 were fed the lie that the war was being conducted on 'honorable' terms; only the enemy resorted to barbaric means. It's the same public relations problem faced by some American troops in Vietnam, when compelled (or ordered) to commit atrocities that the command needs 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 as pernicious as 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 used 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. 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 hopelessly rigged 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." Accused and alone, Morant and Handcock hold hands in a gesture of solidarity, a moment that's powerful because it doesn't rely on the liberal filmmaking crutch of emotionalism -- 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 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.
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.
Image and Castle Hill's DVD of 'Breaker' Morant finally presents this fine picture in a quality home video presentation. The 1:78 enhanced transfer looks splendid, with Don McAlpine's dramatic lighting giving the rough-riding heroes a chiseled look not seen since The Wild Bunch. The wide screen framing also restores the film's handsome compositions.
Besides an original radio spot, the disc offers an extra called The Boer War. Although it goes into fine detail on the conduct and campaigns of the Second Boer War, the docu appears to be only part one of a series, and ends with the war only half over! I assume that England won?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
'Breaker' Morant rates:
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