Breaker Morant
The Criterion Collection // PG // $39.95 // September 22, 2015
Review by Ryan Keefer | posted September 25, 2015
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The Movie:

From a play by Kenneth Ross that Bruce Beresford (Double Jeopardy) helped adapt into a screenplay that he directed, the story that unfolds in Breaker Morant is an interesting and depressing one. Partly because few outside of Beresford' Australia may have been familiar with the story before its 1980 cinematic release, and depressing because it appears to still be happening years later in a variety of countries.

Based on events set during the Boer War in South Africa at the turn of the 20th century, Major J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson, The Great Gatsby) has only one day to prepare a defense in the courts martial of three Australian officers. Lieutenants George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Pitch Black), Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown, Australia) and Harry "Breaker" Morant (Edward Woodward, Hot Fuzz) are charged with murder, with a sentence of death by firing squad, accused of murdering several South African prisoners of war. A British Army officer named Lord Kitchener has ordered the trial, part of a political message that he wants to win the war and is not afraid to try and convict his own officers to do it, while seemingly avoiding crimes committed by more significant officers.

Having not been familiar with some of the existing discussion surrounding Breaker Morant, what intrigued me about some of it was some parallels to similar stories, real or imagined, that it has had in the ‘war film' genre. For example, everyone loves and does not hesitate to quote some of the lines from A Few Good Men when the basic elements of it would seem to be inspired from Breaker Morant. Obviously the circumstances are different, but the decision-making of soldiers or even officers when the decisions being issued by superiors are vague and could easily be misconstrued are possible, so the moral outrage by said superiors has and should be taken with some skepticism when it is used.

From a performance perspective, the leads within the film all contribute solid work. Fitz-Gerald appears to be the youngest and his rube-dom translates well onscreen. In what served as his international debut of sorts, Brown's Handcock is full of passion and charisma, though there would seem to be a sense where he is the protégé to Morant. And in this case, Woodward delivers the goods just fine. Morant had been around the block before the war and is trying to do his part to help win it while fighting it. Alas, that is where the problem lies at a couple of levels for Harry. Sure, there is absolutely a problem in issuing the order to kill, but there is also the right to question the order, which doesn't occur as often as it should.

Breaker Morant asks bold questions of itself and those who see it, questions that are still being asked to some degree now more than a century after the real-life events in the Boer War. The adept part of the film is that going in, knowing the basics about the story, we seem to already know the fate of the characters, but it is what they bring up in the events of the court martial that are more important that the closure.

The Blu-ray:

Criterion has created a 4K resolution transfer for Breaker Morant, and the resulting 1.85:1 widescreen presentation is great. Apparently the film didn't have the best transfer on standard definition in 2008 and on Blu-ray, the exteriors look superb, image detail is surprisingly abundant in facial poring and fabrics. Colors are reproduced faithfully, and film grain is present during viewing of the film. In short, an excellent transfer for this feature.


The monaural track that accompanies the film has also undergone a remastered and it sounds impressive. Gunfire sounds clean and almost possesses a bit of multitrack power to it, dialogue is clean and consistent through the film, and no hissing or mosquito noise to otherwise deter from an impressive listening experience. Quite the good soundtrack from Criterion.


There are a couple of extras that were ported over from the film's 2004 release from Wellspring, starting with a commentary from Beresford that is not bad. He discusses shot selection and how he fit it into the budget, casting inspirations, character backgrounds and how he worked with the actors. There are large stretches where he watches the film but it is a decent complement to it. A interview with Woodward (16:12) is the other extra and it is a little better. He talks about how he got the role and his thoughts on the character, and his trials and tribulations riding a horse. He also talks about how accurate the film was to Morant's life. Beresford contributes a newly recorded interview of his own (12:34) where he covers most of the same ground that the commentary did, but it is a good interview. Brown also contributes a new interview (10:17) covering the questions on casting and his character, and his problems growing a moustache for the film. The film's cinematographer Donald McAlpine is also interviewed (8:28), and he discusses his working process and thoughts on the film's last scene.

Next up is "The Breaker," (54:53), a biographical film by Australian Frank Shields that examines the Boer War and Morant's life. Made in 1973, there are moments of re-enactment but there are also interviews with some people who knew or were familiar with some of the figures in the events and it is an interesting contribution to the disc. "The Myth Exploded" (5:42) is a piece filmed in 2011 where Shields talks about a relevant detail which he omitted from the film. "The South African War" (16:01) provides additional context to the Boer Wars, including detail, impact of and legacy on history and serves as a decent history upbrief. The trailer (2:31) concludes things.

Final Thoughts:

Criterion has done another much-beloved film justice, as the transfer alone makes Breaker Morant double-dipping for anyone who loved the film and/or ever had the standard definition releases through the years. If you have not seen the film, avail yourself and check it out as the performances and storytelling are good, and will draw you in almost immediately.

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