A palpable, and justifiable, air of anger, bewilderment and injustice permeates Bruce Beresford’s Boer War drama, a major entry of the Australian New Wave of the late 70s and early 80s. With an Academy Award-nominated screenplay co-written by Beresford, Jonathan Hardy and David Stevens, a never better Edward Woodward in the title role, and an all-Australian supporting cast including Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown and Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell, Breaker Morant recreates the damning true-life tale of a court martial where military chicanery and international diplomacy doomed the accused before proceedings had even started.
A lieutenant in the Bushveldt Carbineers during the Second Boer War in South Africa, the Anglo-Australian Morant, now a folk hero to many in Australia, was arrested, along with lieutenants Peter Handcock (Brown) and George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), and charged with the murders of six Boer prisoners. Morant and Handcock were also charged with the murder of a German missionary, who witnessed the killings and may, or may not, have been siding with the Boers. Acting under long-standing orders to take no prisoners and also to seek vengeance for the killing and mutilation of their ranking officer Captain Simon Hunt (Terence Donovan), Morant, Handcock and Witton would end up as sacrificial lambs for the greater good of the British Empire. Used as scapegoats to appease the South African and German governments after news of the summary executions by firing squad spread, and to keep the planned peace talks on track, the accused claimed that they were following the direct orders of their superiors, including Lord Kitchener, but their assertions held no sway in what was, ironically, little more than a kangaroo court. Morant and Handcock were executed by firing squad, and Witton, the youngest of the three, was sentenced to life with hard labour.
The larrikinism, earthy mordant humour and loyalty of the trio stand in direct opposition to the handlebar moustaches, repressed emotions, deceitfulness, clipped accents and air of privileged arrogance evinced by the British military leadership throughout Beresford’s expert retelling of the story. Morant, a renaissance man known for his great skill with horses, ballad writing and poetry, Handcock, a simple, working-class soldier and Witton, a naí¯ve, idealistic young man, were thrown to the wolves by the army they had volunteered to join. Presented in a non-linear, episodic fashion, reflective of the disjointed (and patently false) narrative that the British army forced onto the incident, Breaker Morant, shot entirely on location in South Australia, is awash with cutting dialogue, memorable performances and striking imagery.
The winner in 10 categories at the 1980 Australian Film Institute Awards, and including a performance by Thompson as the accused’s lawyer, Major J.F. Thomas, that won him the Best Supporting Actor Award at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, Beresford’s take on the 1978 stage production Breaker Morant: A Play in Two Acts by Kenneth G. Ross is an enduring reminder of a shameful act of betrayal, not just of individuals and colleagues, but of the colonial bonds between Britain and Australia. Morant’s bitingly sarcastic comment that ‘It is customary during a time of war to kill as many of the enemy as possible’ lays bare the hypocrisy, pig-headedness and callous indifference of his superior officers. Thompson indelibly captures the frustration, stoicism and professionalism shown by Thomas in fighting a battle that was already lost, and the climactic hilltop execution of Morant and Handcock, filmed at sunrise in a coincidental but notable reversal of the sunset sacrifice of Woodward’s Sergeant Howie in The Wicker Man, is both gut-wrenching and visually breath-taking. As with much of Breaker Morant, the eschewing of a musical score in the climactic scenes enhances the grip of the emotionally engaging material. Everything you need to see and feel is up there on the screen without the need for aural manipulation.
The corrupting influence of war on all those involved and the heavy price paid by some for their blind allegiance to a cause, the flag they fought for and those in charge of espousing its virtues is thrown into stark relief in Beresford’s anti-war classic. Specific though the narrative may be, it attains a timeless quality made abundantly clear by the contemporary horrors of Abu Ghraib and the distance the US military’s chain of command put between itself and the perpetrators of those crimes committed in the name of the War on Terror.