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After first encountering "Breaker" Morant during a bout of insomnia in
1984 on cable, I have repeatedly come back to this film as one of my
all-time classics--covering war, politics, tactics, transitions to
manhood involved in all wars--and injustice.
Although set during the Boer War, the account of three officers tried for murder during a war in which the opponents were dressed as civilians has its obvious parallels to the 21st Century. It is absolutely amazing how similar a court marshal can be out on the "velt" of South Africa, in Washington, D.C., or during a purely uniformed war in which all protagonists are easily identifiable.
Three Australian volunteers for the "Bushvelt Carbineers", recruited to fight against civilian-clad commandos (reportedly the first use of the term), find themselves charged with murder, and set as an example by the British in order to prevent Germany from entering the war on the side of the Boer (Dutch) inhabitants of South Africa. In one incredulous encounter between a British officer and Lord Kitchener, the officer spouts the British line "they lack our altruism" (referring to German interests in the gold and silver mines of South Africa), to which Lord Kitchener grudgingly responds, "Quite." A sham trial from start to finish, the Australians are defended by military attorney with experience in "land conveyancing and wills" to which one of those charged, "the latter might come in handy." The film is replete with irony and tragicomic circumstances, as this "new war for a new century" presages many of the conflicts that would come later in the 20th century, and many of the clear paradoxes and trying aspects of the war against terror--again, in which one side is not uniformed, does not conduct war according to any known "rules" of "civilized warfare" (an oxymoron if ever there was one). It has lost none of its cutting edge in the 25-odd years since its release.
"'Breaker' Morant" is based on true events, and deals with the
of three subalterns during the closing stages of the Second Boer War
(1899-1902). The officers are members of a mostly Australian unit called
Bushveldt Carbineers, created to fight the Boer commandos (in the original
sense of the word) by employing their own tactics against them. The
against them are that they committed murder by summarily executing
Boers. That they have done so in not in question, but in their defence
argue that they were acting in accordance with standing orders, not least
because the operational nature of the Carbineers would be hampered by
to keep prisoners under guard. The British command is keen to distance
itself from this claim for various reasons; it might galvanise Boer
resistance, and give Germany an excuse to provide material support to the
Boers (thus extending a war which was already a serious drain on the
Empire's resources), and (though this is left unsaid in the film) cause
discontent about the conduct of the war in those parts of the Empire
supplying the manpower for the war, i.e. Britain, Australia and Canada.
Instead, the British command clearly wishes to portray the three
protagonists as "rogue elements" and sacrifice them for the sake of
"'Breaker' Morant" is about injustice, hypocrisy and incomprehension. The injustice is not that lieutenants Morant, Hancock and Witton are innocent of the charges brought against them--they're not. The Second Convention of The Hague may have been only two years old at the time, but the custom of not killing prisoners was well-established long before, and at no point do we see any of the protagonists object to the standing orders. The injustice lies in the fact that the body which is trying them for their crimes--the British army--is the very body which ordered them to commit these crimes in the first place.
The incomprehension is that of the home front; in a brief flashback of Witton's relatives giving a going-away party, we see the expectation among the civilians that "our boys will knock 'em for six" but behave like gentlemen while doing so. Brief as the scene is, it is plain that the civilians understand only in the most abstract way, if they understand at all, that war is a messy business in which winning requires killing people in unpleasant ways. As Major Thomas, the protagonists' defence counsel, comments, "The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men. The tragedy of war is that these horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations." While I can agree with this observation, it does not alter the fact that the acts committed by the protagonists were of such a nature as to be have been formally outlawed, even within the context of war, two years previously.
Another trope, which occurs in this film but repeated in every war of the 20th century, is that "only a combat soldier can judge another combat soldier." As it happens, I am a former soldier (who never saw combat) who later helped prosecute war criminals while a civilian; I think this line is unadulterated bullsh*t. That said, this opinion comes with a caveat, which is that those civilians and non-combat soldiers who would pass judgement should understand that expecting soldiers to both fight cleanly and to win may be (and often are) mutually exclusive.
Of course, standards have changed somewhat since 1901; when Morant remarks "it's a new kind of war, George; it's a new war for a new century," the difference he indicates is that it is the first time white men visit atrocities upon each other which both had been quite content to inflict upon non-whites for most of the previous century. At one point in the film, Lt. Hancock pulls a dum-dum round from a Boer's ammunition pouch as an indication of the Boers' disregard for the laws of war. However, a (somewhat apocryphal) story from the opening stages of the Boer War (not in the film) tells of how the Boers lodged a protest with the British after finding dum-dum rounds in a killed British soldier's ammunition pouch; the British reportedly apologised profusely, explaining that the soldier had been issued these rounds in error, as these were intended only for use against blacks. The Boers accepted this explanation without further complaint.
But however you may feel about the politics underlying this film, it is a joy to watch. The quality of the production values is top notch, and had I not been familiar with Edward Woodward and Bryan Brown, I could have believed this film was made this year, rather than in 1980. The directing and acting are also superb. At the heart of this is the script, which carried no dead weight of unnecessary scenes; likely, this is due to the fact that it was originally written (and written well) for the stage. The story might easily be transposed to any number of conflicts since the Second Boer War in which military victory demands taking nasty measures; it could easily be rewritten to Iraq in 2003 ("Well, Peter, this is what comes of empire-building."), and for that reason it deserves more recognition than it's received. Magnificent; see it ASAP.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut
to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it
The question raised in this film is the same as that raised in the Nuremberg trials following World War II and at the trial of Lt. William Calley during the Vietnam War, namely should a soldier be punished for following orders?
The answer to that question depends not only on what the orders were--that is, were they legitimate orders consistent with the "rules of war"--but also on who is asking the question and why they are asking it. After WWII the Allies asked the question and the reason they asked it was because so many people were horrified by Nazi atrocities and wanted someone to punish. If the Axis powers had somehow won the war they might have tried US President Harry S Truman and others for the atomic bombings of the Japanese cities, or indeed for the fire bombings of Dresden. In Vietnam we asked the question of ourselves during the war because our government and military were being accused both at home and abroad of waging a unjustified war and going against our own value system.
Here the story goes back to the Boer War a hundred years ago in South Africa, as the British command for political reasons puts Lt. Breaker Morant, an Australian soldier fighting with the British forces, and two of his fellow Bushveldt Carbineers on trial for shooting Boer prisoners. Their defense is the same as the Nazi soldiers and that of Lt. Calley: they were just following orders.
The superb direction by Bruce Beresford (from the play by Kenneth Ross) makes us identify with Morant (Edward Woodward), Lt. Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) and the third soldier because we can see that the horrors of war pervert the usual logic of right and wrong so completely that we can appreciate what drove them to do what they did. Jack Thompson, playing defense attorney Major J. F. Thomas, expresses this when he tells the court that war changes us and that therefore the usual rules of conduct no longer apply. Incidentally this film is based on actual events.
Regardless of which side of this very vexing question you come down on, I can promise you will enjoy this outstanding film, winner of 10 Australian Film Institute Awards. In the annuals of war films and courtroom dramas this ranks with the best of them.
This movie shows what a truly hellish thing war can be. Where no rule but rule `3-0-3' exists. A lot of films show war in one slant or another, glorious or horrific. This one just shows it for what it is. A damned horrible mess. Many of the actors are some of Australia's finest and this movie is a credit to their skill and talent. It has simple production values but it is elevated by their acting abilities and the great script. A definite must for those who favor the war genre in films, and a measuring point for those who seek to make a film about war and the people caught up in it.
A war/courtroom drama on a par with The Caine Mutiny. Well written, acted and photographed without a single superfluous scene or conversation.I have watched it several times and it has always held my complete attention and has never failed to evoke pity and sympathy for the common soldier.
"Breaker Morant" is a powerful indictment of colonialism and the extremes to which a government will go to cover its rear end. The characters are brilliantly portrayed, the movie is superbly filmed and the story of the Aussie military unit is a compelling one. The relationships among the soldiers are especially well-presented, and the trial that constitutes the center of the film is not only absorbing but chilling. There are echoes of America's experience in Vietnam, and of the shortcomings of empires other than the British as shown here. In short, it's riveting and well-paced. And the ending, although foreshadowed, isn't given away. It has lessons for our modern world. It's one of my top 10 movies.
It's one of the most delightful experiences to watch a movie you know completely nothing about and it turns out to be one of the best surprises in a long time. This was the case with "Breaker' Morant". I dont even know why I bothered to watch it, since it sounded like a truly boring Australian war movie, but boy was I wrong and consequently glad I DID bother. Some of the acting and the script are truly Oscar-worthy and the photography and camera movements were truly outstanding on many occasions, taking the whole movie onto another level of experience. And not to forget, the poetry recited through the movie is brilliant. I wonder if it truly got published. 8/10
We don't see very many films or dramas on the history channel here in
Britain . I know the American version shows them because American
reviewers have mentioned this on this very website , but I'm not very
keen on this happening over here because before you know it we might be
seeing THE GREEN BERETS , BRAVEHEART and WE WERE SOLDIERS appearing on
the channel , poor movies and poor history to boot in my opinion . At
the weekend we were treated to BREAKER MORANT . As I said I'm not keen
on the history channel transmitting feature films but I'll forgive them
this time because it's a very good movie and very good history .
BREAKER MORANT is the dramatisation of a real life incident during the Boer war , the first " dirty war " of the 20th century , where three Australian officers Harry Morant , John Handcock and George Witton are on trial for their lives for the murder of boer POWs and of a German missionary . What I love about this film is that unlike a lot of other movies with an anti-war / anti- military injustice agenda is that it shows the difficult situations soldiers will always find themselves in . The men on trial are victims , victims of politics and of a wider picture . With the killing of the missionary Germany wants to intervene in the conflict on the side of the boers , not to protect the noble South African farmers from British aggression but to get their hands on the region's gold and diamond mines . In order to stop this happening the British government needs scapegoats in order to hang and Morant , Witton and Handcock were to be hung out to dry so it's the politicians of the time who are to blame for this miscarriage of justice , not the military , and it'd be interesting to note what people who campaign for pardons for the British soldiers shot for " cowardice " during the first world war make of this tale . The three characters on trial here are victims of a grave injustice but you can't help feeling because they " were only obeying orders " sympathy for them will be in short supply from a modern day perspective . I'm probably correct in saying that anyone who's served in the military can see far more clearly the injustice done than any of the " professional anti-war brigade " . BREAKER MORANT isn't a movie than can be used for anyone's hidden agenda , and for that we should be grateful
It's fairly obvious BREAKER MORANT is based upon a stage play . The central setting is a military court room with much of the story told in flashback . Director Bruce Beresford handles the action scenes very well but in this type of story the most important aspect is the cast and their acting , and the director gets the best out of his cast especially Edward Woodward ( Normally an actor I don't like ) who gives a career best performance and Jack Thompson . My only criticism of the casting is that a couple of actors playing British characters let their Aussie accents slip a little , but I'm nitpicking .
Just to sum up this is a very intelligent story of a dirty war , dirty politics and dirty justice which will appeal to serious historians and former servicemen rather than professional pacifists
When I watched this finely acted movie, I wasn't really too knowledgeable about the Boer War so I didn't know how historically accurate the film was. However, from reading the posts, it seems more knowledgeable posters then myself agree that the filmmakers were very authentic in their endeavors. Most pertinently, even though the story is about the General Staff scapgoating the three Australian lieutenants to cover their own practice of ordering Boer prisoners shot, in a war obviously long since concluded, its relevance is timeless and universal as soldiers in all times and places are asked to do things that conflict with their consciences. Breaker Morant shows this very powerfully. 9/10.
Truly great drama based on a real story. The camerawork is simple & not flashy, allowing the great script & magnificent ensemble cast to shine. There isn't one weak acting performance in this film, the standouts being Jack Thompson (in my opinion, his best ever performance)& Woodward in the role of "Breaker" Morant. Gripping drama that has aged well over 23 years. A must see 9/10.
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