Breaker Morant (1980) (Directed by Bruce Beresford)
1899-1902. The Boer War. The South African veldt, once overseen by the Dutch East India Company, is now in the tender mercies of Queen Victoria and her successors. Afrikaans farmers (‘Boers’) are grumpy about that, and in rebellion. Lord Kitchener has assumed command, with the command (possibly implicit) to put down the unrest, if necessary very roughly. Where England fought, so did Australia, and in this dirty little war, the Bushveldt Carbineers are at the coalface. Experienced soldier and poetaster Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward) and his men, Lieutenant Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) and Lieutenant George Ramsdale Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) are mopping-up the area. There’s some collateral damage, the kind that obtains in a war where the enemy isn’t in uniform, riding to formation. The three end up before a court-martial, and the trial forms the basis of the film.
Whilst this event at the time became something of a real cause-célèbre, and the film’s deserved success created a myth of martyrdom, as told in the film itself, there is really no heroism on offer. It is pretty clear that the three were guilty as hell, although the provision of natural justice during the trial left something to be desired. In fact, the stirring performance by Jack Thompson as the accused’s bush lawyer (hitherto versed only in wills and conveyancing) easily outstrips the work of any other lawyers in the courtroom, whether they’re from the bush or not. Procedurally-speaking, it wouldn’t even pass muster in that superb forensic legal drama, Newton’s Law.
Woodward and Bryan Brown are fine as the doomed, knowing perpetrators of crimes performed by many and punished as an exception, not a rule. Lewis Fitz-Gerald is aptly sheep-like and callow.
Whilst the supporting roles fall into rather florid, narrow categories of “good,” “bad,” and “neutral,” the piece really rises and falls on Woodward and Thompson, who keep our interest high throughout.
They shot Morant and Handcock at dawn on 27 February 1902. As shown in the film (though there is not universal agreement on this) Morant’s last words were his instruction to the firing squad: “Shoot straight, you bastards! Don’t make a mess of it!”
In the end, Breaker Morant has much to tell us about military life and doings: simple, brutish and short – wending from ennui to terror, and in hindsight, not signifying very much.