‘Breaker Morant’ Reminds Us That All Wars are Hell

From left, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Bryan Brown, Edward Woodward and Jack Thompson star in the 1980 Australian war film “Breaker Morant.” Photo courtesy of Roadshow Entertainment

By Todd Hill

So maybe you’ve never heard of the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902. That shouldn’t make you feel bad, nor should it stop you from enjoying the 1980 film “Breaker Morant,” set during the conflict and one of the best movies to ever come out of Australia.

If it sounds like too much work, you can always catch up again with “A Few Good Men,” the hit American movie from 1992 on the same subject. No, that flick’s not about the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902, but like “Breaker Morant,” it does concern itself with a military court martial. Plus, you get Tom Cruise.

There are no A-list movie stars in “Breaker Morant.” Frankly, it doesn’t need any.

To fill in the blanks, the Second Anglo-Boer War (the first was in 1880–81, and evidently didn’t accomplish a lot) was, like it sounds, a British campaign, with a number of Australian soldiers involved as well, hence Australia’s interest in the war’s filmic potential. It unfolded within two Boer republics in what is now South Africa, and was essentially a fight over empire. The Boers, who were grim-faced, scruffy, heavily bearded Dutch farmers (at least as depicted here), wanted their freedom and Great Britain, the most powerful nation on Earth at the time, wasn’t about to give it to them. Guess who won?

The Brits were ultimately victorious, but this was a messy affair, with the Boers eventually resorting to guerrilla warfare, which only served to prolong the war and elevate the body count.

You now know more about the backdrop of “Breaker Morant” than I did when I watched the film, and more than you need to, for this wasn’t intended to be a movie about any particular war so much as a dramatization of what war in general can do to a man, a unit of men, an entire society.

On trial for the killing of a group of Boers (instead of taking them prisoner), as well as a German missionary who was friendly with the Boers, are three officers of the Bushveldt Carbineers. The penalty, should they be found guilty, is death. The officers are Australian, while those overseeing the court martial are British. The film’s director, Bruce Beresford, has always been adamant that “Breaker Morant” is not about Mother England sticking it to the colonials, although it’s probably fair to say a big reason the movie is popular Down Under is because of that very interpretation.

I’m not spoiling anything by stating here that the officers are guilty of the killings. Their guilt is never in much doubt. Their defender, a seemingly awkward but in fact quite sharp Aussie major, played by Jack Thompson, instead takes a different approach when he states, “The tragedy of war is that horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations — situations in which the ebb and flow of everyday life have departed, and have been replaced by a constant round of fear and anger, blood and death. Civilian laws cannot be applied here.”

Essentially, the three Carbineers — Lt. Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward), renowned for breaking horses; Lt. Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown); and Lt. George Ramsdale Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) — are found guilty of shooting back at people who shot at them first. Civilian laws are applied, and Morant and Handcock are put to death by firing squad, while Witton goes on to serve a few years of a life sentence.

It’s a true story, although Boer War scholars have found this big-screen account to be full of holes. That’s a largely pointless exercise, however. “Breaker Morant” is a movie, movies take liberties, and any liberties taken here are sure to go unnoticed by everyone but a handful of Boer War scholars. So maybe Morant and Handcock were executed in a prison courtyard and not out on the windswept Transvaal Veldt at dawn. Maybe Morant’s last words weren’t, “Shoot straight, you bastards, don’t make a mess of it!” That’s a small price to pay for one of the best final scenes in all of Australian cinema.

All of the principal actors are more than competent, although they’re likely not recognizable to American audiences, certainly not today. The greatest accomplishment of “Breaker Morant,” however, is its screenplay.

The film avoids much in the way of exposition during its early minutes, trusting the audience to put the pieces together on its own time, a process that would undoubtedly be easier if the frequent flashbacks were sequential. Normally, this is no way to craft a motion picture, but respecting an audience’s intelligence generally pays dividends, and does here as well. And honestly, the flashbacks — to the violence in the field, as recounted by witnesses at the court martial proceeding — nicely break up what could otherwise be a dusty expose of military justice, or the lack thereof.

Upon its release in the U.S., “Breaker Morant” essentially passed unnoticed, and that’s putting it mildly. It stayed in theaters for only a week, and didn’t make its money back until many years later, when its stature and reputation, remarkably, had grown.

At least in America, this was because cinephiles perceived parallels here to the Vietnam War’s My Lai Massacre. Filmmakers, along with anyone who creates art, have no claim on how their works will be perceived once sent out into the world. Still, Beresford and others who worked on “Breaker Morant” have repeatedly stressed that this was Australia’s story and had nothing to do with Vietnam.

Instead, they should take credit for crafting a lasting film that speaks to the absurdity of war, a condition that has persisted across national borders and throughout the centuries. “Breaker Morant” reminds us that the institutionalization of conflict is the gravest of sins.

Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.

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Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.

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Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.

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