Tag: Bryan Brown

Breaker Morant (1980)

Breaker Morant (1980)

Complex moral issues are brilliantly explored in this superbly made attack on war and its consequences

Director: Bruce Beresford

Cast: Edward Woodward (Lt Harry “Breaker” Morant), Bryan Brown (Lt Peter Handcock), Lewis Fitz-Gerald (Lt George Ramsdale Witton), Jack Thompson (Major James Francis Thomas), John Waters (Captain Alfred Taylor), Rod Mullinar (Major Charles Bolton), Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell (Lt Colonel Denny), Alan Cassell (Lord Kitchener), Vincent Ball (Colonel Hamilton)

To some the case is still a cause celebre. In 1902, near the end of the Boer War, three Australian officers were put on trial (effectively, but the term didn’t exist) for war crimes – the murders of two German missionaries and the execution of six Boer. Two of them – Captain Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward) and Lt Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) were shot – the third, Lt George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) was sentenced to life (later commuted). But were they guilty or scapegoats? Fighting in a guerrilla unit, ordered to use the same tactics as their Boer opponents, were the men simply taking their blame for decisions made by their (British) superiors?

Beresford’s superb film is far more complex and challenging than a simple polemic. These men are sympathetic, but no martyrs. A defence of “just following orders” sounds queasy in a post-Nuremberg world. The film makes abundantly clear that all three are guilty of the crimes they have been accused off. Ironically, the one charge they are acquitted of (the underhand, unordered murder of a German missionary) is the one Handcock (the trigger man) and Morant (who ordered it) are most deserving of being shot for. But these are still junior officers, taking the fatal blame, while policy makers tut-tut and distance themselves from the consequences of their actions.

What Breaker Morant does, in an intelligent and impassioned way, is attack imperialism, arrogance and the way war twists ordinary men into carrying out deeds they would never have thought themselves capable of. War turns a poet and lover of horses like Morant into an angry, impulsive murderer; a happy-go-lucky chancer like Handcock into an assassin; a decent, naïve man like Witton into a triggerman. This, Beresford’s film argues, is the consequence of military aggression and imperial overreach. It’s impossible not to think of Vietnam, Afghanistan or other wars, where initial intentions are lost in a sea of hit-and-run attacks, mutual brutality and a comfort with the dea that any deed is excused if carried out in service of the conflict.

Breaker Morant manages to pull off a difficult trick. It’s a film about an unfair trial, rigged from the start to product a verdict of guilty, which never whitewashes the accused but always reminds us through flashbacks that they are definitively guilty (but not solely responsible for) the crimes they have been accused of. It asks a challenging question: who should we punish more, the soldier on the ground who commits the crime, or the general miles away who decided on the order of combat that allowed it? It’s a film that argues both are guilty, both corrupted by war. Kitchener (played with a surprising dignity by Alan Cassell) isn’t presented as a monster, but a man who feels sacrificing these men to a firing squad to bring the Boers to the negotiating table is as valid (if regretful) a military tactic as ordering them to charge a machine gun emplacement would have been.

The trial takes up the bulk of the film and is a display of inventive camera-work and editing to present a small location in a constantly dynamic and interesting way. Beresford uses a rich combination of close-up, deep-focus, reaction cutting and fluid cameras to alternately expand and contract the space according to the pressures of the scene. A senior officer gives his oath in extreme close-up, the court blurred behind him, his tense face giving a visual image that defines the fact we know he’s come to lie. Later the opposing counsels conduct an angry exchange with the tribunal in perfect deep focus behind them, never letting us forget who really makes the decisions.

The trial has been set up for the Australians to lose. Their defence counsel, an under-prepared solicitor turned army major with limited trial experience, clutches his notes in the first few minutes of the trial. Major Thomas’ main experience is with wills (“Should come in handy” Handcock drily comments). Nevertheless, Thomas emerges as a brilliant, passionate advocate. It’s a superb performance from Jack Thompson, full of courtroom fireworks but underpinned by both moral outrage but also a suppressed certainty that everything he is doing is in vain. His defence skewers the army’s case in several key places (it certainly swings some of the tribunal, two of whom vote to acquit) but he’s pushing boulders up slippery hills.

Every witness statement is underpinned by flashbacks showing the actions play out more or less as stated. Sure, witnesses lie, absolve themselves and colour the narrative, but on the essentials its true. The accused – apart from the assassination of the missionary – don’t deny their crimes. They also show not a shred of remorse. After all they were just holding up the British way. As the pieces of imperial memorabilia – paintings of Victoria, British flags (including one towering over the men in the field as they eat) and the constant refrain of a military band playing outside during the trial – remind us, while their decisions are their own they are very much part of a wider system (“We’re the scapegoats for Empire” Morant says before he’s shot).

If there is a case for anger, it’s there. These men remain so dedicated to the army, they even volunteer to come out of their prisons to help defend against a Boer attack. Their decisions were their own but the expectations on them were clear. If the Nuremberg Trial had focused on corporals and platoon commanders, while Field Marshals and Ministers were treated as negotiating partners, would that have been justice? The film also makes clear colonial arrogance makes the Australian officers easy sacrifices – a witness at the trial even tries to paint Australians as naturally inclined to violence and indiscipline (before he is dismantled by Thomas).

The film (despite how its remembered by some) makes very little case for them as martyrs. The final sequence of the execution is the only point the film leans into an “epic martyr” angle. Morant and Handcock are shot on a red-sun kissed hill, holding each other’s hands as they march to their final resting place, refusing a blindfold with Morant defiantly shouting at the squad “Don’t make a mess of it!” before being squashed into ill-fitted coffins (in another sign of the film’s dark wit, Handcock comments they haven’t even been measured for these coffins “I shouldn’t think they’ve had any complaints” Morant replies dryily).

It’s that closing sequence that has probably led some to see this as making a case for the men. Far from it. This is a sensational, gripping and intelligent trial drama that manages to both represent injustice and also about make the guilt clear. It’s superbly acted. Woodward is quietly, authoritatively marvellous as a difficult, socially awkward, would-be-marionet with a poetic soul. Brown is charismatic in the film’s flashiest part, Fitz-Gerald quietly disbelieving at what fate has bought him. Breaker Morant bubbles with anger and sadness but makes its target far wider and more challenging. Its target is war and the mentality that leads us to applaud soldiers for what we ask them to do until we are told what they have done. One of the greatest films of the 1980s.

Gods of Egypt (2016)

Just your standard Giant Meets Boy Gets Chased by Female Assassins Riding Giant Worms Story. Really didn’t anyone learn anything from Dune?

Director: Alex Proyas
Cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Horus), Gerard Butler (Set), Geoffrey Rush (Ra), Benton Thwaites (Bek), Chadwick Boseman (Thoth), Elodie Yung (Hathar), Courtenay Eaton (Zaya), Rufus Sewell (Urshu), Bryan Brown (Osiris)

Oh good lord where to begin. It’s not so much that this is a terrible film – although it is. It’s not offensive or unpleasant. It’s just a film that is almost impossible to take seriously whatever. It’s a fat, bloated, overblown mess where the plot makes almost no sense, the design is totally ridiculous, the acting bored or unengaging, and the directing totally lacking any charisma. It’s a film you can only laugh it, except for the fact that it’s so lamentably badly that it’s not even that funny. There is so little joy in the making of this bloated fart of a picture, that even as a joke it falls flat.

As far as I can tell, in a fictionalised ancient Egypt the Gods live among men. Horus’ coronation as the new king is interrupted by his uncle Set who seizes the throne, removes Horus’ eyes and sets about turning the realm into a dictatorship. He has some sort of overall plan but I’m really not sure what it was. Something to do with immortality or something. The film barely cares so neither should you. Set is a baddie. Horus is supposed to be a goodie, I guess, but he is such a humourless, arrogant, cold and (above all) boring God you probably won’t give a toss about him.

The film is a disaster almost from start to finish. In a decision that guarantees giggles every few minutes, the Gods are all 9 feet high, making the humans look like chippy midgets. Poor forced perspective hammers home this ridiculousness every few seconds. If this didn’t make the Gods silly enough, they also have some bizarre metal “battle modes” they transform into, which along with some piss poor special effects makes them look like refugees from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. The colours are bright and primary and the sets all have the sheen of CGI, lacking any substance. The design decisions cross swiftly from daring into dumb. If you ever wanted to see a flying chariot pulled by winged scarabs or to see mix and match female hitmen ride giant worms chasing a giant and his normal sized friend, well hallelujah your day has come, this is the film for you.

The script, such as it is, is a loosely connected series of incoherent events. The acting is simply awful. Coster-Waldau completely lacks the big screen presence to carry the movie, his upper crust arrogance from Game of Thrones here comes across as insufferable and dull. Thwaites comic relief is about as funny as a hernia and his quest to save his true love has all the drama of running to catch a bus. Boseman aims for wisdom and grace but delivers camp and affectation in a truly terrible performance. Butler does at least have a bit of charisma, even though Set is such a poorly defined character he’s impossible to get interested in. Various other actors chip in autopilot performances for the cash. The female characters are little more than props. Geoffrey Rush needs a new agent: seriously how much money does he need?

The biggest problem though is it isn’t quite ridiculous, campy or shite enough to be a camp classic. Instead it’s just boring. It doesn’t have the sort of cosmic sweep or visual splendour to give you something to look at. Instead it’s loud, boring and stinks like animal droppings. That’s the worst thing of all: not even as a camp classic will this be remembered. Simply crap.