Tag: Edward Woodward

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.

Young Winston (1972)

Simon Ward as the Young Winston: episodic but fun look at the early life of the Greatest Briton

Director: Richard Attenborough

Cast: Simon Ward (Winston Churchill), Robert Shaw (Lord Randolph Churchill), Anne Bancroft (Lady Jennie Churchill), John Mills (Lord Kitchener), Jack Hawkins (James Welldon), Ian Holm (George Earle Buckle), Anthony Hopkins (David Lloyd George), Patrick Magee (General Sir Bindon Blood), Edward Woodward (Captain Aylmer Haldane), Pat Heywood (Elizabeth Ann Everest), Laurence Naismith (Lord Salisbury), Basil Dignam (Joseph Chamberlain), Robert Hardy (Headmaster)

Any poll of the Greatest Briton is bound to throw up, near the top, Winston Spencer Churchill. So famous is he, that his surname isn’t even required for Attenborough’s biography of the Great Man – just that name Winston gives you a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get. And you’d be right, because this film gives you a pretty straightforward rundown of Winston Churchill’s early years, in an episodic breakdown that gives us some small insight into what shaped the chap who went on to implore us to “fight them on the beaches”.

Simon Ward is the Young Winston, with Robert Shaw and Anne Bancroft as his parents Lord and Lady Churchill. Lord Randolph is the high-flying MP who throws away his career, catches syphilis, loses his mind and dies aged 37 – all the time disappointed with the son desperate for his approval. Lady Jennie is his loving, supportive but slightly distant mother. Winston himself? A bright lad, but a hopeless academic, struggles at school, needs umpteen attempts to scrap into Sandhurst for a career as a cavalry officer (a dunce’s career in the opinion of Randolph), serves in the Sudan under Kitchener (John Mills) and starts writing books and newspaper articles – because hopeless academic he might be, he’s still gifted with words. A career in Parliament is his dream – helped no end by his escaping captivity during the Boer War, making him a popular hero. 

You can probably tell from that plot summary that this is a somewhat episodic film. Although initially throwing us into a clash in North-West India between the 35th Sikhs regiment and Pashtun rebels – an action during which embedded journalist Churchill wins a mention in dispatches – the film quickly settles into a straight narrative run down of Churchill’s early life, filtered through the great man’s own writings. This makes for an episodic, at times rather dry, box ticking exercise of key moments in his life although it gets enlivened with some decent scenes and some good performances.

The one fact that comes out most strongly from the film is the wretchedly unhappy childhood of Winston himself. A borderline dunce, Churchill is a hopeless student from an early age. His school days are miserable, dispatched to some ghastly boarding school where thrashings from the headmaster (ironically played by later regular – and definitive – Churchill performer Robert Hardy) are handed out as regularly as dollops of gruel. There is a certain emotional impact throughout these scenes, with extensive quotations from the pre-teen Churchill’s letters barely concealing pleas for his parents to visit him (save him) under protestations of his happiness at school.

But this emotional connection doesn’t really last once we get into the adventures of the younger Churchill. This is despite an excellent performance from Simon Ward, who perfectly captures the mood and manner of the more famous older man while splicing in plenty of youthful exuberance and naivete. Ward does a terrific job of holding the film together – so well in fact you are left feeling slightly sorry that he never got a part as good as this ever again. His final speech is a perfect capturing of the speech-making prowess of the young statesman.

The film takes a mixed attitude to Churchill’s parents. It’s very open about the syphilis that afflicted Lord Randolph, and even before that makes clear his career is one governed by rashness and poor judgement. Robert Shaw is excellent as Churchill’s father – a stern taskmaster, constantly disappointed in his dullard, lazy son, but spicing it with enough small moments of affection to make you understand why Churchill worshipped this man whom he surpassed by every measurable factor. Shaw also makes a pre-illness Churchill, sharp, witty and strikingly intelligent: making his later descent into illness and unpredictability all the more affecting. Randolph’s final speech in the House – raddled by syphilis he looks awful and can barely remember his train of thought for longer than a few seconds – is remarkably moving.

The film takes far more of a conventional view of Lady Sarah, presenting her far more as the idealised mother figure she must have been for Churchill. Anne Bancroft is saddled with a rather dull part that never really comes to life, as the more interesting aspects of her colourful life are largely left on the cutting room floor.

Attenborough’s film does try to drill down into the personalities of these three people with a curious device where each character has a scene speaking (direct to the camera) to an unseen journalist asking them questions about themselves and the events around them. This interrogational style looks like a rather dated 1970s innovation today – look how we put the spotlight on these people! – but it does give a chance to see them from another perspective, and give the all-seeing author of the screenplay (Carl Foreman) a chance to ask questions viewers are probably asking. It’s on the nose, but still kind of works, even if the revelations we get barely seem to give us any shocks.

It’s about the only slight moment of invention anyway in a film that is another example of Attenborough’s excellence at marshalling a huge number of actors and locations into something very reassuringly safe and professional that is going to have a long lifespan on Sunday afternoon TV schedules. Young Winston is a decent, enjoyable mini-epic, but it’s not the film for those really wanting to either understand the times or understand the personalities involved.