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.