Breaker Morant Review

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by Chris McEneany Feb 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM

    Breaker Morant Review
    “The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men. The tragedy of war is that these horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations.”

    First of all ... a little story. Since my father is a military historian and devout collector of antique militaria, I grew up in an environment that was steeped in history, rife with artefacts - from muskets and Zulu shields to the propeller from a Luftwaffe aircraft and more bayonets than you could point a stick at - and was unavoidably schooled in the fact and fallacy of battles in Ancient, Napoleonic, Victorian, Colonial and World War varieties. And, hey, I loved it all. I lived in a veritable museum and my dreams were filled with derring-do and gallant last stands against waves of Zulus. The movies naturally played a huge part in all of this, with my father normally pointing out the gaffs of a wrong button here, an in-authentic rifle or tunic there, but we would always go to the flicks to see the latest attempt that Hollywood made to transport us back to the eras that my dad dreamt, wrote and lectured about. Zulu Dawn - still one of favourite movies - had recently done the rounds and had literally blown me away with its unbelievably accurate depiction of the Battle Of Islandlwhana, and then Breaker Morant came along and my dad couldn't wait to go see it. Naturally, I couldn't wait either. But, despite all of his inspiring homespun lectures of heroism and stalwart bravado his tales of the Boer War had always fallen on deaf ears and, thus, I had no real idea about what this would be about. He may have given me the gist of the true life story upon which the film is based on the way to the flicks but all I heard was South Africa ... British soldiers ... battles and, to me, that meant Zulus. Come on, folks, I was only ten.

    So, imagine my disappointment when not only were there no Zulus to be found and a dearth of battles, but a huge glut of talky courtroom drama had taken their place! Needless to say, I was not impressed and bored absolutely rigid by it. In fact, so blighting was the experience that it had clouded any attempt of my older and more film-savvy self to view the film since ... as patently ridiculous as that must sound. But now I am determined to put my demons behind me and confront the film that once yawned before me like an imagination-devouring cinematic abyss.

    And what a film it turns out to be!

    “Colonials, most of them. Australians.”

    “I understand they've been quite effective, Sir?”

    “Very effective. We've just arrested three of them for shooting Boer prisoners and a German missionary.”

    Telling the story of one of England's most notorious miscarriages of military justice, Breaker Morant hits out not only at the closing-ranks of a scapegoat-seeking authority, but also at the conventions of the war movie, itself. We are in the throes of a war that seemed ridiculous and unnecessary even to those that were fighting it at the time. Professional soldiers and colonial adventurers fighting farmers, their sons, wives and daughters for what amounted to no less than pride was hardly the height of Imperial glory no matter how the starched politicians of the day described it. The term “commando” was created during this conflict, because the Boers, Dutch land-tillers who sought a new life in the Transvaal, fought the British via guerrilla warfare - hit and run raids, no uniforms, living off the land and striking behind enemy lines etc - and to combat this, Lord Kitchener passed on orders that a special unit called the Bushveldt Carbineers, incorporating the wild card of Australian volunteers and English ex-pat cavaliers, be formed who could act in the same unconventional manner and work extensively in Boer country and operate outside of the usual military remit. In short, this meant that the unwritten rule, as authorised by Kitchener himself, was that no Boer prisoners should be kept - which, naturally, meant that commanders in the field could justifiably execute any member of the enemy they caught. But this doctrine would come under extreme scrutiny when it seemed that Germany, who sympathised with the Boers (purely because they want the chance to mine for silver and tin on their lands, but that's another story), may enter the war on the Dutch side. Thus, in a completely bogus attempt to foster peace negotiations, the British hierarchy hatch a plan that will sacrifice a trio of their own men for simply following orders to show the Boers and, more importantly, Germany, that they will not tolerate such un-gentlemanly behaviour amongst their ranks. So it turns that Lt. Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward), Lt. Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) and Lt. George Ramsdale Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) will stand trial for the murder of several Boers and a German missionary. The whole world, it seems, wants them to face a similar firing squad to the ones that they, themselves, officiated in the field out far beyond the usual command structure of the army. All three, though particularly Breaker Morant (so named after his God-given ability to break horses) realise very quickly that they are in a no-win situation. Having discovered the horribly mutilated body of their commanding officer, Captain Hunt (Terence Donavan), after a failed ambush of a notorious Boer unit, Brit-born poet-warrior Morant goes hell-for-leather to catch the fleeing offenders. Leading his patrol out after them, the very orders to kill the captured that he has, thus far, despised and ignored, he bring into practice, wreaking fearful vengeance on all the enemy soldiers that fall into his hands. Yet, no matter what the long-standing orders of the field are, or the intense provocation that he and some of his men feel about the ghastly loss of their commander, the British High Command want an example made of them and some form of back-handed appeasement with the Boer.

    Morant and his two pals are caught between a rock and a hard place ... and they know it.

    Assigned to defend them in the court martial is severely wet-behind-the-ears small-town Aussie lawyer Maj. J.F. Thomas (a great performance from Jack Thompson) whose very naiveté may just prove to be the right ingredient to help them out of the sticky, foregone-conclusion scenario that has closed in on them. The events that lead the trio to the brink of execution are craftily revealed to us in flashbacks that punctuate the nastily stone-walled court proceedings, acclaimed director Bruce (Driving Miss Daisy) Beresford keeping the story cajoled with snippets of garrison-life, frontier-skirmishing and NCO banter amongst the picket-posts and tents. The actual events that have led to the three's arrest are startlingly savage and abrupt, but the point being made is that the blurring of morals and the standard codes of conduct when perpetrating such an offbeat campaign as that which faces these tough outdoorsmen cannot, and should not, be judged by civilian laws. But when the facts are laid out plain and simple, and the Top Brass look like utter shams in the face of any serious legal system, the Army has ways of ensuring that what it wants will still be done. Maj. Thomas won't back down, though, and, winning the admiration and respect from the three men who originally rolled their eyes at his relative inexperience (“Wills? Well, we may have use of those ...”) he makes a determined and profound case for the defence and even bring to book the shameful hypocrisy rife within a military bastion willing to sacrifice its own for a greater goal, even if it means bare-faced lying in court to do so.

    Thus, setting a tone for things such as A Few Good Men, Casualties Of War and Courage Under Fire, Breaker Morant eschews combat and heroism for a depiction of the immense and ever-murky grey area surrounding soldiery and behaviour in times of war. That the three men are actually guilty of these crimes is never actually in question. They make no attempt to deny the charges of executing Boer prisoners. Their crucial defence is that they were acting “under orders” from the Commander-In-Chief, himself ... something that is all-too convenient to dismiss if it doesn't fit the current criteria. This moral quagmire is dealt with unflinchingly, and yet, in something of a pleasant surprise, a witty and anarchic manner, also. When Boers mount a cavalry raid upon the camp in which the three are imprisoned, the guards unlock and arm their prisoners to help repel the attack. When Handcock's defence relies upon his illicit affairs with two married women in the same afternoon, his biased judges look on with a mixture of annoyance that their case may be crumbling and envy at a Colonial's extra-curricular prowess. Witnesses, including Home And Away's Ray Meagher as a shameful Sgt. Major and Chris Haywood's awesomely caricatured and amusing Cpl. Sharp - a complete and utter cockney-Pongo (a thick-squaddie, anti-army jibe that fellow marines will enjoy!) - add plenty of reactionary groundwork, both bigoted and incriminatory and idiot and easily shot-down. My childhood reactions to all this cat-calling and back-stabbing was naturally confused and un-amused. Now, however, I can appreciate the clever and often moving approach that such storytelling can deliver regarding prejudiced finger-pointing and blinkered decision-making. Typically, it took an Australian filmmaker to bring such a serious indictment to the screen and it is, indeed, difficult to imagine a more home-grown director tackling such a tender wound in the otherwise indomitable hide of British military heritage and sticking his accusing fingers in.

    “Do you want the padre?”

    “No, thank you. I'm a pagan.”

    And that's coming from The Wicker Man, himself. Somebody better tell Lord Summerisle that he's made a big mistake.

    Indeed, it is The Wicker Man, himself, who carries the weight of the movie on his shoulders, once more a sacrifice and a scapegoat for a corrupt and unjust establishment. With that super-stern face and swelling sense of self-righteous pride, Woodward brings an enormous dignity to Morant and the sort of subdued ferocity that seems to be his stock in trade. Although a tremendously powerful actor, Woodward is not a particularly versatile one, in my opinion. You can't see him doing comedy, can you? His track record seems festooned with iconic, bitter and gravely cynical individuals. His disgraced assassin Callan, his ex-Secret Service wrong-righter McCall in The Equaliser and even his brief, but great portrayal of the Chief Inspector in Who Dares Wins (love that “Damned if you do, damned if don't,” speech. “Difficult to win,” he delicately tells the SAS about their mission with the calm acceptance of a man who knows everything has already gone to hell in a basket) are all cut from the same cloth. Even the devout Christian Sgt. Howie in The Wicker Man, who is, ironically enough, an authority-stickler to begin with, ends up as the one butting heads with an already established governing class on the pagan island of Summerisle. But his most erudite mouthpiece by far is Harry Morant. Already an astute and incisive man, Breaker has ample time to analyse and decrypt his and his fellows' predicament. So, with his clever brain working overtime, much of the theatrical-sounding pontificating and all-too-clever lines regarding “Empire building” and “New wars for a new century” are actually very realistic for someone who probably even enjoys being in a position where he no longer has to keep his opinions to himself and can justifiably rally against the double-standards and the riotous hypocrisy that has trapped them. Also renowned as a poet, the staunch soldier is able to place their plight within a lyrical and heightened plane and has a penchant for recitation that belies his eye-of-the-storm anger when out tailing Boers over the plains. What surprises most is his affability under the circumstances. Even when operating a machine-gun at an approaching gaggle of dishevelled Boers intent on blowing the stockade up, he affects such a stoically proud expression that you almost expect him to burst out laughing at any minute. This two-tone attitude is unique and something of an acute example of a dying breed in cinematic personas. Hardly a saint, Woodward's Morant is still a noble and heroic warrior, expertly employed to defend a fort almost single-handedly and chase after ferocious bandits across their own territory yet eloquently and passionately voice his and his mates' pitiful and inescapable dilemma without once giving in to the bureaucracy that has hounded them.

    “We're lying? What about them? It's no bloody secret. Our graves were dug the day they arrested us at Fort Edwards.”

    Such a top performance from Edward Woodward anchors the movie, but it is the strong ensemble that supports him that mean the film has considerably greater weight and power. The ever-reliable and supremely likeable Bryan Brown lends Peter Handcock a down-to-earth, grit and sweat and that quintessential roguishness that typifies the frontier Aussie. Check out the scene when the three accused first enter the sparse courtroom and the different approaches that each one adopts - Morant stiff and to attention, as is the young Witton, but Handcock takes his time, gives a laconic salute and slopes off to his chair with a demeanour that is just the right side of military etiquette and just shy of contempt of court. His wonderful moustache, in a world of such twirling hairy handlebars, is something of a character, too. His apparent disregard and utter disdain for the so-called evidence levelled against is forceful and gutter-fought. He is a man's man and if Morant's literal bent eludes him, he more than makes up for with sparkling back-chat and a winning twinkle in his eye. Newcomer Lewis Fitz-Gerald looks similar to the glass-jawed Orlando Bloom, but he makes a great impression as the chivalrous and falsely-optimistic youthful Lt. Witton. He hasn't seen the world as his two mates have, and doesn't know or comprehend the tragic lie that has been perpetrated upon them. Therefore, we see much of his idealism stripped away as the film progresses, leaving him shell-shocked and raw by the end.

    “Why don't you arrest the firing squad? They're the ones who did the actual killing!”

    “They were just following orders.”

    Morant was just following orders.”

    The film gains much from the concerted portrayal of Maj. Thomas' valiant crusader. Jack Thompson does a memorable job of challenging the powers-that-be with a performance that sees his clipped anger surge at the unyielding shores of British Imperial lunacy with a very agreeable degree of vigour and, by contrast, calm character assassination. He has the winning case and he, his defendants, the prosecution and the judges all know it. But this is just a small room in the back of beyond that has become the focal point for several nations ... and, as time wears on, there is only so much holding-out that he can do. In many ways, he becomes the soldier that Morant and Handcock aspire to be - defiant until the end and fearless of the repercussions of his actions - and everything that the British Army is afraid of ... an individual voice.

    “We shot them under Rule 303.”

    The above quotation and its fearfully despotic motivation serves more in line with Catch-22 than say, Order 66 from Revenge Of The Sith, and possibly even comes to denote Room 101 with its dead-end implications for those involved in actually carrying the un-written Rule out. Of course, what it is really referring to is the calibre of the British Lee Enfield Rifle - .303 - in a dark, almost gloating empirical joke. And, surprisingly enough, there is much humour in the film despite its glum setting and sombre theme. The dialogue, from the screenplay from Beresford, Jonathon Hardy and David Stevens, is witty and poignant in equal measure. Based on the stage-play by Kenneth Ross, the film can't always escape the innate theatricality of the tale and the constraints such a vogue foists upon it, but with cinematography from the renowned Donald McAlpine (Moulin Rouge and Narnia) is superb and does, quite often, lift the atmosphere out of the stuffy court and cells and onto the windswept plains of the Transvaal. Yet, ironically enough, given the opportunity for frequent landscape shots and horizons dominated by horsemen, it is actually those very courtroom scenes that are often the most striking. Close-ups are heavily relied upon and there are several focussing on the likes of Bryan Brown in particular that really make a valid visual and emotional impression, his anger and incredulity at the bogus evidence being ladled upon them quite amusing to behold. It is also worth mentioning that a couple of the final scenes are remarkably haunting - the use of a beautiful pink dawn creeping across the calm grass slopes and a terrific high-shot that looks down onto a view of the prison yard, bisected by a the perimeter wall and the fateful activity taking place on the other side of it.

    So, it would appear that my initial reactions to the film were completely unfounded. Then again, this is a film that discusses the darker aspects of war and opts to paint the derring-do of such events in the shadowy twilight of the decidedly un-heroic - hardly something that a ten-year-old, battle-hungry kid would appreciate, despite his father's insistence. So, I am tremendously pleased to have finally made my peace with this film now and can do nothing but recommend it wholeheartedly. Despite its unsavoury subject matter and the seeming desire to throw in an unlikely action set-piece - it's only concession to the genre at large, and something that I'd evidently fallen asleep and missed all those years ago - this is actually a tragic story that is told in a weirdly cheerful manner. Great, thought-provoking stuff.

    The Rundown

    OUT OF
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