Weekend Film Recommendation: Breaker Morant

The 1980 Australian film Breaker Morant is a triumph for Edward Woodward and Bruce Beresford

400px-Break17I conclude my three week tribute to the magnificent Edward Woodward with a recommendation of what is arguably the best movie of Australia’s New Wave: 1980’s Breaker Morant. As the title character in Director Bruce Beresford’s movie, Woodward delivers a performance with such psychic weight and that it will stay in your mind and heart long afterwards.

The story takes place in the waning days of the Boer War, where the battered but still undefeated Dutch guerrillas continue to resist a much larger British force. To face down the remaining renegades and their ungentlemanly military tactics, the British create an unconventional counter-insurgency force called the Bushveldt Carbineers. The Carbineers are mainly colonials, and include the poetry-writing, cynical and heroic Lt. Morant (Woodward), the free-spirited and lusty Lt. Hancock (Bryan Brown), and idealistic junior officer George Witton, who believes in the goodness of The Empire (Lewis Fitz-Gerald). As the film opens, these three Australians are being court-martialled for shooting Boer prisoners. That they committed the act is never in doubt, but they claim they were following orders from the British high command. Meanwhile, because the British see a conviction as essential for facilitating a peace settlement, they deny complicity and stack the proceedings against the defendants in every way possible.

This is the movie that brought Bruce Beresford to the attention of Hollywood, where he later directed Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy. There are a few overly theatrical moments in the film, but overall this is highly accomplished directorial work by Beresford. He also contributed to the superb screenplay, along with Kenneth Ross (who wrote the play), Jonathan Hardy and David Stephens.

Under Beresford’s watchful eye, the entire cast is riveting, including the three actors playing the accused and Jack Thompson as their initially unpromising but ultimately crafty defense counsel. The smaller parts are also well-turned, with not a weak performance anywhere.

Woodward, though British by birth, had a long lasting affinity for Australia and could claim many fans there (including from his music hall tours as a singer) before he made this film. He deservedly expanded that fan base with his bravura performance in Breaker Morant, not just in Australia but world wide. His acting here recalls Michael Kitchen’s style in that he is the most magnetic when he is not speaking. Sadness, pain and well-earned disillusionment are visible in his gestures, his eyes, and his weather-beaten mien. Foreknowledge of doom hangs over his every scene in this film.

Donald McAlpine’s cinematography, with Australia standing in for South Africa, is also a major asset. Shooting in lovely physical terrain, he did everything he could with lenses, filters and exposures to emphasize its bleakness. Lush and colorful outdoor scenes would have otherwise contrasted too much with the downbeat tone of the story.

The film also contains intriguing historical nuggets about the Boer War, the conflict that opened the bloodiest century of military conflict in human history. The war gave us the word “commando” and the term “concentration camp”. The Carbineers were the first special forces unit to employ COIN tactics. And the court-martial portrayed actually happened, although the film is based on a book (“Scapegoats of the Empire”) which told the story entirely from the side of the accused and therefore may not be completely accurate.

Breaker Morant is a devastating, brilliant piece of cinema, a Caine Mutiny of its time and the perfect movie to close out my little three week tribute to the much-missed Edward Woodward.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Too bad, I couldn’t disrespect Mr. Woodward that way. If you don’t want to watch this one check out my prior two recommendations (here and here) in this tribute series.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

30 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Breaker Morant”

  1. This is just such a great piece of movie making. It used to run in pretty heavy rotation on HBO and almost every time I’d catch it channel surfing I’d have to stay and watch a while.

    We caught them…and we shot them…under rule 303!

  2. Thanks for this recommendation, Keith. I’ve never seen this film, but it’s now on my list.

    Speaking of Michael Kitchen, have you seen the 1992 television film “The Guilty”? A beautiful, disturbing piece of work, with several outstanding performances besides Kitchen’s (who is superb). Andrew Tiernan is especially effective and totally scary. I recommend it.

      1. Unman etc. sounds like something I would like, but Netflix infuriatingly doesn’t have it.

        As to “The Guilty”: among the things I love about it, it’s a modern, gritty sort of story where all the moral issues are left decidedly unresolved, and yet its plot depends on the sort of coincidence that underpinned much of Victorian fiction. As someone who finds Victorian fiction more congenial than the fiction of other eras and who also likes to see moral questions not tidily resolved, as they always were in Victorian fiction, I am a perfect storm of an audience for “The Guilty”. I hope you appreciate it as much as I.

  3. Great choice!

    Beresford’s best work often contains “culture clash” themes — aside from Morant and Miss Daisy, there are The Fringe Dwellers, Mister Johnson (with Woodward again excellent in a supporting role), and Black Robe. I can’t comment on his later films, not having seen any.

  4. Dutch guerillas? The Afrikaners – Boers then – have their own language, descended from Dutch, but nobody calls it just a dialect, with its own far from trivial literature. The strong tribal identity has something to do with the fact that they are indeed white Africans with nowhere else to go, unlike the pieds noirs of French Algeria.

    1. The opening of Eugene Marais’ Afrikaans poem Winternag, Winter Night:

      O koud is die windjie en skraal.
      En blink in die dof-ligen kaal,
      So wyd as die Heer se genade,
      Le die velde in sterlig en skade.

      O the small wind is frigid and spare
      and bright in the dim light and bare
      as wide as God’s merciful boon
      the veld lies in starlight and gloom.

      Quite obviously the real thing.

      1. Only farmers? Surely not since the Great Trek of the 1830s, when the Trekboere migrated from the Cape under British rule, to found independent republics in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Boer was very much a political as well as an ethnic, religious and linguistic identity.

        1. You misread me, *Dutch* is the cultural identity they claimed. Indeed, this was central to the war because the British feared Kaiser Wilhelm would use the Dutch provenance of the Boers to justify the sending of German troops.

          1. The Kaiser may have thought so, but did Paul Kruger? Wikipedia has led me to the fascinating nugget that well before the British arrived in 1795, the colonists (of mixed Dutch, Huguenot, and German origin) were in constant dispute with the Dutch East India Company, their nominal suzerain, and had several times declared a republic.

          2. I think the two of you are talking past each other. James is talking about political identity, in which the Boers were clearly not Dutch. Keith is talking about cultural identity and saying that the Boers thought of themselves as Dutch even though though they had created political separation. I can’t offer any evaluation of that claim, but it’s certainly plausible that they would be called Dutch no matter what the political arrangements were.

          3. What does Dutch identity have to do with the Kaiser intervening? The Dutch and the Germans certainly don’t consider themselves one big happy family. Indeed, Afrikaans, like the Nederlands it descends from, is a Low German language, making it a nearer relative to English than to (High) German.

        2. @Herschel: Neither are the Turkomen in any way Turkish, yet the putative connection has been used by irrendentist Turks pursuing the oil of Kirkuk. Any pretext in a storm.

          Without spoiling it with details, the prospect of a German intervention in the war is one of important plot points of the film.

        3. I confess James to not understanding your substantive point or your purpose. In any event, if you find one word in a long review of a film strongly objectionable, by all means ignore it. I hope you would still consider the rest of the review as potentially of value and even moreso watching what is a very fine movie.

  5. Great film, and an excellent introduction to “asymmetric warfare”. It is not clear if Witton was in on the murders, and we are invited to see events through his eyes (IMHO).

    Thomas Pakenham in The Boer War alleges it was making an example of punishment for “indiscipline”, rather than to palliate the scandal of the murder of civilians, that was behind the scapegoating and judicial murders of Morant and Hancock. In fact, the first sounds like a cover-story for the second. A book-length study of the case would be interesting.

  6. This is a great “trial” movie that I used for years as a change of pace in my Trial Evidence course, and yes, even in my Sentencing course; a powerful movie.

  7. An odd fact that gives you a strange shiver of how immediate the past can be – above I referred to Thomas Pakenham’s book The Boer War. I looked up my copy and in a footnote, Pakenham says he interviewed the officer who commanded the firing squad for the execution of Morant and Hancock (which Pakenham spelled Handcock)in June 1970. He still had the cigarette case Hancock had given him before he was led out to his death. “A charming young man” was his recollection (Lieutenant Thompson).

  8. Well, I watched Breaker Morant yesterday and came away with rather mixed feelings. The movie is weak in the way that nearly all films adapted from stage plays are weak: too talky. I thought Woodward was very good indeed. Jack Thompson, as the defending counsel and at times seeming to be the star of the film, was too histrionic for my taste. The really interesting thing to me was the lack of any “Nuremberg” perspective. Obviously the action took place long before Nuremberg, but it seems there was no concept in the film (I have no idea whether there was such a concept abroad in the world in 1901) of an unlawful order. It appeared that if the defense could have established that the defendants were shooting prisoners under an order from a superior officer, that would have exonerated them completely. If ordered to shoot prisoners, A-OK. If not, guilty of murder, which seems not to have been characterized as a war crime, but merely an ordinary one. Was this really the understanding of the rules of war at the time? Anyway, I’m very glad to have watched it.

  9. Breaker Morant is indeed a masterpiece, worthy of serious study in film schools as well as history and political science departments. It certainly prompted considerable revisiting of this event in Australia, and it does seem that the actual circumstances of the murders would probably not justify subsequent claims that Morant and Handcock were innocent martyrs. On the other hand, it’s well-documented that the Boer commandos hardly waged war with clean hands, and (unsurprisingly) the native population suffered most from their depredations.

    1. There is (as there is with many of the myths of Gallipoli) a strong nationalist/ republican sentiment in Australia that paints this as another case of the Australians being the fall guy for the British Empire.

      Which is true, but not the whole story.

      Interesting if the Australians are coming to accept that. It’s too much to hope for, I suspect, for a more complex narrative of Gallipoli to be accepted by Australians, generally.

      (the slaughter, and military incompetence, visited on the Australians at Gallipoli was also visited on British units, and was part of the general British General Staff approach to warfare at the time, and not some suffering that was uniquely Australian in the context of that war. Australians were not worse lambs to the slaughter than other British or colonial troops, but general victims of a military unwillingness to perceive, and adapt to, a radically different military environment. One where a defending army of ‘inferior’ Turkish/Asian soldiers could defeat a ‘western’ attacker by using machine guns and barbed wire. Parenthetically, the Turkish soldiers in Korea were some of the best on the UN side, so the stereotype was probably wrong in any case).

  10. The film can also be seen as a strong allegory to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war, as part of another empire, the American one.

    That it is based on real historical incidents, and that the Bushvelt Cavaliers did perpetrate atrocities (in the broader context of Kitchener creating the first concentration camps– imprisoning Boer women and families, with a very high death rate– such relocation strategies were again used by the British Empire in Kenya and Malaya post WW2), makes the film all the more interesting.

  11. One of the interesting points of the film (apparently true) is that the appointed defender was a former property lawyer, a provincial Australian with no court room experience. The British thought he would provide no resistance, but in fact he made a very strong case in court.

    He wrote a book about the whole thing afterwards, I believe.

  12. One small moment in this film has always stuck in my mind as a kind of digest of a central aspect of the film. A long time since I’ve seen it and I remember the lines more than the setup, but as I recall it, Kitchener and his aide are discussing how to deal with various officers and Kitchener (I think) remarks about one that he’s Irish; the aide says, with just enough emphasis, “_Anglo_-Irish.” A key aspect of English ethnic and power relations, and colonialism, in the blink of an eye.

    This isn’t original, but I do think this movie in particular, and the New Wave in general, have to be seen in the context of Britain’s retreat from east of Suez about 1971. I don’t think it registered much here in the US (and probably not so much even in Britain apart from its political uses) but it must have forced Australians and New Zealanders in particular to think very hard about where they were really situated in the world.

    1. I love that moment in the film too. Also Captain Taylor’s blandly stated remark to the Breaker “They don’t want me”…he’s of an ethnicity and class that makes him untouchable, unlike the poor colonials.

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