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.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Wicker Man

1973’s The Wicker Man has deservedly attained cult status as an original, exceptional horror film

The-Wicker-Man-4-561x300Our Edward Woodward tribute continues this week with a big screen triumph he made not long after the Callan TV show ended (RBC Recommendation here). This week’s recommendation is an unconventional low-budget horror film that has no monsters or ghosts, includes almost no night time scenes, blood, gore or special effects, yet is unquestionably harrowing: 1973’s The Wicker Man.

The plot: Uptight, devout and dedicated Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives alone by seaplane at a small Scottish island to investigate reports that a little girl has gone missing. He finds a strange community of back-to-nature types who claim never to have heard of the girl, much to Howie’s frustration. He is further inflamed by their paganistic world view, sexual expressiveness and apparent disregard for his authority as a representative of HMG. He eventually meets the head of the community, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), who confounds him further even while ostensibly supporting his quest to find the missing girl. His anger and anxiety mounting, Howie presses his investigation to the limit, but matters become only more maddening and much, much more dangerous.

It’s easy to see why Christopher Lee, who has made almost 300 films, declared that this was the best one he was ever in. He, Woodward, and the actors in other key roles (Diane Cilento and Britt Ekland) give performances that are somehow both realistic and otherworldly at the same time. And Anthony Shaffer’s script has the perfect set-up for suspense: A man absolutely alone in a strange place that he cannot understand and in which no help is available.

In addition to being scary, The Wicker Man is also sensually pleasurable. It features among other sexually charged moments one of the most erotic and original seduction scenes in the history of film. The soundtrack is also rich and stimulating. It would have been easy to simply have the music of the islanders be a recycled collection of old Celtic folk songs, but instead Paul Giovanni composed authentic sounding music that adds immeasurably to the atmosphere.

wickerman5 Warning: This film had an unhappy history post-production, with many cuts being made both by studio suits who didn’t get the film and morality police who hated the sex. The lack of respect for the film at the time is best expressed by the fact that the negative ended up buried beneath the M4 motorway (not a joke, sadly). Work very hard to get as long a cut as you can; Wikipedia has an account of all the versions here.

I hope you will take the time to discover this cult classic of British horror cinema. After the jump, I offer an interpretational addendum for those of you who have already seen it.
Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Wicker Man”

Weekend Film Recommendation: A Tribute to Edward Woodward Begins with Callan: The Richmond Files

The British TV Show “Callan” was one of many triumphs in Edward Woodward’s career

416-Edward-WoodwardFour years ago this month, the world lost a remarkable talent when Edward Woodward died. Many Americans know him only as The Equalizer from television, but his career started long before that. Woodward was an extraordinarily gifted actor who was equally comfortable with classic Shakespeare plays, light comedies and grim dramas. Unlike some stage-trained actors, his dramatic skills didn’t wane when he made the move first to television and then to the movies. Beyond all that, he was even an outstanding singer! (Check him out on this Morecambe & Wise clip, he starts crooning about two minutes in and he’s bloody marvelous).

In recognition of the delight he brought to countless television and movie viewers over the years, I begin this week at RBC a multi-week panegyric on Edward Woodward. The tribute starts with the classic British television show that made him famous in the late 1960s, then moves next week to one of his first big screen triumphs (The Wicker Man) and then last but not least to a superb later film he anchored at the height of the Australian New Wave (Breaker Morant).

This week’s recommendation is The Richmond Files, the three-part conclusion to the Callan television series. Woodward became a star playing David Callan, a tough, moody and smart British espionage agent from a working class background who tussled with his plummy superiors as often as he did his Soviet counterparts (Terrain later explored so successfully in another RBC recommendation, Charlie Muffin). The mood of the series was set by what became an iconic set of images and guitar notes:

The glum tone and stark themes of Callan put it squarely in the cynical Le Carre camp of British spy stories, which funnily enough co-existed easily in the 1960s with James Bond-mania. Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: A Tribute to Edward Woodward Begins with Callan: The Richmond Files”