In the carnal bloodshed of war, any shred of human pretense is barely maintained. How can it be when your prime objective is to adapt whatever methods the enemy practices as a means of survival? This is the central conundrum of the Harry “The Breaker” Morant case during the Second Boer War. Morant and five other soldiers were arrested and subjected to a court-martial on the charges of murdering prisoners of war. The outcome of the trial made Morant a folk hero in Australia and inspired a play that would be adapted into a film by Bruce Beresford in 1980.
Considering this film was directed by the man who brought the world Driving Miss Daisy, on paper Breaker Morant sounds like a sentimentally dramatized true-story manufactured for mass consumption. Yet the film is a true gem, unappreciated outside of Australia in it’s original release and ripe for rediscovery over thirty years later.
The film begins with the court-martial of Morant (Edward Woodward, the lead in The Wicker Man) and two of his peers, Lt. Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) and Lt. George Ramsdale Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald). They stand convicted the systematic executions of prisoners of war, as well as for the murder of a German Missionary the men accused of being a spy, all of which were partially instigated by the death and mutilation of Captain Hunt, the commanding officer of their regiment, the Bushveldt Carbineers. Even at the outset of the trial, their chances seem overwhelmingly grim; the jury can barely mask their judgment of these men, and their appointed defense counsel, Major J.F. Thomas, is flown in a day before the trial begins, woefully unprepared (he can barely keep all of his documents in order from falling out of his binder). And the number of courts-martial he’s attended? “None,” he curtly states to the accused.
Yet as the court-martial proceeds, Thomas proves himself more than capable of arguing for the innocence of these men, despite the frequent outbursts from Morant and especially the unruly Handcock. Even when Lt. Col. Denny (Charles “Bud” Tingwell) is set on sentencing the men to death for the purposes of instigating a peace conference that will end the war, Thomas remains convinced that several members of the jury are being swayed. Again, from a mere description the film sounds as if it’s setting itself up for either a crowd-pleasing finale where the individual triumphs over the military machine or a bitter indictment of forces far more powerful and cold than any one man. In fact, on a purely superficial level, the film bears many similarities with Stanley Kubrick’s indispensable classic Paths of Glory, and it does share Kubrick’s view of the hypocrisy of the Industrial-Military Complex (a band that plays in the town square outside of the army headquarters is a pretense that masks the barbarity this army partakes in every day).
But the devil is in the details, and those details are what distinguish Breaker Morant as an exceptional Anti-War film. The sequences in the courthouse themselves are brilliant feats of filmmaking that take advantage of exploiting as many facets of film grammar as possible. Close-ups, canted angles, rapid cuts, long takes, and even the use of flashbacks that verges on the elliptical allow Beresford a chance to display his cinematic prowess, yet all of these directorial decisions are in purpose of plot and character development rather than a pompous exhibition of Beresford’s directorial abilities. Take note of one scene where a possible form of salvation for the men is instantly quelled by a lying superior officer in court, only for Thomas to deftly regain the advantage through his wits and wordplay. Beresford’s execution of this scene would be only slightly effective if the script and his marvelous cast weren’t intensely engaging, yet they are more than up to the task and the result is spellbinding.
Ultimately, Breaker Morant is not an angry film as much as it is a wearily accepting film of the truths of war. The superior officers do indeed have ulterior motives behind their court-martial, yet the film is never disillusioned with it’s protagonists. These men aren’t heroes, but soldiers. Through the flashbacks littered throughout the film, we bear witness to the fact that they are, for all intents and purposes, completely guilty. They did indeed kill those prisoners and that spy, yet they were also following orders from their commanding officer, orders which have been misconstrued by those who issued them in the first place. The film does not acquit or even exempt these men from the violence they commit, but rather show how, in the face of brutality and barbarism, the terrible truth of the matter is that there is no alternative. There is no justice in warfare; only the choice between survival or annihilation.