Film review of Breaker Morant
Bruce Beresford’s award winning Breaker Morant (1980) is perhaps one of the most memorable war stories on film, not for its visceral realism (for that see Saving Private Ryan), but for its depiction of the effect of political and moral decisions on individuals in war. In essence a courtroom drama, the film traces the history of specific events, and the ensuing trial of three Australian soldiers under British Empire command during the Boer War in South Africa in 1902. However, with time and distance, the film is also a commentary on every war since. This particular war, ‘a new kind of war for a new century’ saw the invention of concentration camps and also the creation of guerrilla commandos. While the film does not doubt the soldiers’ actions in murdering apparent spies, it certainly presents the trial as a very modern public relations stunt with a foregone conclusion to appease other nations and to cover up damaging claims the officers were acting under orders. And this is why the performances resonate. The late, great Edward Woodward, as the title character, is perfectly cast as expat Briton poet, the urbane, philosophical and haunted Morant. Bryan Brown, as Peter Hancock, plays to form as a brash Australian with an indomitable sense of the absurd, while Lewis Fitzgerald’s young George Whitton is suitably innocent and mortified by the actions of his fellow soldiers and the trial. As ‘scapegoats of the Empire’ these characters are powerful reminders of the costs of war and the demands it makes of combatants.
Shot on location in and around the South Australian town of Burra, Breaker Morant features almost every Australian actor available at the time. While the performances are captivating, the setting enhances the rugged, dare some say colonial, atmosphere. Edward Woodward later said of the final scene of the film: “it’s etched on my mind forever…when we did it, on the first take, I automatically put out my hand to Bryan and he took it. It was totally, absolutely unrehearsed. It’s the most astonishing moment I’ve ever experienced.” (Who Weekly Nov 1999.) And so it remains.
Note: This review appeared formerly at the Film Club Online and now lives here. Also it seems the story of Morant and Hancock continues with some seeking the charges against both soldiers to be quashed. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in diplomatic circles. The British are eager to protect the reputation of Lord Kitchener, (apparently) while there are many eager to rehabilitate the reputation of the colonial soldiers. I’ve not heard what South Africa and Germany think (a German missionary was killed). So the saga continues and this once more demonstrates how the scars of war, for individuals and nations, take a long time to heal.