in Criterion Month

Breaker Morant (1980)

Breaker Morant is not the first military legal drama we’ve written about on this blog. Hell, it’s not even the first one I’ve written about this year. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about this sub-genre it’s that it always comes down to following orders. Whether it’s in WWI France or Gitmo, the tension always stems from the men giving orders and those that choose to follow them (if there ever really even is a choice). But I don’t think I’ve seen a movie yet that took this idea into such murky waters. So murky, in fact, that I still haven’t made up my mind about “Breaker” Morant and his fellow accused.

During the final days of the Second Boer War in South Africa, Lieutenants Harry “Breaker” Morant, Peter Handcock, and George Witton (and, in reality, three other men who are omitted from the movie) are arrested and charged with the murder of prisoners of war as well as a German missionary. What they are facing is one of the first war crime trials in history. The three men are Australian, which is important because this is a British court martial and Australia has just become a sovereign nation. Their counsel, Major Thomas (Jack Thompson), a small town Australian solicitor who’s never taken on a case like this, argues that only the Australian Army has the right to court martial, but that protest is overruled since they were serving under British command. Besides being woefully outclassed in experience by the prosecution, Thomas has been given almost no time to prepare for the trial at all. He only meets Morant and the others the day before proceedings begin and makes a dismal impression on the accused. Soon enough we all realize that the fix is in: since British high command wants to win the hearts and minds of the Afrikaners and the German Emperor wants justice for the murdered missionary, the most efficient way to make everyone happy is to find Morant guilty. High command is doing everything possible to ensure that outcome, including sending most of the witnesses the defense might call away to India. Morant, it would seem, is doomed.

Morant is called “Breaker” because of his gift for breaking wild horses. He is a poet and likely well on his way to being a folk hero even before being put on trial by a foreign government. Him and his men are popular enough they could probably convince the guards to let them escape and go see the world. But they bitterly stay and decide to seek justice. Now, I told you before this story is complicated, and here’s why: Breaker Morant, the movie, makes it very clear that these men committed the crimes they are accused of. Morant and his men were told that “the gentlemen’s war is over,” that there enemy could be anyone and do anything, so they made a habit of lining up everyone they perceived to be a threat in front of a firing squad. The court martial implicates them in the death of seven men, but its implied there were many more. Most shocking in the death of the missionary: Morant had decided that it was possible this innocent passerby, this man of god, was a spy, and so he sent Handcock out to murder him. Straight-up premeditated, cold-blooded murder.

So now we’re talking about a trial being stacked against guilty men. Is that so bad? They’re not facing charges for anything they didn’t do. Well, let me ask you this: were Morant and the others actions unique during war time? Or at least during this particular war? If they weren’t in circumstances that made it uniquely advantageous to sacrifice them, honestly, do you think the British government would care? And even if you could establish these as exceptional crimes, can we be sure that the right men are being held accountable for them? Morant started killing prisoners when his friend, Captain Hunt (Terence Donovan) ordered him to do so. Hunt had started executing prisoners because Colonel Hamilton (Vincent Ball) instructed him that no more prisoners were to be taken. And Hamilton claims to have been acting on behalf of Lord Kitchener (Alan Cassell), the most senior man in the British Imperial Army and, of course, one of the higher ups who helped arrange Morant’s prosecution. Where does the buck stop?

I don’t have an easy answer for you. It’d be nice to say murder is bad and no one should get away with it, ever. Even in war. After watching Morant put so many men in front of firing squads, it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for him when he shares the same fate. If I was South African, I might feel like the trial didn’t go far enough, not enough people paid for the crimes of that war. At the same time, if I’m continuing to be honest, I do now understand how someone who on paper sounds terrible has grown to be a legend in Australia. I can see how these men could be seen as scapegoats, and (especially right now) can relate to being upset with a biased judiciary. Though I admit, those pushing for a posthumous pardon are probably going too far.

Anyway, that’s just me. Breaker Morant was co-written and directed by Bruce Beresford, and it was the first worldwide (critical) success for the Australian director. It won 10 Australian Film Institute Awards and was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards. Here are his thoughts:

The film never pretended for a moment that they weren’t guilty. It said they were guilty. But what was interesting about it was that it analyzed why men in this situation would behave as they had never behaved before in their lives. It’s the pressures that are put to bear on people in war time… Look at all the things that happen in these countries committed by people who appear to be quite normal. That was what I was interested in examining. I always get amazed when people say to me that this is a film about poor Australians who were framed by the Brits.

Beresford went on to make a few movies in the States, including Tender Mercies, Crimes of the Heart, and, most notably, Driving Miss Daisy, which won four Oscars, including Best Picture (it’s still the last PG-rated film to have earned that honor). Pretty good considering Breaker Morant was a box office flop over here when it came out. Also he published a memoir in 2007 called Josh Hartnett Definitely Wants To Do This which is a really funny title. Good on ya Bruce!