Breaker Morant (1980)


When you hear about a "new wave" in film, I am sure that the first thought you have is of the French New Wave of the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Those films, to varying degrees of success, had a certain feel of time and place and liberation as well as similar thematic issues. 

That is why it is hard for me to understand why a number of Australian films get grouped under the "Australian New Wave" moniker.  The one overwhelming theme, if there is one, is the fact that the censors backed off to the point that it was worth it for Australian directors and actors to stay at home and have an actual film industry rather than heading to Great Britain or the United States.  The Australian New Wave, therefore, encompasses everything from Picnic at Hanging Rock to Mad Max, as well as a number of war films, art films and movies that are commonly called "Ozploitation" in the U.S.  About the only unifying theme is that the movies are, first and foremost, proudly Australian.

Two movies, in particular, deal in uncompromising ways in which Australian soldiers were treated with general disregard by the British Empire: Peter Wier's Gallipoli and, arguably, Bruce Beresford's best movie, Breaker Morant.

Harold Harbord Morant (Edward Woodward) is a poet and singer from a well-to-do English family.  Taking up residence in Australia, he is the second in command of the Bushveldt Carbiners, under Captain Simon Hunt (Terence Donovan).  This particular squad is one of many tasked with dealing with guerilla incursions from Boer loyalists in South Africa.  Though the Second Boer War is coming to an end, much of the white population of South Africa is in open rebellion as the British Empire attempts to hold on to the colony, and Lord Kitchener (Alan Cassell) has given regiments like the Bushveldt largely carte blanche to deal with the rebels - which includes not taking prisoners and severe reprisals for attacks against British subjects.

It is for one of these reprisals that Morant, Lt. Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) and Lt. George Ramsdale Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) find themselves facing a court martial.  A raid on a Boer farmhouse leads to an ambush, forcing the Carbiners to flee and leave Hunt behind.  With the blessing of Kitchener's military intelligence representative Capt. Alfred Taylor (John Waters), Morant assumes command of the regiment in order to hunt down the men responsible - a task Morant takes personally after he finds that Hunt, rather than being outright shot, was mutilated prior to death.

The three men are accused of murder, specifically that of a man named Visser (Michael Procanin) by firing squad, a number of Boers that surrender to the Carbiners under a flag of truce and German missionary Rev. H. C. V. Hess (Bruno Knez).  The latter is a major complication, as the murder of a German citizen may give the Germans an excuse to intervene in the war on behalf of the Boers, while a successful prosecution of the men (and, by extension, Taylor and a number of others) may lead to a peace treaty and an official end to hostilities.

These complications come to light as the men's court-appointed attorney Major J. F. Thomas (Jack Thompson) does his best to have them acquitted.  A country lawyer from Australia who typically dealt with land disputes and wills, he at first appears to be out of his depth, but it quickly becomes apparent that they have the right man on their side.  Through his investigations it is revealed that Visser was wearing Hunt's jacket, an offense (a combatant wearing a British uniform) that traditionally carries an immediate death sentence.  While the other men came under a flag of truce, Hunt had previously informed Morant of Kitchener's orders that no prisoners be kept as there were no facilities for them.  And, as for Hess, all evidence led to the fact that he was conspiring with the Boer rebels, and may have even been responsible for informing them of the raid on the farm and, thus, was responsible for the ambush.

Despite these facts coming to light, it becomes more and more apparent to Thomas that, no matter how the trial goes, the three men are meant to be scapegoats for decisions made (and, conveniently, not conveyed in writing) by superiors such as Kitchener.  Abandoned by the military, by their home company and by the Empire itself, the fate of the men for following orders and doing their duty to King and Country becomes more and more apparent.

Though the trial and circumstances are simplified a bit, I understand that this is one of those "based on a true story" movies that doesn't go too far off the track.  Largely based on a play, Beresford did some additional research to flesh things out.  Though Terence Donovan, who plays Captain Hunt, originally played Morant in the play, the decision was made to hire Edward Woodward for the part.  Makes sense because, even though it's an Australian story and he was a member of a largely Australian regiment, Harold Morant himself was English.  It apparently didn't hurt that Woodward bore somewhat of a resemblance to the character he was playing.

But don't think that this is nearly two hours of watching a military trial.  Rather, most of what happened is shown in flashback, as the story and the truth is fleshed out, letting the viewer decide for themselves who is right.  Yes, Morant and the others suffered an injustice, especially since they did nothing any of their contemporaries wouldn't have done at the time.  In fact, Taylor, who eventually became an administrator of Transvaal, had a much bloodier history than anyone else on trial and managed to increase his station after the war.  But, in the end, the scapegoating achieved its goals: Germany didn't enter the war (which could have led to an additional front once everything exploded in 1914 if a German takeover of South Africa was successful), and eventually South Africa itself became independent.  As for the Boers, who some would see as brave freedom fighters oppressed by an invading empire, keep in mind that "apartheid" is an Afrikaans word.

There are no good guys in the story, and Beresford wisely resists the urge to stir up anti-British sentiment or go the flag-waving route similar American productions would have gone.  Instead, Breaker Morant questions that adage that all is fair in love and war.  It is also frightening how, what was in fact a fair trial (despite the allegations that some witnesses may have perjured themselves) could still be manipulated toward an expected outcome.

Woodward considers this the best role of his career, and I agree.  Typically he is remembered in his role as the doomed police officer investigating Christopher Lee's pagan island community in The Wicker Man, but he shines in a less stylized and more dramatic role.  He does not portray Morant as a dashing, wronged hero.  Instead, he is a man highly cultured, with actual talent himself, but that is still capable of the lowest kinds of brutality when pushed to certain limits.

The same goes for Bryan Brown's portrayal of the womanizing Handcock, who has many faults, but is not lacking in loyalty nor in love for his country.  Lewis Fitz-Gerald makes his debut here, playing Witton as someone who is still largely in shock that he has found himself in the position he is in: the only man he killed on his own was to save his own life, and he joined the military as a part of family tradition.  He seems more petrified at the thought of staining his family name rather than the actual sentence he may ultimately face.

Major Thomas is both the advocate for the men as well as the audience's surrogate in the story.  Jack Thompson portrays him believably as someone who would rather remove himself from society after encountering exactly how cynical the real world can be.  Although it is obvious that the character disagrees with much of what is going on, he is given no big speech at the end on injustice, war, or anything else - just a bit of information on what happened to his character.

As for Bruce Beresford's direction, there are a number of times when natural lighting is used to great effect, whether it be the magic hour light of dawn or that of a simple candle.  He doesn't use it as a gimmick, but as a way of framing a beautiful shot, particularly toward the end.  He is able to quickly go from drama to tense action, and he doesn't pull any punches with either.  Beresford also knows that holding back, particularly on showing violence, can be quite effective when it does come time to stare at it unflinchingly.

While not as outright artsy as Peter Wier, and unfortunately not as artistically successful in his follow-ups, Beresford still manages to make what is arguably one of the best Australian films of all time.  Like many films of the Australian New Wave, it is less a representative of a specific style but rather an example of what creativity can erupt when the heavy hand of censorship is removed.

Breaker Morant (1980)
Time: 107 minutes
Starring: Edward Woodward, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown, Lewis Fitz-Gerald
Director: Bruce Beresford

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