Breaker Morant (1980)

Dir. Bruce Beresford. Starring Jack Thompson, Edward Woodward, Bryan Brown

There may not be a more difficult and potent question than, “What responsibility do I have for my actions when I am compelled to do unjust things?” Breaker Morant, wisely, does not try to convince us of the innocence of Morant (Woodward), Handcock (Brown), and Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), for there is no question that each of them to a man is guilty of what we would rightly refer to as war crimes. The movie steps back a little further than that, making the case that all war is criminal. Thomas’ (Thompson) case for the accused Australians is not that his clients are innocent but that they were following unjust orders, and thus are hardly alone in their unjust actions. This is uncommonly close to “the Nuremberg Defense,” and although Thomas can’t know how that will shake out, we certainly do. Yet it’s hard not to have a little sympathy for Morant and his fellows even if they are guilty of some evil deeds; there are a great many, from Kitchener (Alan Cassell), who ought to face their own firing squads. As much as we’d like to compare this movie to Paths of Glory (an inescapable comparison given the obvious plot similarities), the scope of Breaker Morant is much wider. It is merely unfair that the men of Paths of Glory are executed; it is madness when Breaker Morant kills only two men out of the thousands fighting the Boer War.

After a costly fight in which their commanding officer, Captain Hunt (Terence Donovan) is among the dead, the Bushveldt Carbineers run into a group of Boers, including one who is, by Morant’s eyes, wearing Hunt’s jacket. He quickly assembles an execution detail, which takes on an unusual member: the translator, Botha (Russell Kiefa), who wants a part in avenging Hunt’s death. The man wearing Hunt’s uniform is killed; so too are six other Boer prisoners. Thomas will attempt to defray the clear savagery here through several means. The impracticality of carrying around prisoners, he notes. The fact that Hunt had prisoners executed during his command of the Carbineers. The rumor of an order from Kitchener himself that “the gentleman’s war” is finished, meaning that all Boers in arms should be executed. The standing policy that anyone wearing the khaki British uniform who was not a British soldier should be shot. These points are answered not by the prosecutor, Bolton (Rod Mullinar), but by the chairman of the court, Denny (Bud Tingwell). If there is a hint of sympathy for the Australians in the movie, it is that Denny is not running a courtroom designed to prove the guilt or the innocence of the Carbineers, but to condemn them outright as political sacrifices to the Germans. Almost from the beginning, the film shows scenes which note how Morant’s actions have disrupted British diplomacy. The death of a German citizen has angered the Kaiser, who was already sympathetic to the Boers. Potentially important witnesses have been transferred to India on Kitchener’s orders. A few times it’s mentioned that the convictions of Morant, Handcock, and Wilton will function as a sort of olive branch to use with the Boers for an upcoming peace conference. Time and again, witnesses make dismissive comments about Australian discipline, their lack of polish, their simplicity. These witnesses are, to a man, riddled with the kind of flaws that would make the average juror think twice.

Although Thomas’ background is much more testamentary than military—the accused are deeply concerned when they find out that Thomas doesn’t even have any trial experience to speak of—he quickly manages to get his feet underneath him and deliver striking blows to the credibility of these witnesses. The flaws of the men on trial are by and large the flaws of men burying them: theft, intemperance, even murder. Handcock functions as a sort of the mouth for the audience, as he is unafraid to disrupt the neatness of the proceedings by making comments about the hypocrisy of the many witnesses. Satisfying as it is to watch, it’s like trying to shout louder than the crashing tides. As Thomas becomes a more capable trial lawyer, his patriotism shows through a little more strongly. At the beginning he seems to ignore, or at least brush off, some of the uglier comments made about how unfit Australians are to do anything in war. As the trial moves on and as he is condescended to by Denny and Bolton, Thomas gets a little chippier. He began the trial by asking that it be ended on the basis of its unconstitutionality, for as Australians they should not be tried by the British. He ultimately gets to a point where he calls Lord Kitchener (in absentia, naturally) to testify based on an obscure clause in the military handbook and with total disdain for the middle finger he is raising towards an internationally famous man. The court compromises: they send him Kitchener’s majordomo, Hamilton (Vincent Ball). Hamilton is forced to secretly perjure himself on the stand to protect Kitchener, which is the closest thing to a victory the Australians come up with.

Of the prisoners, only Witton, who maintains an almost childlike faith in the Empire, seems truly concerned about the outcome of the trial. Handcock needs a few days of being tried by the court before he realizes his case is hopeless. Morant, from the beginning, is basically resigned to his fate but is not immune to fits of temper thrown in the direction of anyone willing to try him, as it were. In the end both he and Handcock resort mostly to gallows humor. Handcock in particular is quite good at it, having used it as a safety valve a few times in the preceding days. (Upon hearing that Thomas’ legal experience is in wills, Handcock quips that it’ll probably be useful.) They listen to the sounds of their coffins being made on the other side of the prison walls; they never measured us, they agree, but they probably don’t get many complaints, either. Morant greets Thomas on the day of his execution by commenting on his lawyer’s countenance: “You look as if you were going to a funeral.” Even Morant’s last words elicit a chuckle for sheer offhanded cheek. “Shoot straight, you bastards!” he shouts at the firing squad. “Don’t make a mess of it!” These are slightly old jokes, but they are necessary old jokes. The movie is not equipped to make bombastic statements about war or dig up fine speeches about justice, certainly not in any length. If the men are to be condemned for their role in killing Boer prisoners, becoming a “scapegoat for the empire,” as one of them puts it, the movie has to even out that grandiloquent pronouncement with some jokes about death and a brilliantly dirty limerick which only works with an Aussie accent.

Here’s the only thing that Nathan Bedford Forrest and I agree on: “War means fighting, and fighting means killing.” By the transitive property we can get at what war is really about, and it seems to me that disguising war in any sort of other raiment is base, perhaps even evil. Breaker Morant is one of the only real anti-war films ever made. Its single scene of battle is hardly exciting, taking place mostly in a deep blue that makes it difficult to tell what’s happening other than the fact that the Carbineers were suckered into attacking a group of Boer commandos. It emphasizes the normality of the war crimes which Morant and Handcock are eventually executed for committing. It shows that Morant’s decision to execute his prisoners was based entirely on the need to avenge a close friend. It finds that its characters are basically normal people who are entirely capable of atrocities if placed in the right environment and given an ounce of stimulus. Handcock went after the German missionary with a will when it was merely hypothesized that he might be a Boer spy. (Amusingly, this is something he has a decent alibi for. He tells the court that he was cuckolding a pair of Boers during this time, and, so scandalized by the prurience of a lieutenant facing the death penalty, the court doesn’t even try to verify it.) Morant has a reputation as being something of a Renaissance man: a fine singer, a talented poet, and the best horsebreaker in Australia. His classy civilian life hardly prevents him from engaging in undeniable savagery. He knows that there is only one regulation in the Transvaal, and that is Rule .303. Thomas is in a sad way digging the graves for his clients when he argues that the brutal war made the men brutal, for it seems that justice would require their blood as surely in this scenario than if they had gone outside the norms of battle. Breaker Morant looks for the worst in war and does not have to work very hard to find it, which of course is the point of this entire exercise, and a noble one at that.

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