(Note: as soon as I opened up IMDB on Monday evening to confirm some details about the movie below, I saw that its star, Edward Woodward, had died. A hell of a loss, though he left a full career behind him, including Becket, the TV series Callan, the original The Wicker Man and, of course, the following)
Breaker Morant: A Few Good Blokes. Unpolished but still fiery.
Lieutenant Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward) begins the movie in a full court-martial in the last days of the Boer War. He led a small company of irregular colonial soldiers, fighting against the Afrikaaner guerillas (known as commandos) by adopting their tactics. Such tactics have ended with Lieutenant Morant and his fellow officers, Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown, whom audiences will recognize from Cocktail or F/X) and George Wittow, to be charged with six counts of murder.
Major J.F. Thomas, an officer with experience executing wills back in New South Wales but little more law training, is assigned to the case one day before the trial begins. Though he fumbles initially, his insightful questioning ferrets out the truth: that the unorthodox methods the Bushveldt Carbineers used were not only endorsed, but ordered, by the highest levels of British command in the field. When Morant, Handcock and Wittow executed prisoners without trial, they did so under orders.
The movie does not paint Morant as entirely heroic. He and Handcock conduct the war with a casual brutality. They both demonstrate a fiery temper, Handcock peppering the court-martial with sarcastic remarks and Morant being provoked into a tirade: “We shot them under Rule 303!” But these touches merely make the men darkly romantic, not outright villains. Breaker Morant still couches its stars in cloth of gold, depicting Morant as a poet, a singer, a leader and stalwart in the face of death.
Instead, the movie reserves its harshest condemnation for the British Empire itself. Taking its screenplay largely from George Wittow’s 1907 account of the trial, Scapegoats of the Empire (did I mention this was based on a true story?), Breaker Morant casts the British command as aristocrats, shielded from the horrors of war by the gentility of their sitting rooms. It’s not only implied but stated outright that Lord Kitchener and the Prime Minister would have no problem sacrificing three “colonials” to appease the Boers, thus ending the war sooner and keeping Germany out of it. And the film also depicts how, in sinking to the level of the Dutch commandos, the British Army may have lost its way.
Breaker Morant heralded the start of the Australian “New Wave” of cinema, preceding such films as Gallipoli, Mad Max 2 and The Year of Living Dangerously. The film feels like the early work of a film student, experimenting in camera angles for their own sake. The initial statement of Lieutenant Morant is shot in extreme left profile, dead on and extreme right profile for no obvious reason. At some points in the courtroom the frame holds both the witness and the attorney questioning him, eight feet away, in the same focus – not uncommon in the 80s, but still awful looking today. And while most of the flashbacks are timely and well-staged, some cut in and out of the present moment like misplaced stills.
But, these bits of amateur work aside, the movie’s still good. Burra in South Australia stands in admirably for the Transvaal: a green, sweeping country that almost begs to be ridden with rifle in hand. And the dialogue itself is sharp enough, full of rough Australian wit, outrage at injustice and warm poetic sentiment. It’s a timeless story and well-told.
But, Johnny, ere we “go to grass” –
Ere angel wings are fledged to fly –
With wine we’ll fill a bumper glass,
And drink to those good times gone by.
We’ve had our day – ’twill not come back!
But, comrade mine, this much you’ll own,
‘Tis something to have had it, Jack-
That time when we could ride ten stone!
– Harry “Breaker” Morant, “The Day That is Dead”, 1893