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Breaker Morant (1979)
In prison cell I sadly sit -
It really ain't the place nor time
No matter what 'end' they decide-
But we bequeath a parting tip
If you encounter any Boers
And if you'd earn a D.S.O.-
Let's toss a bumper down our throat
Given that it came out just four years after the fall of Saigon, it is perhaps understandable that critics, particularly American critics, tended to view Breaker Morant as a kind of a backhanded commentary on the Vietnam War, specifically on My Lai. But to treat it as such is to put the cart before the donkey. The fact of the matter is that, despite the longing of 60s radicals to see it as unique, Vietnam was a fairly typical conflict and American actions, both official and otherwise, were largely consistent with the history of superpower involvement in foreign wars.
War is always a confused and brutal business, but when you pack soldiers off thousands of miles from home and tell them to prop up an obviously unstable government (otherwise the soldiers wouldn't be needed) and to shoot some of the foreigners, but not all of them, you virtually guarantee that atrocities (defined here as the willful killing of potential noncombatants) will follow. And when it is a democracy that is sending the soldiers abroad, and when the war goes poorly, you virtually guarantee that someone, usually the grunts, will pay the price for these crimes. Breaker Morant alludes to this fact himself when he quotes Lord Byron's poem written early in the 19th Century:
When a Man Hath No Freedom to Fight for at Home
When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home,
To do good to mankind is the chivalrous plan,
From Byron to Breaker Morant to Lieutenant Calley, it has ever been the same. It is then the mark of an immature people to hold the soldiers solely responsible for these actions when they do occur, rather than to blame the society at large for putting them in the situation to begin with and for not being prepared to cope with such incidents when they do occur.
In the actual case upon which Breaker Morant is based, seven Bushveld Carbineers were charged with shooting Boer prisoners and a German missionary during the British-South African War. The film deals with the January 1902 trial of Lieutenant Harry "Breaker" Morant, a British ne'er do well who had emigrated to Australia and become a breaker of horses, and two native Australians, Peter Handcock and George Ramsdale Witton, all of whom were defended by Major Thomas, an inexperienced attorney from New South Wales. It was a true kangaroo court, its verdict foreordained, and both Morant and Handcock were shot by a firing squad on February 27, 1902 (Witton's death sentence was reduced to life in prison and he was later freed by the House of Commons).
Bruce Beresford's terrific film version of these events avoids the staginess that typically afflicts courtroom dramas by the extensive use of flashbacks. The contrast of the wide open veld to the confines of court and prison in itself conveys the drastic difference between "civilization" and frontier. He gets excellent performances all around but especially from Edward Woodward (The Equalizer), Bryan Brown, and Jack Thompson. Woodward eats up the scenery as the boozy, intellectual, black sheep, Morant. Brown plays off him nicely as Handcock, all temper and appetite. And Thompson, as their attorney, starts out a bumbler but builds confidence as he scores unexpected points in court and finishes with a summation that, for my money, is one of the most powerful pieces of writing in film :
The fact of the matter is that war changes men's
natures. The barbarities of war are seldom
The thing that most stands out about that speech is that it could have been given by the defense attorney during any of a dozen wars that Britain and America have fought. But it is the conceit of civilized nations that we do indeed judge soldiers by peacetime standards, not by the circumstances that prevail in the situations in which we place them. And so Morant chooses as his epitaph Matthew 10:36 :
And a man's foes shall be they of his own household.
And says of the whole patently unjust episode :
This is what comes of empire building.
These are awful truths, but truths we would do well to face up to. Breaker
Morant forces us to confront them directly and, because of this, is
an extraordinarily powerful and important film.
-INFO : Breaker Morant (David Hart)
-INFO : Breaker Morant (Rotten Tomatoes)
-PHOTO : Breaker Morant (Military Stories & Anecdotes : The Bushveld Carbineers )
-A poem from the movie Breaker Morant
-Breaker Morant, Empire and War (David Hart)
-ARCHIVES : Articles about the Trial and Execution of Breaker Morant in the Sydney Morning Herald 10 March - 4 April 1902 (David Hart)
-ARCHIVES : "" (chomsky)
-Breaker Morant : a soldier in the Boer War
-Breaker Morant : Hero, scapegoat or Rogue?
-ARTICLE : A facelift for 'Breaker' Morant's grave : The Australian government takes over care of the grave of 'Breaker' Morant, the Boer war soldier who became a hero back at home after he was executed by the British. (ED O'LOUGHLIN, Mail & Guardian)
-Harry The Breaker Morant and Peter Handcock (Oz Folk Heroes)
-ARCHIVES : "breaker morant" (Find Articles)
-FILMOGRAPHY : Bruce Beresford (Imdb.com)
-FILMOGRAPHY : Edward Woodward (Imdb.com)
-The Edward Woodward WWW Main Page.
-FILMOGRAPHY : Bryan Brown (Imdb.com)
-REVIEW : of Breaker Morant (DREW L. KERSHEN, Oklahoma City University Law Review (1997), Law in Popular Culture Collection)
-REVIEW : of Breaker Morant (David Denby, New York Magazine, (12/29/80))
-REVIEW : of Breaker Morant (Leah Krevit, July '96 EQ/EW Int'l Electronic Bulletin)
-REVIEW : of Breaker Morant (David Macdonald)
-REVIEW : of Breaker Morant (Edwin Jahiel)
-REVIEW : of Breaker Morant (Doug Pratt's DVD Reviews)
-REVIEW : of Breaker Morant (Wesley Lovell, The Oscar Guy)
BOER WAR (1899-1902) :
Great Review and Right On Conclusions! I thnk about this situation all the time. this is one of the movies i have felt is worth buying for my video library. Capt. Dale Dye of Warriors, Inc.and also of KFI radio, has told me that this is one of his favorite movies. He wrote Platoon, which you may know.I have recommended it to Bryan Suits of KFI who served two tours in Iraq. Looking at incidents in Iraq, i conclude, as you have, that some things never change!
- Nick Ames
- Aug-06-2008, 21:43