Beautifully filmed, expertly acted, meticulously directed, and thoughtfully written, Breaker Morant is not only one of the best Australian films ever made, but also one of the finest dramas of its era. Presenting a complex story about courage, cowardice, politics, violence, and war, the picture dramatizes an infamous real-life incident that took place during the early 20th century in what later became South Africa. Amid the storms of the Second Boer War, fought between forces of the British Empire and those resisting British rule, three officers in an Australian regiment serving the UK were accused of killing unarmed combatants, including a German priest, as reprisal for the murder of their commanding officer. Partisans of the accused characterized the legal action that was brought against the Australians as craven political expediency, a maneuver designed by the British to appease German interests and facilitate a peace settlement. Despite strong evidence proving that the Australians were following orders, the officers were executed, and many people perceived the event as a classic miscarriage of justice.
Cowritten and directed by Bruce Beresford, using Kenneth J. Ross’ play Breaker Morant as a foundation, this elegantly constructed film follows the trial of the Australians and includes flashbacks to key events on the battlefield. A picture emerges of a conflict in which the rules of engagement were murky at best. The leader of the Australians is the sophisticated Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward), a horseman and poet who was born in England and therefore understands the duplicities of the British aristocracy better than his Australian-born comrades. In fact, Morant realizes his fate is sealed the minute he meets the attorney assigned to represent the Australians, an inexperienced Aussie named Major J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson). The lawyer is given only a day to prepare, and all of his motions to buy time are overruled. Yet as the absurdly one-sided military trial commences, Thomas proves more formidable than either the defendants or the jurists expected, sparking hope among the Australians that truth may out. In sad and tragic ways, it does—with little effect on the foregone conclusion.
Through evidence and testimony, Thomas demonstrates that a no-prisoners policy was in place before the death of the Australians’ commanding officer, thereby demolishing the prosecution’s argument that Morant and the others acted savagely. “The tragedy of war,” Thomas opines, “is that these horrors are committed by normal men, in abnormal circumstances.”
Beresford shows exquisite restraint in every aspect of filmmaking. The performances are almost perfectly modulated, with anger breaking through decorum at just the right moments, and the camera angles and lighting that Beresford contrives with cinematographer Donald McAlpine heighten tension while also infusing scenes with the immersive texture of remote locales. Woodward is extraordinary in the title role, blending cynicism and romanticism to incarnate a unique individual. Bryan Brown, in his breakout performance, lends roguish charm while playing one of Morant’s co-defendants. And Australian-cinema stalwart Thompson does some of the best work of his career. Best of all, the movie can be watched in close detail by viewers curious about the internecine historical details, and it can also be absorbed viscerally as the story of ordinary men thrown into battle against forces beyond their ken.
Either way, it’s a masterpiece of dramatic storytelling.
Breaker Morant: RIGHT ON