Breaker Morant is a 1980 Australian film that is a loosely fictionalized account of an actual incident that occurred during the Boer War. Lt. Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward), Lt. Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown), and Lt. George Ramsdale Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), who are officers in an elite British army unit called the Bushveldt Carbineers, have been accused of killing captured Boer guerillas, as well as a German missionary. Maj. J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson), who has no previous legal experience, has been appointed to act as their attorney at the court martial. The film alternates between trail scenes and flashbacks of the events being discussed. Despite his lack of experience, Thomas makes a valiant attempt to defend the men, but it becomes clear that the court is determined to find the men guilty.
Bruce Beresford, the director of Break Morant, once said about it:
- The film never pretended for a moment that they weren’t guilty. It said they are guilty. But what was interesting about it was that it analysed why men in this situation would behave as they had never behaved before in their lives. It’s the pressures that are put to bear on people in war time… Look at all the things that happen in these countries committed by people who appear to be quite normal. That was what I was interested in examining. I always get amazed when people say to me that this is a film about poor Australians who were framed by the Brits.
This film does show that Morant and the others were corrupted by the war. However, Breaker Morant does go out of its way to give the impression that these men were used as scapegoats, and that the British singled them out because they were Australians. (The British officers repeatedly refer to them as “colonials”.) So, it’s perhaps not surprising that some people would interpret it as exonerating these men, even though that’s not what Beresford intended.
Breaker Morant is a good film that has some powerful moments. The scene in which Thomas gives his summing up speech is especially effective. However, as a depiction of the dehumanizing effect of war, it is not as strong as Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket.
I should point out that Breaker Morant takes some liberties with the historical record. It changes some of the details of what happened, and it includes events that never occurred. In one scene, for example, the fort in which Morant and the others are being tried is attacked by the Boers. This never happened. In fact, the trial took place in Pretoria, far from the war zone. One can only assume that Beresford included this because he wanted to direct a battle scene. After he directed Breaker Morant, Beresford went to Hollywood. I suspect he wanted to show Hollywood producers that he could direct a “big picture”.