Breaker Morant: Scapegoats of Empire

On Film / Essays — Sep 23, 2015
Breaker Morant

And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household . . .

Matthew 10:36

Toward the end of Breaker Morant (1980), a young Australian soldier, George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), is being led, handcuffed and sobbing, from his military prison in Pietersburg, Transvaal, to serve a life sentence of penal servitude. Momentarily, he breaks free of his captors and runs back toward his fellow prisoners, Harry Morant (Edward Woodward) and Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown), who are in their cells awaiting execution that morning by firing squad. “Why are they doing this to us, Harry?” Witton screams, to which Morant shouts back, “We’re scapegoats, George . . . scapegoats for the bloody Empire!” A high point of the Australian film renaissance of the 1970s and early ’80s, Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant is a magnificent dramatization of one of the most controversial episodes in Australian colonial history.

In 1901, as the Boer War drags to its close, three Australian soldiers—all members of a guerrilla force known as the Bushveldt Carbineers, who are fighting on the British side—are court-martialed for the murder of Boer prisoners and a German missionary, the Reverend Hess (Bruno Knez). Their leader is Harry “Breaker” Morant (his nickname comes from his skill at breaking horses), an English-born poet, adventurer, and soldier, who signed up with the Carbineers, as he wryly observes, “on April Fools’ Day.” His fellow accused are Lieutenant Peter Handcock, who has joined the army to provide for his wife and son and escape economic hardship in Australia, and Lieutenant George Witton, who signed up because he has inherited his family’s belief in the values of the British Empire. The prosecutor, Major Bolton (Rod Mullinar), is urged to secure a speedy conviction, which will avert the danger of a German intervention in the conflict on the side of the Boers. However, the defense counsel, Major Thomas (Jack Thompson), mounts an unexpectedly powerful argument on behalf of the men, establishing their bravery and effectiveness in dealing with Boer insurgents and disclosing that they were acting on unwritten orders to take no prisoners that had been issued by Lord Kitchener himself (Alan Cassell), head of the British forces. Nevertheless, it becomes clear that, to facilitate a peace treaty with the Boers that will also satisfy the British and Australian governments, political expediency demands that the three men be sacrificed. On the casting vote of the president of the court, Lieutenant Colonel Denny (Charles Tingwell), the men are found innocent of the murder of the German missionary but guilty of all other charges.

Breaker Morant came at a critical time in Beresford’s career. Following a spell in the 1960s as chairman of the British Film Institute Production Board, during which time he made numerous shorts, he had returned to his native Australia in 1972 to make features (while also working in television). His Barry McKenzie comedies had been popular with the public but reviled by critics. His reputation had risen later in the seventies with his adaptation of David Williamson’s theatrical satire Don’s Party, and with his sensitive version of Henry Handel Richardson’s 1920 novel The Getting of Wisdom, a coming-of-age story set in a girls’ boarding school. However, it was with Breaker Morant that his talents—including a strong narrative and visual sense and a gift for getting the best out of actors—came to full maturity. After its showing in 1980 at the Cannes Film Festival (where Jack Thompson won the award for best supporting actor), Beresford was invited to Hollywood, where he directed two Oscar-winning films in the next decade, Tender Mercies (1983) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989).

Although loosely based on a play by Kenneth Ross and a script by Jonathan Hardy and David Stevens for an unrealized television movie, Breaker Morant was very much Beresford’s own project. The end credits also acknowledge Kit Denton’s novel The Breaker as a background source, but Denton’s work is essentially a fictionalized biography of Morant, and the court-martial occupies only its last fifty pages. Even here, Beresford makes significant changes, distributing some of the dialogue to different characters and particularly emphasizing the wry humor and irony. One important difference occurs when one of the accused is asked what rules they were operating under as soldiers of the Bushveldt Carbineers. In Denton’s novel, it is Handcock who answers, in a jocular fashion, that “we got ’em and we shot ’em, under Rule 303,” referring to the caliber of rifle used by Morant’s division. In the film, Beresford gives this line to Morant, and it is delivered not jokingly but angrily, Morant drawing a stark contrast between the cozy moral certainties of the courtroom and the harsh justice meted out by soldiers brutalized by war. This argument will be at the heart of Major Thomas’s summation on behalf of the defendants (in a speech that’s not in the original play but entirely Beresford’s own work), when he insists that the actions of such men cannot be judged by conventional standards of civilized behavior. “The tragedy is,” he says, “that these horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal conditions.”

Beresford conducted extensive research at the National Army Museum in London and in Australian libraries. One discovery was a manuscript by Witton, who, after his life sentence had been commuted, wrote an account of the whole affair entitled Scapegoats of the Empire, which was quickly suppressed after its publication in 1907. (Its eventual republication in 1982 came about undoubtedly as a result of the success of the film.) An equally remarkable discovery was a letter home from a member of the firing squad, giving a firsthand account of the execution of Morant and Handcock, and prompting one of the film’s most affecting moments, when Morant takes Handcock’s hand as they walk toward their appointed place of death. Beresford has acknowledged that it is the kind of pricelessly authentic detail that would not have occurred to him in the ordinary way.

The director worried that the courtroom scenes might make for static cinema, but incisive editing gives the exchanges genuine edge and momentum, and the acting is flawless. There is an additional Capraesque dimension to the trial, as Major Thomas is presented as the courageous underdog fighting not only a tenacious prosecutor but also a president of court who is making clear his preference for conviction. As with the best screen courtroom dramas, the audience becomes an additional jury, assessing the issues and characters before them. The use of close-ups is particularly telling, never more so than on the occasion when Lord Kitchener’s aide, Colonel Hamilton (Vincent Ball), takes the stand to deny any knowledge of Kitchener’s unwritten orders. The close-up of him as he takes the oath is so extreme as to verge on distortion—appropriate enough for a man who has just sworn to tell the truth while inwardly knowing he has come to court to do the exact opposite.

In his opening out of the material, Beresford takes full advantage of Donald McAlpine’s imposing photography in scenes of action that bring to life the courtroom testimony. Cleverly, the director uses this opening out for purposes of irony as well as illustration. He contrasts the conditions of the prison compound with the luxuriance of Kitchener’s dwelling, which underlines an important theme: the distance between the decision makers and those whom the decisions affect. He exploits discrepancies between what we hear during the trial and what we see on the screen. For example, the Boer interpreter’s self-serving version of his attitude toward the shooting of prisoners is contradicted by what we see. Similarly, although Morant’s thirst for revenge against the Boers is fueled by the belief that they mutilated the body of his friend Captain Hunt (Terence Donovan) while he was still alive, we see that Hunt recovered enough after his men retreated to shoot one of the Boer leaders. The Boers’ subsequent killing of Hunt, then, is not an act of mindless barbarity but retribution for killing one of their own. Not very different from Morant’s motivation, in fact. Like John Wayne’s revenge hero in a film Beresford much admires, John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Morant may have more in common with his “savage” adversaries than he cares to acknowledge. Indeed, as he suggests at one point, the Australians (sometimes addressed by the British as “you colonials”) may be fighting on the wrong side.

The most important disparity between verbal and visual evidence concerns the murder of the German missionary, whom Morant suspects of being a Boer spy. After consulting with Morant, Handcock has been seen riding off in the same direction as the missionary. In court, Handcock claims he was dallying with the wives of two absent Boer soldiers and thus has an alibi; and although Denny is morally appalled, the court, and also the defense counsel, accept his story. Beresford’s research, however, had convinced him that Morant and Handcock were responsible for the missionary’s murder, and he had no intention of whitewashing their involvement. We are not dealing with sentimentally conceived victims of judicial bias but tarnished heroes with blood on their hands. We are shown the murder as a cold-blooded act of long-range assassination. Ironically, it is the one charge on which they are acquitted.

The quality of Beresford’s direction reaches new heights in the film’s final few minutes, which are a masterly synthesis of its humor, heroism, and irony. An overhead shot frames Morant and Handcock in the prison courtyard on one side of the screen, while on the other side workmen outside the prison walls are busy constructing their coffins. “They could have had the decency to measure us first,” grumbles Handcock, to which Morant replies serenely, “I don’t suppose they’ve had many complaints.” Morant and Major Thomas share a dignified farewell, and Morant courteously refuses the padre’s offer of a final blessing, referring him instead to a pertinent passage from the book of Matthew. Under a beautiful dawn sky, the condemned men walk hand in hand to the chairs in the distance and seat themselves before the firing squad, refusing blindfolds. “Shoot straight, you bastards! Don’t make a mess of it!” shouts Morant, to the end combining a dark sense of humor with military pride. The wonderfully incongruous final images show soldiers loading the bodies into the coffins and having difficulty making Handcock’s legs fit—a misfit even in death, it seems. Over the end credits, Morant’s voice is heard singing “Soldiers of the Queen,” a song in praise of the very forces by which he has just been executed.

Unsurprisingly, the film was a huge critical success in Australia, winning ten awards (including best film and best director) at the 1980 Australian Film Institute Awards. It was acclaimed as an important contribution to Australia’s film revival—which included such other notable directors as Peter Weir, Fred Schepisi, Gillian Armstrong, and Phillip Noyce—and a sharply etched celebration of Australian masculinity, comradeship in adversity, and defiant anti-imperialism. Some dissenting voices criticized its marginalization of its female characters (though Beresford’s film career overall reveals quite a strong feminist leaning) and also attacked its repression of the Boer point of view. In its defense, it was argued that the film could not possibly encompass every viewpoint and, in this respect, only mirrored contemporaneous Hollywood movies about the Vietnam War, such as The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979), which lamented the loss of American innocence but gave little screen time to a Vietnamese perspective.

The thematic parallels with Vietnam were uppermost in the minds of some American critics, who expressed disquiet that the film’s seeming sympathy with soldiers who had murdered prisoners might be construed as condoning a My Lai massacre–type situation, although Beresford insisted he was just reflecting a brutal and grim reality of war. His recollection of the British critical reception as being “horrendous” is somewhat exaggerated, but it is true that the film received no BAFTA nominations; was ignored by the British Film Institute’s main publication, Sight & Sound; and was patronizingly likened to the morally bombastic films of Stanley Kramer (which Beresford dislikes) by the BFI’s sister publication, Monthly Film Bulletin. Perhaps its message struck too close to home. Its most eloquent British champion was the revered critic Dilys Powell, who admired its emotional power and moral complexity and put her finger on a key aspect that Beresford highlighted: that this was a different kind of guerrilla war, being fought by civilians as well as soldiers, and that brought with it antiheroic values, ruthless means of combat, and new forms of military stress.

Breaker Morant’s stature has grown over the years. In a varied and distinguished career, Beresford has done nothing finer. It belongs with Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) and Joseph Losey’s King & Country (1964) among the cinema’s most scathing indictments of military (in)justice; and its interrogation of atrocities committed under the heading of “standard operating procedure” looks more relevant and prescient than ever. One need not look very far in our own century for parallels, including, when such procedures are deemed politically unacceptable, the speed with which scapegoats are found and soldiers on the ground become victims of the hypocrisies of government and high command.