When this Australian movie made its way to the screen in 1980, the United States was still raw from its Vietnam experience. Along comes Breaker Morant, a story from the Boer War that warns us of the trap of assymetrical warfare. Men who are asked to fight a guerrilla war against an enemy who can blend into the civilian population will do things, terrible things that will not find appreciation in polite society.
The movie details an incident about the Bushveldt Carbiniers, an irregular Australian mounted unit, raised from veterans to fight the "bitter enders" in the waning days of the Boer War (1899-1902.) Three officers, Harry Morant, Peter Handcock, and George Witten are arrested and charged with the murder of Boer prisoners. Assigned counsel, Major J.F. Thomas, the day before the trial begins, the story is told through a military court-martial, with the facts shown through a series of flashbacks.
Breaker Morant is the story of the Bushveldt Carbiniers and how they coped with the guerrilla campaign they found themselves in. We learn their Captain, Simon Hunt was killed in an ambush that forever transformed Lt. Morant who succeeded him. We learn that the officers agreed not to take Boer prisoners and shot them when they were brought into camp. Their most egregious offense was shooting a German missionary who likely was carrying messages for the Boer commandos. Yet for all that, the orders to the Bushveldt Carbiniers were at best described as ambiguous regarding the treatment of prisoners. According to Morant, shooting Boer prisoners was accepted practice based on orders received from Pretoria.
|"We fought the Boer out on the veldt as he fought us. . . We caught them and we shot them under Rule .303!!!|
Major Fuller, formerly, an officer in an infantry regiment, whose law practice in Australia consisted of wills and land conveyances, challenged the army's case ferociously. When the Boers raise the trial site, and the three accused ably and bravely drive off the raiders, Fuller bravely argues, based on military law set down by the Duke of Wellington, that such service demands a full pardon. When it is denied by the president of the court, it becomes clear the cards are stacked against the accused and the trial is based more on politics than the law. It is borne out when Fuller demands that Lord Kitchener, the senior commander in South Africa testify to the fact that the Bushveldt Carbiniers had orders to shoot Boer prisoners. When the president of the court martial recoils in horror and questions whether Kitchener, at that time the most renowned man in the British army would be capable of issuing such orders, Fuller replies
I don't know, sir. But I do know that orders that one would consider barbarous have already been issued in this war. Before I was asked to defend these soldiers, I spent some months destroying Boer farmhouses, burning their crops, herding their women and children into stinking refugee camps where thousands of them have already died from disease. Now these orders WERE issued, sir! And soldiers like myself and these men here have had to carry them out however damned reluctantly!
|Morant, Handcock and Witton drive off Boer commandoes at Fort Edward.|
|Thompson as J.F. Fuller|
When Kitchener sends his chief of staff, Ian Hamilton a denial to complete the cover-up, their case is sealed. Despite Fuller's reminder they were operating under vague orders and the nature of the war itself was unique, they were convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The movie ends with their death by firing squad.
Breaker Morant is an amazing movie. Director Bruce Beresford guides us through a story that is clear and absorbing, with performances that are riveting. British actor, Edward Woodward, chews up most of the stage as Morant, a Briton with poor relations at home. Well educated, a poet, Woodward plays the part well. The other standout is Jack Thompson as Fuller. While he begins the movie as a humble town solicitor, in the end, he shows himself the only man of principle, fighting for his clients up until the moment of their execution. Bryan Brown makes his first appearance of note, long before the Thorn Birds or F/X and does well as Handcock, offering some much needed humor and ironic perspectives on life.
In a time when the United States is trapped in two conflicts, in which the enemy looks like the villagers we are pledged to defend, when weekly we hear a report from Kabul that Hamid Karzai is irate over the death of civilians, when American soldiers are tried for murdering Afghan civilians for sport--Breaker Morant and its messages about the dangers of fighting a guerrilla war in a foreign place has meaning. Absolutely one of my favorite movies of all time.