BREAKER MORANT — CLASSIC FILM PICK
Bruce Beresford's exceptional turn-of-the-century wartime [courtroom] drama is a thought-provoking examination of British-led military events that occurred during the Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa. The war-based narrative follows the fate of three court-martialed Australian soldiers fighting for the British Empire against a Dutch community of South Africans known as Boers.
British forces occupy most of the Boer territory. In order to defeat the Boers' efficient guerrilla tactics, the British form an elite brigade known as the Bushveldt Carbineers. The skeletal troop is made up largely of Australian soldiers like lieutenants Harry "Breaker" Morant (Edward Woodward), Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown), and George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Garfield), the very three men standing trial in a military courtroom forum with nothing resembling due process. These men embody scapegoats being led to slaughter.
Nicknamed "Breaker" for his horse-breaking skills, lieutenant Morant (Woodward) is an experienced soldier and a keen poet. The murder and mutilation of his troop's beloved Captain Hunt by Boer fighters sends Morant into a fitful rage. Under orders from Britain's Lord Kitchener, that Boer soldiers be killed rather than taken prisoner, Morant orders the firing-squad killing of a Boer guerrilla caught wearing the khaki uniform of his deceased captain. The order makes up the court's primary accusation, along with an allegation concerning the murder of a German priest as a bit of damning insurance for the prosecution’s case.
Beresford's elegant use of long-shot compositions provides a concise scale for the untamed landscape of the region. A quaint stone fort prison and courthouse serves as an arid stage for the mangled legal proceedings that give way to haunting flashback sequences that constitute the bulk of the film.
Major J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson) is the inexperienced attorney assigned on short notice to defend the three accused men. Their position as stooges for the British Army becomes increasingly clear. British military chiefs use the trial as a public relations ploy toward ending their military occupation and letting themselves off a hook that could eventually ensnare them.
Pressure from German forces threatening to aid the Boer community is a concern. "This is what comes of empire-building."
"Breaker Morant" is an effective anti-war film that shows multiple sides of the dubious conflict in question. It is also a trenchant character study of men trapped in a corrupt system. There are no good-guys in this sad tale of war, but plenty of tragic consequences.
Rated PG. 107 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)