For years I intended to write a scholarly paper on Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941). It never came. Then I intended to write a review just because I hadn’t written the paper. That didn’t come either. Last time but one that I looked, I wanted to write a review as an adjunct to my equally unfinished treatment of film noir, and again I didn’t follow through. The reason in each case was that I could not understand why it was that I don’t regard this film nearly as highly as so many academics, film connoisseurs, journalists, and sundry critics. Worse, I thought it was because there was something about it that had eluded me, and that there could be nothing I might say that hadn’t been said a hundred time already.
Last weekend, however, I read the following lines in a newspaper:
… its reputation has soared to the point where it is regarded as a classic, a near-automatic inclusion on any list of “the 10 best films ever made”.
A number of books have been written about the film and its demanding director.
No, it’s not about Citizen Kane. It’s director Bruce Beresford commenting on John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), a film of which he declares himself ‘not a huge fan … despite efforts through the years to convince myself it is a great film.’
Perhaps it was fitting that almost thirty years after first seeing the film, and thinking it dreadfully stagey and boring, I had the opportunity to watch it again in Adelaide, the capital of the state in which it was shot, and a city featuring some of South Australia’s distinct architecture, which can be highly evocative of the Federation period.
More than that, my recent Adelaide sojourn impressed on me again a mood I hadn’t seen since the mid-1980s that goes hand in hand with the architecture: the eerily submerged but oppressive atmosphere of an imperial outpost yet to learn that the empire has passed.
That was not quite the case for Ed Murrant, AKA Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant. In his times the empire was anything but dead, and it appears that his actions in ordering and participating in the killings of Boers, who may not have deserved to die for their own sins, were not that uncommon, but politically expedient to be made an example of on this occasion.
That is certainly the story Bruce Beresford chose to go with in his film — colonial boys being scape-goated by the imperial aristocracy, in the guise of Lord Kitchener. It is a story that was far too often true for British colonial cannon fodder.