How are we to make sense of a 40-year-old-film, dealing with uncertain events 120 years in the past?
It’s a story that has real characters and events at its heart, re-interpreted by Bruce Beresford in a late 1970s context, but now also reaching a renewed relevance as Australia contemplates its own war crimes trials.
The story deals mainly with the court martial of three ‘Australian’ lieutenants in a British counter-insurgency force at the turn of the 20th century in the Transvaal. It is a story that might have disappeared from our collective memories but for Kit Denton’s 1973 novel, The Breaker, but especially Bruce Beresford’s film.
The Boer wars
In 1652 the Dutch East India Company founded a trading outpost at Cape Town. Colonization of Dutch, German, and European Huguenot settlers followed. The British eventually displaced the Dutch as the dominant colonial power, and came into conflict with independent Boer states in the Transvaal. ‘Boer’ is a Dutch word closely allied to the German ‘Bauer’, meaning farmer. Boers had acquired expertise in warfare through fighting against local tribes, becoming by the later 19th century skilled mounted marksmen, formed into ‘commando’ militias.
The commandos were a formidable enemy against a small and badly resourced local British garrison, winning the First Boer War against the empire, which was actually not more than a series of skirmishes between December 1880 and March 1981. However, large gold and diamond deposits on Boer land spurred the second, more bitter Boer War between 1899 and 1902, during which the British developed a brutal counterinsurgency strategy that included the use of concentration camps for prisoners and civilians, where 48,000 people died of privation and illness, and a scorched earth strategy that destroyed farms, confiscated property, and included uncompromising tactics in which prisoners were often executed.
It was in this setting that English-born Edwin Henry Murrant, better known as Harry ‘Breaker’ Harbord Morant arrived in the Transvaal as part of a South Australian mounted rifle regiment in January 1900.
He had come to Australia in 1883, and established a reputation as a hard-drinking womanizer, bush poet, expert horseman, and self-promoting fraudster before joining the Second Contingent of the South Australian Mounted Rifles as a lance corporal, rising to the rank of sergeant before enlisting in the British Bushveldt Carbineers as a commissioned officer on April Fool’s Day, 1901. He served with men who acquired a reputation for brutality, insubordination, and even brigandage, but also effective tactics against the Boer commandos and their guerilla hit-and-run attacks.
On 21 December 1901, Lieutenants Morant, Handcock, Hannam, Picton, Witton, Major Lenehan, and Captain Taylor were charged with offences that occurred between 2 July and 7 September 1901. … The Courts Martial were conducted at Pietersburg and Pretoria … Morant, Handcock and Witton pleaded not guilty… the court found:
- Morant, Handcock and Witton guilty of murdering eight Boer prisoners;
- Morant guilty of murdering the Boer prisoner, Visser;
- Handcock, Picton and Witton guilty of the manslaughter of Visser;
- Morant and Handcock acquitted of murdering the missionary Heese; and
- Morant and Handcock convicted of killing three Boers;
- Lenehan found guilty of failing to report a murder to his superiors; and
- Taylor acquitted of all charges.
- Morant and Handcock sentenced to be executed;
- Witton’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment for the murder of Visser;
- Picton was cashiered (dismissed from the Army); and
- Lenehan was reprimanded.
… Witton’s case was reviewed on petition to the British Crown and on 11 August 1904, he was released from prison and returned to Australia. — James Unkles
In February 1902, lieutenants Morant and Handcock were executed by firing squad.
Director and co-scriptwriter Bruce Beresford simplified the complexities of the case for the sake of a coherent story, focusing on a single court martial of Morant (Edward Woodward), Handcock (Bryan Brown), and Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), defended by the novice military lawyer, Major James Francis Thomas (Jack Thompson), with a baleful performance by the stony-faced John Waters as Captain Alfred Taylor of the British intelligence office.
The story develops along with the court martial, already set on finding the defendants guilty, frustrating all defense efforts to introduce exculpatory evidence. Beresford uses flashbacks to show us the messy truth of a bitter campaign not admissible in court. About British orders not to take prisoners, and lines of command that were often blurred, with ambiguous rules of engagement, leaving hard decisions to be made by the officers on the ground.
Charles Tingwell delivers a wonderful performance as the president of the court martial, the fictional Lieutenant Colonel Denny, who is the epitome of a pencil pushing, mean-spirited, bureaucrat with no sense of decency or fairness in pursuing a guilty verdict. The passionate but ill-prepared Major Thomas, who has no criminal law experience, let alone in courts martial settings, is frustrated at every turn, but the dialogue lets the audience know how cruelly his clients are railroaded.
Not even the mid-trial, heroic defense by the accused, of their own goal against a murderous attack by Boer commandos, sways the determination of the court to find the accused guilty.
There is no mistaking that the defendants committed the killings, but there is significant doubt, in Beresford’s fiction, whether the killings were lawful under standing orders, or whether they were emotionally charged vigilante actions.
Beresford leaves no doubt at all about the British motivations, which were to find scapegoats to placate the Boers ahead of a negotiated peace settlement, revealed in dialogue between Lord Kitchener (Alan Cassell) and Colonel Hamilton (Vincent Ball).
The court room scenes seem very much like a stage play, with stentorian lines delivered by Woodward and Thompson. Brown and Fitz-Gerald adding more softly-spoken Australian larrikinism and naïveté.
The flashback scenes are visually powerful despite the modest budget.
Our protagonists are duly convicted, leading to the memorable denouement of Morant and Handcock walking, hand in hand, to two straight chairs in the open veldt, opposite their firing squad, where Morant’s final statement is: ‘Shoot straight, you bastards! Don’t make a mess of it.’
In an Australian context during the early 1980s, the underlying theme of how we think of war crimes is anchored most directly to the Vietnam War, only five years in the past when the film was released. Here was another colonial power, the USA, with blood on its hands. And ‘colonials’ doing dirty work, including especially the South Vietnamese, but also Australians and others.
Apart from the obvious reach at Vietnam War atrocities, there is undisguised anger, still, at British contempt for Australian soldiers in the two world wars, re-defining the ANZAC myth to include an ignominious servitude and a dishonorable ingratitude by the colonial parent. Perhaps anger, too, at the Crown’s complicity in the 1975 dismissal of the legally elected Whitlam Government?
I can’t be certain whether Beresford was aware of the Peter Weir film, Gallipoli, released in 1981, and therefore quite likely in production at the same time. I confess I thought Weir’s film was more entertaining in the mid-1980s, when I first saw both of them, for its faster pace and more personal melodrama. But over time Gallipoli has become more disposable kitsch than memorable, while the stark simplicity and focus of Breaker Morant has a lasting quality about it.
That’s particularly the case in the 2020s.
Watching Breaker Morant again now reminds us that the issues with which it deals remain unresolved.
We have witnessed an inquiry that may well lead to courts martial for Australian special forces soldiers accused of murdering prisoners and civilians in Afghanistan, and despite assurances to the contrary, we have already seen the first steps in trying to quarantine officers from the guilt that comes with command and responsibility.
There’s a personal context, too, that influences how I see Breaker Morant now. It arises from my limited personal experience of Adelaide; during my 2011 stay in Highgate, I had the opportunity to observe the architecture in the back streets of Unley and Highgate while walking a dog several days running. Squat, solid sandstone houses, like forbidding bunkers or fortresses, set back from immaculately manicured English lawns and flowerbeds. The same in some of the more affluent northern suburbs I visited.
And a city centre that seemed sleepy even during the working week, with not an indigenous face to be seen anywhere.
In combination, these impressions left me with the eery feeling that the sandstone bastions were more gaols, keeping in unspeakable terrors, rather than keeping them out.
For me this accentuated the atmosphere Beresford created by using the Spartan South Australian settings of Redruth Gaol in Burra, and the more magnificent Ayers House in the city, and Marryatville’s Loreto College. These sets conveyed to me a stifled, brooding, besieged, psychology, perfectly matched to considering war crimes and the bastardry of a bureaucratic kangaroo court.
Given the age of the film, it doesn’t measure up well to big budget contemporary historical drama, with money to throw at verité in its mises en scène; so I am willing to overlook the odd scenes showing architectural features not likely to have been seen in the early 20th century Transvaal, like aluminium roofs, ventilation fans, and the odd electricity line here and there.
I wouldn’t recommend it as light entertainment; the dialogue is worth close attention. It is definitely one for cinephiles, though, and a better way to pass the time, still, than any reality television rubbish.
South Australian Film Corporation/Australian Film Commission/The Seven Network/Pact Productions, 1980, 107 minutes.
Directed by Bruce Beresford. Produced by Matt Carroll. Written by Jonathan Hardy, David Stevens, and Bruce Beresford from a play by Kenneth G. Ross. Cinematography by Donald McAlpine.
With Edward Woodward as Lieutenant Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant, Bryan Brown as Lieutenant Peter Handcock, Jack Thompson as Major JF Thomas, Lewis Fitz-Gerald as Lieutenant George Ramsdale Witton, John Waters as Captain Alfred Taylor, Rod Mullinar as Major Charles Bolton, Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell as Lieutenant Colonel Denny, Terence Donovan as Captain Simon Hunt, Alan Cassell as Lord Kitchener, Vincent Ball as Colonel Hamilton, Ray Meagher as Sergeant Major Drummond.