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Breaker Morant (1980)

Beautifully filmed, expertly acted and meticulously directed by Bruce Beresford, Breaker Morant tells the true story of the court-martial of three officers – two Australian and one British – from the Bushveldt Carbineers, the “irregular” (predominantly Australian) mounted unit of the British Army during the Second Boer War.

The three – Lt Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward), Lt Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) and Lt George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) – are accused of unlawfully executing unarmed Boer prisoners and a German missionary.

Although the facts do point a finger at the accused as guilty, they insist throughout that the executions were carried out under orders from British high commander Lord Kitchener (Alan Cassell), whose standing orders were to take no prisoners-of-war.

The Carbineers’ task was to eradicate Boer guerrillas and captured men were sometimes shot in acts of impulsive cruelty, and their captors indulged in a degree of personal revenge for the barbarous mutilation of the body of the Carbineers’ wounded CO, Captain Hunt (Terence Donovan), a close friend of Morant.

The accused are assigned an inexperienced Australian defence lawyer, Major Thomas (Jack Thompson) who has never tried a case before (and is given only a day to prepare) but develops courtroom skills as the trial proceeds, punching holes in the prosecution witnesses and revealing insufficient evidence.

Lord Kitchener himself flees the country rather than testify, leaving the men to become unwilling and innocent pawns in England’s attempts to appease German interests and facilitate a peace settlement.

The parallels with Vietnam are unmistakable. This was a war against an enemy without uniforms whose women, children and missionaries were also spies and saboteurs, while the British turned a blind eye to their own troops burning villages and herding non-combatants into concentration camps.

Trapped in a war it could not win, England needed scapegoats to impress international opinion about their “good intentions” in withdrawing from South Africa, and the Australians were easy sacrifices.

Caught up in the imperial politics of the war and doomed from the outset to face the firing squad, these three men have since become legends in Australian military archives and Commander Harry Morant (called “Breaker” because he broke in wild horses as a civilian) has become a folk hero as the Englishman who chose to die like an Aussie.

“Shoot straight, you bastards. Don’t make a mess of it!”

A wasteful miscarriage of justice, the story of Breaker Morant is a devastating example of England’s military hypocrisy that riles the Aussies to this day.

One of the best Australian dramas ever made, Breaker Morant was the toast of the 1980 Cannes Film Festival, gaining an almost unprecedented profile for an Australian film. Jack Thompson won the best supporting actor’s prize at the festival for his role as the inexperienced defence counsel who unravels the truth yet remains powerless to save his clients.

Though set in the high veldt of South Africa, Breaker Morant was filmed in and around Burra, South Australia, on the edge of the Great Desert, 100 miles north of Adelaide.

Lt Harry Harbord “Breaker” Morant
Edward Woodward
Major JF Thomas
Jack Thompson
Lt Peter Handcock
Bryan Brown
Lt George Witton
Lewis Fitz-Gerald
Captain Alfred Taylor
John Waters
Lt Col Denny
Charles Tingwell
Captain Simon Hunt
Terence Donovan
Colonel Ian “Johnny” Hamilton
Vincent Ball
Corporal Sharp
Chris Haywood
Sgt Major Drummond
Ray Meagher
Christiaan Botha
Russell Kiefel
Major Charles Bolton
Rod Mullinar
Lord Kitchener
Alan Cassell

Bruce Beresford