“Shoot straight, you bastards. Don’t make a mess of it!”
Directed by Bruce Beresford, Breaker Morant tells the 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 Boer War.
The three – Morant (Edward Woodward), Handcock (Bryan Brown) and Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) – are accused of unlawfully executing Boer prisoners and a German civilian 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 himself, 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.
The accused are assigned a defence lawyer, Major Thomas (Jack Nicholson,) who has never tried a case before but develops courtroom skills as the trial proceeds, punching holes in the prosecution witnesses and revealing insufficient evidence.
Lord Kitchener (Alan Cassell) himself flees the country rather than testify, leaving the men to become unwilling and innocent pawns in England’s attempts to make peaceful amends toward its German allies.
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.
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.
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.
Lt Harry Harbord “Breaker” Morant
Major JF Thomas
Lt Peter Handcock
Lt George Witton
Captain Alfred Taylor
Lt Col Denny
Captain Simon Hunt
Colonel Ian “Johnny” Hamilton
Sgt Major Drummond
Major Charles Bolton