Breaker Morant

By

Will Cheung

 

Breaker Morant does a fantastic job of bringing the audience into the heart of the Boer War. While most combat films, either glorify a cause, or attempt to show war in a realistic way, Breaker Morant does an excellent job in showing the issues behind the Anglo-Boer conflict and it also does a magnificent job in revealing the real carnage of the struggle.

The movie revolves around the second Boer War between 1899-1902. The conflict was over long standing issues between the British Empire and the Boer population (primarily Dutch) of South Africa. England was interested in absorbing South Africa into the empire so it would have series of imperial stepping stones from Egypt to Capetown. The Boer population, established by the Dutch in the seventeenth century did not want to be part of the empire and fought back. Like many instances throughout history, the war was between an unorganized and untrained group of local militia (the Dutch) against an extremely powerful and organized army (the British). The overconfident British Empire believed that this war could be won in a few months. They were gravely mistaken. The Boers engaged in guerrilla tactics. They used mobility and ambush as their primary weapons; they attacked when the British were least prepared and sabotaged supply lines by blowing up trains: not a "gentlemen's war" in the eyes of the British. The British found that they were not fighting other soldiers in a traditional manner; instead they appeared to be fighting civilians. This aspect and their perception of the struggle is what made the war incredibly difficult and dangerous to the British and damaged their reputation. They had no idea who was an enemy soldier and who was a regular civilian, not least because the Boers did not have an organized military army or use professional uniforms. The British unprepared for the Boers’ fighting tactics, discovered that they could not beat the Boers using conventional tactics. In order to fight back, the British created the Bushveld Carbineers to fight the Boers using guerrilla tactics. This unit is what the movie Breaker Morant focuses on. Eventually, the war ended in the British Empire’s favor through the Treaty of Vereeniging.

Breaker Morant is the saddening story of three British lieutenants from Australia, Lt. Harry Morant, Lt. Peter Handcock, and Lt. George Witton who are charged by the British military court for the controversial deaths of a number of Boer prisoners and a German Priest. The three men are lieutenants in the Bushveld Carbineers who embraced the tactics of guerrilla warfare to fight the Boers. They are granted an attorney, Major J. F. Thomas, who has only one day to set up a defense for the three Australian lieutenants. Through the use of flashbacks, the stories of the three lieutenants are told, and it becomes abundantly clear that the Australian soldiers were just following orders. They were doing what was considered necessary to beat the Boers at their own game. Unfortunately, it also becomes clearer and clearer that no matter what strong and solid defense they put up, the British Court is determined to use these three lieutenants as scapegoats to appease the Boers and encourage a peace treaty.

Breaker Morant does a magnificent job in portraying the war, and the time period of this film. From actors, costumes, and props, the movie spins a very realistic and authentic feel of the Boer War. The actors portrayed the historical characters of the three Australians excellently: they had a heroic aura and had the attributes of bravery, honor, and sacrifice. Lt. Harry "Breaker" Morant, the main historical character, was played by noted actor Edward Woodward who did a magnificent job. Morant’s famous line before death: "Shoot straight, you bastards! Don't make a mess of it!" really does define his character.

In any movie, wardrobe is an extremely important factor in creating a realistic feel of the time period it is trying to portray and often separates good historical movies from bad ones. Breaker Morant does a great job with costumes. Both Bushveld Carbineer and Boer soldier costumes are genuine and appropriate for the time period. The Carbineer soldiers were dressed in a tan uniform with either a cone shaped helmet, or a cowboy style hat with one side folded up. The uniforms in the movie matched perfectly many of the pictures of the Boer War found through Google images. The Boer troops were dressed realistically as well. Because they were not an official militarized group, they had no official uniform. What they wore instead was their everyday clothes; they dressed as civilians. The clothes that they wore did seem to fit what Boer civilians would look like in South Africa during the time period. Because this film was directed in Australia, the British and Australian accents gave the film a strongly realistic sound.

>The use of props and landscape was also a large factor contributing to the realistic representation of the Boer War. In particular, the use of horses in the film proved convincing. Horses were important factors in military power at the dawn of the twentieth century. Horses granted access to speed and the greater mobility of troops. In one segment of the movie, Boer troops raid a British camp and steal a couple of horses. The camps and bases that the Carbineers resided in also reflected the living conditions of the Boer War. Living conditions of the troops were not glorified in the film. They pitched tents and ate poor quality food. The many houses, buildings, even the courthouse used in the court martial seemed dirty and extremely sandy or dusty. A harsh, ‘nitty gritty’ aura permeates the film throughout.

One topic or issue at the center of the story is the idea of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable during war time. The film is at its best in raising questions about military or war morality. The Boer War was very difficult for the British Empire in many ways. This was not a "gentlemen's war" as the British perceived it and the sole reason for creating the Bushveld Carbineers was to combat the Boers using their own tactics. It was unfair for the British Courts to expect the Bushveld Carbineers to fight like the Boers, but then still apply the same regulation army rules and regulations against them for doing so. They expected the Bushveld Carbineers to utilize brutal guerilla warfare but at the same time be punished by the normal rules of European military combat. For soldiers, it was an impossible task, the usual Catch 22. In the movie, the Bushveld Carbineers executed the prisoners they captured behind enemy lines because it would have been an extremely dangerous task to transport prisoners to safe facilities and then sneak back to do it again! One line in the film that really defined the purpose of the Bushveld Carbineers was "we follow the rule 3-0-3,” which simply stated that they were to kill the enemy, which is the purpose of war. They were ridiculed for the tactics they used by the very people that commissioned them to use those tactics. It was clear by the end of the movie that Major J.F Thomas put up a solid defense for the three Australian lieutenants, but in the end, two of them were executed and one was sentenced to life in prison. Even the British officials were surprised by the strong defense J.F Thomas put up in such a short time. There are multiple examples of a corrupt system in the movie. For example, it was openly admitted by the British officials that anyone who could have helped to defend the three accused officers was sent off to India. Towards the end of the movie, some of the justices on the bench sent wine into the prison to congratulate the officers for their conduct, but they were still punished. Lastly, the most solid evidence of the corruption of justice was the fact that one of the lieutenants who had killed a Boer prisoner in self-defense was still sentenced to a lifetime in prison. To kill an enemy in self-defense during wartime and get sentenced to life in prison is bizarre and a blatant indication of the corruption and vested intentions of the British administration. The military court system never gave the lieutenants a chance because the government wanted to use the three men as scapegoats for the secretly authorized conduct and their guilty verdicts could provide initial steps towards negotiations for peace.

Breaker Morant was an excellent and very enjoyable film to watch. It exposed the audience to a war and time period relatively unknown today. For its amazing quality it has been nominated for and won many awards. In 1981, it was actually nominated for an Oscar for best writing. In 1980, it also won the AFI award. Jack Thompson, who played Major J.F. Thomas won best supporting actor in 1980. Bruce Beresford was nominated for the Golden Palm as well in 1980. In 1981, Breaker Morant was nominated for the Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Film. In 1982, it did win the KCFCC award for Best Foreign Film.

It is difficult to find any negative reviews of Breaker Morant. The New York Times states that "Breaker Morant is one the most acclaimed Australian films, telling a powerful tale of wartime betrayal and injustice." The Boer War is an interesting topic in the history of English imperialism. There are an abundance of books and other films that cover the topic of the Boer War. Some books that may be of interest are Shoot Straight, You Bastards! by Nick Bleszynaski, Anglo-Boer Wars the British and Afrikaners 1815-1902 by Michael Barthorp, and Kruger's Gold by Sidney Allinson. All three books are great contributions to the history of the Boer War. Films are also a great and entertaining way to learn about history. Other movies touching on the Boer War are The Boer War and Other Colonial Adventures, and The Boer War by George Melford. Breaker Morant is probably the most widely known and recognized film over the conflict .

Breaker Morant is an excellent and thought provoking film, telling the evils of war and it is a beautifully written masterpiece that educates the viewers about a generally unknown conflict. All of its contributing factors, the actors, the story, and the materials used for the film created a wonderful movie that does justice to the story of Lt. Harry Morant, Lt. Peter Handcock, and Lt. George Witton and their unjustified treatment by the British Empire which they had served loyally and for which all three paid such a high price.