By Susan Terry
"A new war for a new century. . .for the first time the enemy is not in uniform." Thus, the Boer War of 1899 - 1902 is described by the eponymous hero of the movie Breaker Morant. Breaker Morant was produced in 1980 for the Australian Film Corporation, in color but with extensive use of flashbacks in black and white. It was filmed in the Australian outback, a passable substitute for the South African veldt. The story is based on a true incident and follows the careers and courts-martial of three officers in the Bushveldt Carbiniers, a special unit of the British army.
At the outbreak of the war, Queen Victoria had celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, and Britain held an empire that spanned the globe. The dark continent of Africa was opening up after exploration by Stanley, Rhodes, and others. Britain had colonies in much of Africa and was looking to complete the route from Cairo to the Cape. Rich minerals, such as gold and diamonds, had been discovered, promising lucrative returns. Unfortunately for British high commissioner Alfred Milner, the Dutch Boer territories of Transvaal and the Orange Free State were unwilling to accept British rule. In 1899, war broke out between the British army and the Boers, sure to be a brief campaign with overwhelming odds on the British side. This war, however, was to last two-and-a-half years, a bitter, drawn-out struggle with the Boers putting up unexpected resistance. Britain had succeeded in putting down insurrections by Sudanese and Zulu natives with the benefit of superior weaponry; however, this time the enemy was white, European. Early victories in the sieges at Mafeking and Ladysmith probably convinced the British army that the war was won.
The Boers were tough, independent frontiersmen, and a new word emerged: commandos. The Commandos, in fighting units, rode around the veldt, effectively harrying the British with their guerrilla tactics. At a loss for how to deal with this unconventional warfare, the British found themselves at a disadvantage, much as the Americans were in Vietnam. British commanders were forced to adopt an unconventional response as the struggle grew more desperate, and atrocities were committed by both sides. Suspicion of Dutch speakers resulted in thousands of women and children being herded into concentration camps under atrocious conditions. As this film opens, the date is November 1901, and the brutal conflict is nearing its end. Queen Victoria is dead and has been succeeded by Edward VI.
Breaker Morant was based on the play by Kenneth Ross, in turn based on the book, The Breaker, by Kit Denton, which described a real incident in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Our three heroes, or anti-heroes, are all lieutenants in a unit of the Bushveldt Carbiniers. This largely Australian unit was one of those formed to combat the guerrilla tactics of the Boers. Lieutenant Harry Morant, nicknamed "Breaker" after his ability to tame wild horses is a Briton who has been promoted to command the unit on the death of his good friend Captain Hunt, a victim of a Boer trap. Lieutenant Peter Handcock, a rough and ready "Aussie", and his fellow countryman George Witton, young and naif,complete the trio.
It is November 1901 and the three men are facing a military court-martial for the murder of seven prisoners and a German missionary. In a series of flashbacks, the story leading up to the trial unfolds. Enraged at finding Captain Hunt's mutilated body, Morant and his company track the commandos, killing some. Others escape, but they find one Boer hiding, wearing Hunt's uniform. Although the Boer denies the killing, Morant decides he merits the firing squad, and he is dispatched. Later, when prisoners are brought into the camp, they also are killed. Unfortunately, the German missionary, the Reverend Hess had seen the prisoners alive at the camp, and he is later found shot dead.
The court-martial is a sham of a trial, the court's president showing obvious bias against the defendants. The prosecutor has had six weeks to prepare his case, the defender, only a day. Their defense is, as Morant puts it, "Rule 303, " an allusion to the .303 rifle used by the British army. Citing the verbal order from Lord Kitchener, through Colonel Hamilton, that no prisoners were to be taken alive, Morant and his fellow officers were merely following orders. The problem is that the killings have attracted attention, particularly from the Germans. One of their nationals has been murdered and Lord Kitchener tells his staff that "the Kaiser is looking for war," the diamonds and gold the obvious motive. Australians are mere colonials and could be expected to behave reprehensibly. An end to the war could be in sight if an example were to be made of these men.
As the evidence is presented, our sympathy goes to the defendants. When the fort is attacked by Boers, the three men, having gained temporary release, bravely fight off the attackers. One would think their brave action would mitigate the charges brought against them, but it makes no difference. We discover that the British diplomats and commander seek only one verdict. The order to take no prisoners is denied by Colonel Hamilton in court. The accused are treated to champagne to celebrate their acquittal of the murder of the missionary after Handcock supplies an alibi for the time of the death: he was 'fraternizing' with not one, but two Boer ladies. The defense counsel, an idealistic small-town solicitor, is sure the other charges will exact a penalty of only a few years in prison.
The film's theme stems from the old problem of prosecuting a soldier in war-time. Is "only obeying orders" a defense? In this case, the times demanded scapegoats and the fate of our likable rogues is sealed. The verdict is a foregone conclusion, for as Handcock says, "Our graves were dug when we were arrested at Fort Edward." Morant and Handcock phlegmatically accept the verdict and, when the Intelligence officer Captain Taylor makes an offer to help them escape, Morant turns it down. According to Hamilton, the court-martial is a "sideshow of the war, there'll be a peace conference in a couple of months; soon we can all go home."
The setting of the film portrays the times well. That era is recent enough to provide us with evidence of contemporary dress, uniforms, and everyday objects, and these are credible in this film. When Morant writes his last poem, and Handcock pens a farewell letter to his wife, they scratch away with a pen and ink as if it were 1900. The military band plays evocative tunes from that time, such as Soldiers of the Queen, and Land of Hope and Glory. We see the conditions the soldiers tolerate in their camps and in jail, but we also glimpse the parlor of the General, Lord Kitchener, giving us an insight into the behavior of the colonial masters. It may be Africa, but they have brought England with them. Already familiar with the historical background to the Boer War, this viewer was made vividly aware of the plight of the regular soldier at that time. The soldier was instructed to obey without question, and was invariably placed in situations for which he was not provided with adequate guidance. If things went wrong, he was on his own. Politicians will not hesitate to sacrifice the 'lower orders' to cover up their own blunders and save face.
Some fictitious characters must have been represented in the film, probably Sergeant Major Drummond, and the incidental characters. Lord Kitchener and Colonel Hamilton were notable characters in Victorian English military history. The verifiable characters of Morant, Handcock, and Witton were the center of this case, although we can expect some license in their portrayal. We are told that Captain Taylor stayed on in Africa after the war, reaching a high government post, and the defense attorney returned to Australia afterwards, burying himself in his country practice to become a semi-recluse. Harry "Breaker" Morant and Peter Handcock were shot at dawn, maintaining a 'stiff upper lip' as they gave their lives for their country. Lieutenant George Witton's death sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life, but we are told that he was released after three years. He returned home to Australia, where he was to write several books about the incident, including Scapegoats of the Empire.
Closing an ignominious chapter in the history of England, the war was to end six months later with the Treaty of Vereennigning. The "new war for a new century" cost some 22,000 British lives, 25,000 Boer citizens, and 14,000 Africans, and dented the confidence of the British public in a manner similar to the way the Vietnam War was to affect Americans just over half a century later. The Boer War marked the beginning of the end of British colonialism, and certainly, in the eyes of this twenty-first century viewer, the unsatisfactory ending of Breaker Morant did not augur well for the future of that empire.