In an outstanding feat of Australian cinema, Breaker Morant chronicles the confused morality of a wartime court-martial. The trial’s arranged verdict is condemned for playing a small part in a political game, rather than serving the ends of individual justice. The legal question concerns the liability of three Australian lieutenants – one of whom, Harry Morant (Edward Woodward), is a British expatriate – for a spate of alleged murders during the near-finished Boer War. The film, however, poses no difficult questions about the soldiers’ factual guilt. Instead, it laments the legal blameworthiness of their behaviour in a hazy hierarchy of command responsibility. Breaker Morant was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, won Jack Thompson the award for Best Supporting Actor at Cannes, and launched the Hollywood career of director Bruce Beresford. However, any critical appraisal of Breaker Morant ought to consider its perpetuation of the alluring Anzac myth which arguably overpowers the story’s harsh reality of criminal complicity.
Even before the trial begins, the signs of distorted justice are plain for all to see. The soldiers’ Australian lawyer, Major Thomas (Thompson), is given only one day to prepare the defence case despite his inexperience with military trials. Importantly, as we are told in no uncertain terms, British commander Lord Kitchener tactically ordered the trial to bring the war to a swift conclusion. He hopes to convict the men as a show of good faith and orderly conduct to act as a disincentive to German intervention on the side of the Boers. But this pretext should not be seen as removing the responsibility of the soldiers as a relevant question; there is little doubt that the men killed the Boers. The defence’s argument is instead that the soldiers were specifically ordered to carry out assassinations by their superiors. In a classic speech on the tragedies of war, Major Thomas argues that it is problematic to convict soldiers subject to a chain of command and fancifully “hold them up as murderers for obeying orders”. Nonetheless, all three are eventually found guilty. Morant and Handcock are executed promptly by gunfire, while Witton is sentenced to life imprisonment. It was only three years after the events in this film that the real-life Witton was released due to public pressure and published his famous work, Scapegoats of the Empire, detailing the experience.
The confinement of humanitarian morality to a trial facilitates Beresford’s honest critique of military justice. The film uses flashbacks to recount the soldiers’ conduct and deliberately puts these events in a narrative subservient to the courtroom. It’s no secret that a guilty verdict is on the cards, and not even Major Thomas’ most scintillating soliloquys can reverse it. Beresford’s use of camera angles in the courtroom is particularly brilliant. High-angle shots give us this gloomy appearance of a room which is divided by large wooden beams, separating the judges from the lawyers and soldiers. The film does an excellent job at showing us the divided interests which come to define the whole messy process. But its emphasis on the courtroom ultimately, and perhaps purposefully, provides a limited view of war and camaraderie. The Boers are given little consideration and portrayed conveniently as one-dimensional enemies, while there is virtually no role for women apart from a Boer who plays part of a diversionary strategy in battle. Although it is revealed that revenge motivated the soldiers’ desperate conduct, we are told this conveniently with the careful language that their friend was “mutilated” by Boers. The film is comfortable in telling us about the harsh realities for Australian soldiers, but largely silent about those for their opponents. And so while the film offers some excellent observations on the very feasibility of a court martial and the idea that we can judge wartime operatives by peacetime standards, its use of the Anzac myth to legitimise this narrative lacks scrutiny. The film is a deliberate ode to anti-imperialism and deplores the self-destructive exploitation of colonial powers, but there are parallels between the Boers and Australians which are left undeveloped and unexplored.
Nonetheless, the film triumphs in decrying the criminal inevitabilities of war. The film shows us that the ability to act fairly and judiciously in the heat of the moment, in the face of vaguely defined orders, is inconceivably difficult. Too difficult, importantly, to attract the scrutiny of legal standards removed from wartime pressures and provocations. It’s remarkably easy to be taken in by Major Thomas’ argument. But even if, like me, you’re suspicious about the influence of ‘Australian values’, you will unquestionably sympathise with these men. Their final, macabre command to the executing squadron, “shoot straight, you bastards”, delivered calmly as they sit back against the sunset, invites an understanding of the Lieutenants as unfortunate men rather than merciless assassins. The dark comedic image of Handcock’s corpse proving too big to fit into his coffin offers a concluding assessment about a deeply imperfect process. The real strength of the plot is the scope of its relevance: it’s far more than an Australian story – its universality demands application to the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, for example. However, at the same time, Breaker Morant gives us a portrait – perhaps unintentionally – of the shaky foundations of the Anzac spirit, the traction of which remains reliant on the uncompromising power of myth.