Considering how pivotal a role it played in signalling the beginning of the end of the imperialist era and the dawn of a new age of mechanised warfare, the Boer War is severely underrepresented in cinema—or that’s how it comes across to me, at least. When it is referenced in cinema, the Boer War is more generally an unrepresentable past, a place characters arrive from as veterans, scarred physically or mentally by their involvement. Like much of Britain’s colonial past, it exists as a shameful secret. British films don’t want to remind us that concentration camps were not a Third Reich invention, or that the genocide enacted against native Americans did not begin with American independence, nor go unrepeated in other British colonies.
So perhaps it’s appropriate that one of the most celebrated depictions of the era came from another of Britain’s colonial bootprints, Australia. Breaker Morant was one of the first Australian films to gain real attention on the international stage. Adapted from the play by Kenneth G. Ross, Breaker Morant tells the true story of a trio of lieutenants in the colonial army, the Bushveld Carabiniers, tried for war crimes committed under British command.
Some of the discourse surrounding the film characterises it as a simple tale, more along the lines of the Kubrick masterpiece Paths of Glory, one of loyal soldiers hung out to dry by an indifferent and callous power structure more concerned with diplomacy and saving face than in human lives. Although that’s certainly part of the picture, director Bruce Beresford was rightly disquieted by such simplified interpretations. There is a lot more to Breaker Morant than that.
It becomes clear as the film goes on that condemning these men is a foregone conclusion. Although they are accused of executing prisoners without trial—as they argue they were ordered to do—through the backroom discussions between the brass, it’s evident that the trial is as meaningless as any kangaroo court in the bushveld. Their inquisitors have made up their minds as soon as the case is presented to them; it would be advantageous to find the men guilty, and the efforts of their council to offer the best defence these men are entitled to receive fall on deaf ears.
Breaker Morant isn’t afraid to mythologise proceedings, and even characters, such as the titular soldier-poet Harry Morant (an astonishing performance by Edward Woodward), but at its core, it’s a much more complex and ambivalent piece. As soon becomes clear, the men on trial were in fact war criminals and did commit the crimes they are accused of. However, their crimes were committed on the orders of—or at least implicitly condoned by—the same power structures now seeking to condemn them. These violent men were the products of militarism and colonialism.
However, even that does not get to the bottom of Breaker Morant‘s genius. The film levels its gaze not just at their brutality and the hypocrisy of their superiors who let these dogs of war slip away so tragically, but ultimately at the violent, humane passions that stirred in them even as they carried out shamelessly cold-blooded acts of war. One of the most brilliantly troubling elements of the film is its surprising warmth. These men are indeed murderers, but also jokers, lovers, poets, sons, husbands, and above all friends. The audience grows to love them even as we shudder to comprehend and excuse their actions.
The muscular body of the film is comprised of the intercutting of the verbose and authoritative courtroom scenes and the flinty and mercurial flashback sequences. At times the flashbacks contradict one another, depending on who is telling them. These scenes are phenomenally efficient cinema thanks to the uniformly spectacular writing, directing, and acting. As the trial unfolds, one indignant moral outrage breaks on the impassive stone wall of another, with just enough acidic humour and warmth to add profane satire to the proceedings.
Breaker Morant is a captivatingly taut and nuanced work of cinema, one that despite its complexity never sacrifices clarity. Instead, it embraces a form of cognitive dissonance. We abhor their cold-bloodedness one moment and feel for their sensitivity the next. Morant and his men executed prisoners, first in passionate retribution, then in cold pragmatism, and finally in conspiratorial malice. For them, it was all just war, taking the fight to the enemy and exercising their rights as soldiers to put down the other side as safely and efficiently as possible. However inhuman their actions, though, they were still human. That is the contradiction inherent to being a soldier.
It is hard to overstate quite how good a film Breaker Morant is. In every technical and creative respect, it is faultless. It is intelligent yet angry, naturalistic yet romantic, bleak yet funny and nuanced yet forceful. The film is compact and impeccably paced yet leaves nothing unsaid and no stone unturned. There’s no character in it who feels mistreated or who is left without sympathy. For the majority of the film’s run time, Breaker Morant maintains a muscular, intense composure, but once the verdict is handed down and the film begins its process of winding down, it has ascended to the level of sheer visual poetry and achieved a kind of brutalist, romantic grace. For all its debate and richness of character, it’s the simplicity and clarity of its sublime final moments that linger longest with the viewer.