Sunday, 27 September 2015

BREAKER MORANT - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Aussie Anti-War Favourite on Criterion

Bryan Brown and Edward Woodward await British "justice".

Breaker Morant (1980)
Dir. Bruce Beresford
Starring: Edward Woodward, Bryan Brown, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Jack Thompson

Review By Greg Klymkiw
We'll do our best when crucified
To finish off in style, sir!
- "Butchered to Make a Dutchman's Holiday",
a poem written by Harry "Breaker" Morant just prior to his execution.
Stories about nations executing their own soldiers are pretty much guaranteed to generate climaxes inspiring sheer, unbridled emotion, often resulting in copious tears from an audience, or at the very least, producing more than a few a catches in more than a few throats. Feelings of mounting anger and frustration are also par for the course since the executions are always a result of politics, petty bureaucratic manoeuvring, colonialism and major league ass-covering.

The greatest of them all is, of course, Stanley Kubrick's 1957 Paths of Glory with Kirk Douglas attempting to save a group of innocent soldiers from execution at the hands of a cold-hearted martinet. Some of my other favourites include: the great, near-forgotten 1974 NBC Television Movie The Execution of Private Slovik, written by legendary scribes Richard Levinson and William Link, directed by Lamont Johnson and starring Martin Sheen in one of his greatest performances; the recent 2015/2016 release of the heartbreaking Terence Davies picture Sunset Song, about a shell shocked soldier wishing to leave the front to be with his wife; And though there is no literal execution in it, the fate facing a shy young sailor in Hal Ashby's The Last Detail might as well be a death sentence.

Then there is Bruce Beresford's Breaker Morant from 1980, one of the many films to lead the Australian charge of internationally acclaimed box office hits. (The film was an especially huge grosser Down Under and eventually had an excellent shelf life in North America after initially soft openings).

This finely wrought courtroom (court martial) drama details the true story of commanding officer Lt. Harry "Breaker" Morant (Edward Woodward) and two of his men, Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) and George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), all standing trial for the murder of (supposed) civilians in the fields of battle during the Boer War. The narrative is recounted in flashbacks during the tribunal presided over by pole-up-the-ass British military martinets. Director Beresford ably commandeers his superb cast through a compelling recounting of their actions in the field.

In spite of the fact that they've been handed a lawyer skilled only in corporate law, Maj. J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson) offers a brilliant defence, and though history tells us otherwise, we're expecting either a full acquittal or, at the very least, no firing squad death sentences. Thomas throws everything, including the kitchen sink at the martinets, ranging from the trial being illegal as the men are Australian, not British, the very real facts that the enemy during the Boer War waged guerrilla warfare (wherein anyone could be the enemy), plus the astonishing facts that orders were given to Morant and his men to spare nobody (including an order to avenge an Australian soldier tortured to death by the Boers).

A Good Defence Means Nothing When
Brits Have Decided to Nail Aussies to a CROSS!

There is no question that Morant and his men have committed the wholesale slaughter of "civilians", but these are clearly not civilians. This is war, and as such, the most horrible things occur. This is not the case of Nazi-style genocide - it is warfare under impossible circumstances - period.

We're with the men to the tragic end of the film and the clear villains are the colonial imperialist British military. Oddly, director Bruce Beresford expressed shock over interpretations such as these. In a 2012 interview with Peter Malone, he said:

"I read an article about it recently in the LA times and the writer said it's the story of these guys who were railroaded by the British. But that's not what it's about at all. . . I always get amazed when people say to me that this is a film about poor Australians who were framed by the Brits."

Reading this, my immediate response is to assume Beresford's gone completely insane. Now sure, that might not be the entire story, but how can one deny that the overriding attitude of the movie towards the British is clearly anti-Colonialist. In the film's final few minutes, we're even treated to some choice, heartbreaking melancholy and exquisite sentimentality. Perhaps anti-colonialism within the historical context of this story wasn't Beresford's intention after all, but if not, then I'd have to assume he brought an innate Australian attitude towards the British. In fairness to Beresford, he does offer the following in the same interview:

"[The film] analysed why men in this situation would behave as they had never behaved before in their lives. It's the pressures that are put to bear on people in war time… "

Yes, I'm willing to accept this. It's one of the powerful anti-war elements of the picture, but the defence provided within the context of the court martial itself, within the very narrative of the film, does offer food for thought along these lines, but finally we can only react emotionally to what we see and experience, and that is: the men were subjected to an unfair trial in spite of a persuasive defence and it's clear that all the tea-and-crumpet-ingesting Brits have their minds made up from the beginning.

I watched the film again after reading Beresford's comments. I was still angered by the Brits and still deeply moved by the plight of the accused men. This did not change. I concluded that Beresford flipped his lid. This was the same film I saw in 1980, then several times over the next 35 years. It's the same movie millions of people have seen and loved.

It's a stirring film and an important one. And yeah, it still has me shuddering and spewing tears when Morant, just before being executed screams out: "Shoot straight, you bastards! Don't make a mess of it!"

War is cruel and unfair, but one cannot deny that honour and bravery exist amongst those men so savagely treated by it and who, in turn, have reduced themselves to killing machines for king and country.


The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray/DVD edition of Breaker Morant is gorgeously transferred and includes a solid audio commentary featuring Bruce Beresford in 2004, new interviews with Beresford, cinematographer Donald McAlpine and actor Bryan Brown, an interview with actor Edward Woodward from 2004, a superb new short piece about the Boer War with historian Stephen Miller, an interesting 1974 documentary The Breaker, profiling the real Harry “Breaker” Morant, (with a 2010 statement by its director, Frank Shields), the theatrical trailer and an essay by scholar Neil Sinyard.

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