BREAKER MORANT

The setting for this film is the Boer War (1899-1902), also called the Anglo-Boer War, and called by the Boers, the English War. The Boers were Dutch settlers in South Africa and the area in which the incidents of the film occurred as the Transvaal. Many different causes for the war have been asserted but it should be noted that rich gold deposits had been discovered in the Transvaal, a Dutch territory in South Africa. British and other mining interests coveted the Transvaal as well as control over of her business interests in South Africa. Britain ultimately sent 400,000 soldiers to South Africa for the war while the Boers had a small militia that was weak in organization but good at guerilla warfare. As you watch the movie, it may be appropriate to view the two sides as made up of professional soldiers on the British side and commando raiders on the Boer side. The Boer war is credited with the first commandos and the first concentration camps, the latter set up by the British, into which Boer families were interned under abominable conditions that gave rise to disease and death. All in all it was not Britain's "finest hour." But they won; it was the heyday of British imperialism.

The clear issue of the film is accountability of soldiers in war for acts condoned by their superiors. Another issue, which I find particularly fascinating, concerns the fairness of the hearing. We would ask whether due process was present, after accounting for the exigencies of the battlefield. Does Breaker Morant demonstrate what happens when due process is not observed?


The following is a review of Breaker Morant reprinted with the permission of the author and publisher, appearing on Edward Woodward's home page, http://www.conubic.com/eqew/equalize.html, from which was also taken the graphic of Woodward on horseback as he appeared in the film.

The July '96 EQ/EW Int'l Electronic Bullet Presents:

Horseman Gone By

By Leah Krevit

A review of the film Breaker Morant, (1980) directed by Bruce Beresford and starring Edward Woodward. The Boer, or South African, War was fought at the turn of the century. It was "the new war for the new century," the battleground in which the young Churchill first found fame and Gandhi studied the lessons of British imperialism. They both survived to live other struggles and achievements. Harry "Breaker" Morant, horseman, poet, and soldier, did not. This "new war" proved the crucible in which the heroism and gallantry of the past gave way to the rage and despair of the modern era. Harry Morant embodies this destructive process and Edward Woodward shows us each step of his destruction in a shattering performance of nuance and detail. A well-crafted courtroom drama actually begins at the end. The actions of the past and the lives of the characters must be explained so that we can play our part as jury. In this film, based on a true story, Bruce Beresford, the Australian director who has since created a wide range of work (from Driving Miss Daisy to Black Robe), seamlessly intercuts the courtroom testimony with the incidents being described. He creates a coherent examination of the effects of "the new war" on three particular soldiers. They have been brought up on charges of murder, accused of killing Boer prisoners of war and an itinerant German missionary suspected of spying. They face certain court-martial and possible death. Two of the soldiers--Handcock, "the wild, simple fellow" ( Bryan Brown) and George, the innocent ( Lewis Fitz-Gerald) are almost stock players in this character study. The defense attorney ( Jack Thompson), given only one day to prepare their case, is a stalwart supporter facing the greatest challenge of his career. "The Breaker" is the heart of the story.


Harry Morant is a breaker of wild horses in Australia who has made his way to South Africa as a soldier. He writes verse and sometimes drinks too much. Edward plays him with a kind of ruddy robustness and broad good humor. The men who serve with him all like him; he is a "good fellow." War is a messy and exciting affair designed with a man like him in mind. But this war has turned into something else and the Breaker is not equipped to deal with the horror that it has become. This "good fellow" becomes a collection of contradictions. The institutionalization of brutality and harsh methods to deal with the Boer forces has a shattering effect on him. The rules of war as previously known no longer apply, Breaker and his men are told. They are asked to give up the sense of honor and fair play that has always held men together in war. These are the only ways they know to make death and pain and fear bearable. We can see the disenchantment as it happens. Edward shows us all the facets of this "black sheep" soldier-poet, who has become as competent at ordering an execution as he is at penning verse. It is a testament to Edward's skill as an actor that we are touched by the man's predicament; he allows us to see the inner conflict in almost every scene.
Harry Morant is then on surface a romantic figure. But Edward shows us first, his dangerous and intrinsic impetuosity and, finally, the over-arching rage brought on by his experiences in the "new war" of guerrilla tactics and "take-no-prisoners" skirmishes. Edward plays this rage and interior conflict in small, telling ways: the quickly suppressed but rafter-rattling outburst in court; the cynical grin to go with the poem recited while drinking homemade hooch; the revulsion and white hot anger which emanate in physical waves when he first realizes the fate of his commanding officer and friend, and which he controls by setting his mind and body to action. The subtle intensity of his portrayal is seen in the twitching and narrowing of the eye, the tremor in his hand as he smokes a cigarette, the slight catch in his voice as the futility of the situation begins to dawn. Breaker Morant knows a scapegoat when he sees one and when he is one. Edward portrays a raw physical power that is under terrible stress. This is acting of enormous restraint and it gives the film its core.

The writing has presented Edward with several opportunities to show the range of Morant's experience and emotion. Edward recites the Byron in mock theatrical tones in one desperately jovial scene, using a Burtonesque voice to great effect. The man is cynical about the events and powers that are about to destroy him, but he is also capable of tenderness. We see this in the scene back home in England, when he sings with skill and feeling to the young woman we assume he has left behind. How fitting that the tough horse breaker is capable of such refined sophistication. Edward's vocal talent is put to effective use here. In prison, when Morant is offered the chance to flee, Edward imbues the voice with resignation: "Where would I go?" "To see the world" is the response of a fellow soldier who thinks he knows the score. "I've seen it." The flat tone tells us everything we need to know about the Breaker now.


When the final scenes do come, Edward achieves something rare: he allows a wonderful serenity to flow from the Breaker, but he counters it with an ironic sense of humor. "Well, Peter, this is what comes of empire-building" is a perfectly-written line that is thrown off cavalierly, but it cuts to the heart of the matter. Harry Morant's personal integrity and ability to grasp the intricacies of politics and history have allowed him to see the terrible process in this war which has altered him forever. He may rail against the government and the men who run it. He may call them liars. He is still aware of the truth. And here is the tragedy at the center of the story of this man. He knows what has happened to him and he has been powerless to stop it. His understanding of this becomes more and more apparent during the course of the film. The words are never spoken, the fact never openly acknowledged, but Edward puts it in his eyes.

Breaker Morant will be remembered as an incisive examination of the moral ambiguity inherent in any war. But, I think it is this understanding in the film--that "the new war" makes men less than they are--that raises this work to superb drama. And I will remember it because Edward made the Breaker a man haunted by the idea of what he may have become in the process of fighting the enemy. I cannot imagine anyone else ever in the role of Breaker Morant. No one else could have made such an heroic and yet tragic modern character come to life in the story of one small incident in a series of military brutalities. Edward made him his own and he made him unforgettable.

Leah Krevit runs a library in the Texas Medical Center in Houston and she has fun doing it, too, but her first love is film.