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
new war for the new century," the battleground in which the young
found fame and Gandhi studied the lessons of British imperialism. They
survived to live other struggles and achievements. Harry "Breaker" Morant,
horseman, poet, and soldier, did not. This "new war" proved the crucible
the heroism and gallantry of the past gave way to the rage and despair of
modern era. Harry Morant embodies this destructive process and Edward
Woodward shows us each step of his destruction in a shattering performance
nuance and detail.
A well-crafted courtroom drama actually begins at the end. The actions of
and the lives of the characters must be explained so that we can play our
jury. In this film, based on a true story, Bruce Beresford, the Australian
who has since created a wide range of work (from Driving Miss Daisy to
Robe), seamlessly intercuts the courtroom testimony with the incidents
described. He creates a coherent examination of the effects of "the new
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
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
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.