“The Gentleman’s War is Over”: Breaker Morant at 40

Of all the directorial careers to emerge from the Australian film industry, Bruce Beresford’s pre-Hollywood run of films from 1972 to 1981 may be the most fascinating. Beresford’s first two films, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie and Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, were crude and rowdy comedies that saw him almost ostracized from an industry aspiring to loftier pursuits (though the latter still managed to wrangle a cameo from then-Prime Minister Gough Whitlam). His film of David Williamson’s play Don’s Party signalled his knack for adapting material unobtrusively to the screen, and he was awarded a Best Director gong at that year’s Australian Film Institute Awards for his efforts. His next production, The Getting of Wisdom, marked a shift from muscular contemporary storytelling towards a more feminine milieu and the dominant aesthetics of the Australian New Wave—period setting (check!), girls boarding school (check!), literary origins (check!)—but the result was much earthier and funnier than its decorous exterior and heritage film patina suggest. That was followed by a solid meat and potatoes thriller, Money Movers, and with Breaker Morant he delivered an unqualified critical success, scoring another AFI Best Director award in the process. Beresford closed this consecutive run of Australian productions with another Williamson adaptation, The Club, and another film about young women, translating teen classic Puberty Blues to the screen. To contextualise this run of films for more contemporary-minded readers, its sheer journeyman variety of genres and interests would rival James Mangold, while its progression from dissolute to respectable would put Adam McKay and Todd Phillips to shame.

Though there are some great films in that first stretch, and Beresford’s made great films since—at home (The Fringe Dwellers, Ladies in Black), abroad (Tender Mercies, Driving Miss Daisy, Mister Johnson), and between (Black Robe, Mao’s Last Dancer)—Breaker Morant is the jewel in the crown of its director’s career. While the phrase ‘They don’t make ‘em like they used to’ has become hackneyed, they genuinely don’t make ‘em like Breaker Morant: the film is an exemplar of un-showy, intelligent treatment of material, thematically rich and tastefully executed. Fair warning: spoilers below…

The Boer War (1899–1902) was fought between countries of the British Empire and the Boer (mostly Dutch) population of South Africa. The issues were complex, but basically the Boers wished to retain their independence from England. By 1901, British forces uneasily occupied most Boer territory, but had difficulty winning an outright victory because of mobile Boer guerrilla forces.

The opening text quoted above is pointed and resonant for two reasons. Firstly, no mention is made of Australia, the nationality and adopted nationality of the story’s ostensible protagonists. Australia simply falls under the umbrella of “countries of the British Empire”, entangled in conflicts of said empire. Secondly, the explanation of the Boer War—triggered by issues too complex to enumerate, but reducible to a basic logline—is mirrored in the situation of the protagonists: they’re tried and executed for crimes committed for country, but the motives for both the crimes and their sentencing are numerous and nuanced. The film explores and interrogates these motives.

Set in Pietersburg, the Transvaal in 1901, the film dramatises the court martial of Australian soldiers Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant (played by British import Edward Woodward), Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown), and George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) for shooting Boer prisoners and the murder of a German missionary conspiring with the Boers. The prosecution, led by the enterprising Charles Bolton (Rod Mullinar), argues that these war crimes were committed to avenge the murder of one Captain Hunt (Terence Donovan). The defence, mounted by inexperienced country town solicitor J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson), contends the three Australian soldiers—members of the Bushveld Carbineers, a special force created to deal with the Boer fighters and their unconventional guerrilla tactics—were following British orders and operating within parameters sanctioned by their commander Lord Kitchener (Alan Cassell). The late Hunt himself voiced these orders—“New orders from Kitchener … No prisoners. The gentleman’s war is over”—but is not alive to confirm them. The film alternates between the court martial and past events.

Breaker Morant’s greatest strength is its level-headed, nuanced portrait of its protagonists, their errors, and their plight: it neither buries nor praises them. As viewers, we are repelled by their actions and their rationalising of them—in particular, the film does not shy from Morant’s avenging anger in ordering the prisoners’ execution, nor Handcock’s coldness in killing the German conspirator—but we are also sympathetic to their plight under the bureaucracy of British military law. Indeed, it is the British military machine that enabled and endorsed their actions, and the film highlights the pervasive hypocrisy of a system that condemns its soldiers for the very atrocities it sanctions. The irony of a murder trial in wartime is not lost on Morant, who muses “It is customary during a war to kill as many of the enemy as possible”. Indeed, at one point the court martial is interrupted by a Boer attack and the trio are roped into defending the base and shooting the enemy, before legal proceedings resume: war crime, it appears, is a matter of context. The fact those on trial are Australian—or ‘colonials’, as they are disdainfully labelled—only makes it easier to throw them under the bus. As Kitchener muses, “If these Australians have to be sacrificed … small price to pay”. In this respect, Breaker Morant taps into the well of anti-British sentiment that pervaded much of the Australian New Wave output, from the Barry McKenzie films through to Gallipoli, another dramatisation of the wartime scapegoating of Australian lives.

The international stakes of the court martial are also highlighted in the film. In addition to being deemed expendable rabble by the British regime, the three Australians are considered an embarrassment at home as well: their government, according to Bolton, wants to use their punishment to “dissipate any lingering impressions of [Australia as] a frontier colony” post-Federation. There’s also German skin in the game following the death of the missionary, with the British seeking to placate Germany’s government so it doesn’t throw its military weight behind the Boers. Amidst these political machinations, the Boers are arguably the lesser of evils against the tried soldiers. Though colonisers themselves and the ostensible enemy—and though they initiated guerrilla tactics, which were met in kind—many Boer soldiers were not trained military personnel, but farmers and citizens. Kitchener—a supporting player in the film and dubbed by Judge Denny (Bud Tingwell) as the “most senior soldier in the British army, a man venerated around the world”—implemented a scorched earth policy across the country and set up concentration camps. Thomas alludes to some of the brutal British actions he witnessed firsthand: “Before I was asked to defend these men, I spent some months burning Boer farmhouses, destroying their crops, herding their wives and children into stinking refugee camps. Thousands of them have died already from disease”. Like Morant, Handcock, and Witton, the Boer fighters are colonisers and not unsullied, yet are also casualties of the British Empire. In terms of screen time, though, they are given short shrift. Similarly, the original black occupants of the land are marginal presences, shown cleaning court, in domestic servitude, and working as transcribers and farmhands. Women, too, are largely peripheral: like Lawrence of Arabia and other war films of an earlier vintage, the film is a predominantly masculine affair.

Unlike Lawrence of Arabia, where the characterisation of T.E. Lawrence and Peter O’ Toole’s tremendous performance are the gravitational centre of the film, the titular character here is occasionally sidelined in his own film. Some of the anti-British sentiment of the film rubs off on British expatriate Morant, both extra-textually and within the screen story: as one disgruntled soldier notes, “He oughta be on the other side. He’s a boring enough Boer ain’t he?” Nonetheless, Morant’s a fascinating character: like Lawrence, a multi-hyphenate—a soldier and horse-breaker and poet, dubbed “Tennyson of the Transvaal”—and a contradictory and odd duck; he’s too colonial for his adopted countrymen, but too uncouth for his former countrymen, a “black sheep” with a “not very British” temper. He also understands better than others the machinations against them, telling Witton “They have to apologise for their dismal war George … They need scapegoats.” Woodward is great casting here. He wasn’t quite a star—he’d become a household name later in the decade via three seasons of The Equalizer—but was a recognisable screen presence, best known for meeting an ignoble end in The Wicker Man. When offered a chance to escape and see the world, Morant responds “I’ve seen it”, and Woodward carries the mileage and a nice line in quiet gravitas to sell it.  

If there’s a reason Morant and Woodward get sidelined in their purported film, it’s the barnstorming work of Thompson here. At the time, Thompson was one of the brightest stars of the Australian New Wave, an innately likable performer with a knack for finding the Everyman in larger than life characters and, conversely, finding something larger than life in the Everyman. He appeared in some stone cold classics like Wake in Fright, Sunday Too Far Away, and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, along with some interesting, less heralded flicks like Petersen, Caddie, and Mad Dog Morgan. He also headlined a couple of largely—and perhaps rightfully—forgotten star vehicles (The Journalist, Scobie Malone) and became a sex symbol as the first male centrefold in Australia’s Cleo magazine. Little wonder, when production rolled on The Man from Snowy River, he was the logical choice to embody the legendary Clancy of the Overflow. Breaker Morant is his best work in this period and arguably his best work, period, for which he scored not only Best Actor over fellow nominee Woodward at the Australian Film Institute Awards—where the film swept the pool that year, also winning Best Film, Director, Supporting Actor for Brown, Screenplay, and most major technical awards—but also a Best Supporting Actor gong at Cannes (one of only three given in the festival’s history).

There’s a scene where the film perceptibly shifts from Woodward’s to Thompson’s, which is the first day of the court martial. Thomas, whose prior experiences as a rural solicitor extended mainly to conveyancing and wills, looks lost at sea initially, fumbling through notes and awkwardly questioning the first prosecution witness. But as the threads of his line of questioning cohere, and the witness—Rob Steele as Captain Robertson—begins to buckle under his contradictory narrative, Thomas takes the reins and unloads steely indignation on Robertson. In addition to his innate likeability and everyman quality, one of Thompson’s greatest strengths as an actor is conjuring righteous indignation. It can come across as kind of smarmy in some films (like The Journalist and Scobie Malone) but when paired with subject matter warranting that indignation—of which there’s plenty in Breaker Morant—the results are great. Thompson takes the reins of the film thereafter and Thomas proves his worth to the soldiers he’s defending, including the initially sceptical Handcock, who shakes his hand and offers a “Good on ya mate” in approval. When Handcock is impressed, it means something, because he similarly doesn’t suffer fools.

If Thompson as Thomas is the film’s MVP, Brown is its second. Handcock embodies the ‘colonial’ demeanour disparaged by his British superiors, and in a film with lots of immaculately moustachioed stiff upper lips, Brown injects swagger and vinegar into proceedings: it’s little surprise his visage from the film—not Woodward’s, nor Thompson’s—was immortalised for posterity in the Centenary of Australian Cinema montage assembled in the 90s. Brown also got the biggest career bump from the film: in tandem with his lead role in Stir and major roles in Blood Money and Palm Beach—the first of two Australian films called Palm Beach he’s starred in—Brown emerged from 1980 a leading man. Handcock is a wise-ass and insubordinate, heckling Robertson and another witness, Drummond (future soap staple Ray Meagher), when they’re on the stand. He’s also a womaniser, juggling affairs with two married women despite having a wife and child back home (“They say a slice off a cut loaf’s never missed”). If the film was fictitious, the name Handcock—almost, but not quite, Hancock—might be considered on the nose; as it stands, it’s merely befitting. Moreover, he coldly admits to Witton that he killed the missionary in retribution for Hunt’s death, and unlike the idealistic Witton—whose said idealism is systematically dashed over the film’s running time—his reasons for joining the army were entirely fiscal, as a means to support his wife and son during the Depression. But Handcock is ultimately more textured and sympathetic than his outward ocker bluster suggests. While Brown has long been accused of just playing Bryan Brown, with little reinvention in voice and appearance from film to film, his gift is wringing subtle variations on that larrikin persona, and he brings shading and dimension to the superficially coarse Handcock. Though he flatly tells his wife “I’m not much of a letter writer you know” before leaving for war, Handcock’s final correspondence with her is touching, as he asks her to “Take care of my little son. No matter what I’ve done, you and he were my greatest joy”.

BD Kooyman

Ben Kooyman lives, works, and writes in Canberra. Most of his collected writings can be found at https://downunderflixarchive.blogspot.com

Liked it? Take a second to support The Curb on Patreon
Become a patron at Patreon!