“Well, Peter, this is what comes of empire building.”
-Harry “Breaker” Morant
“Breaker Morant” (1980), based on a true story, is a courtroom drama set during the Boer War, one of the many charming affairs in which the British Empire indulged before finally giving up the ghost as the world’s last, lingering colonial power. The film garnered attention both at Cannes and the Oscars, and all but swept the Australian film awards. It also provided the first breakthrough for director Bruce Beresford, who made a pretty good run of it in the 80s, directing critical successes such as “Tender Mercies”, “Crimes of the Heart”, and 1990 Best Picture Winner “Driving Miss Daisy.”
It’s somewhat ironic that Harry “Breaker” Morant became a cult hero in Australia. He was actually born and raised in England before effectively being exiled to Australia, where he won modest fame as a jack of all trades: a horse breaker (thus the nickname), a poet, and one bloody, vicious soldier. As the film begins, Morant and two fellow soldiers are on trial for the murder of several Boer prisoners.
Morant is played by Edward Woodward (better known to pop culture addicts as The Equalizer) who absolutely steals the show. Stalwart and dignified, yet simultaneously tough and ruthless, Woodward portrays Morant as a man resigned to his fate. He knows the army has already decided his destiny, and barely even struggles to fight it.
Morant’s lawyer, J.F. Thomas (played exceptionally well by Jack Thompson who won Best Supporting Actor at Cannes), is much more optimistic about the whole affair. The inexperienced country defense lawyer battling the slick, sophisticated prosecutor is one of the most cherished tropes of the courtroom drama subgenre, and Major Thomas is no exception. More used to writing wills than trying murder cases, and given only one day to prepare, he still manages a stiff defense, revealing witness after witness to be a fool or a liar. He dismantles every argument the prosecution throws his way, doing all he possibly can to fight for his clients.
But “Breaker Morant” is no “My Cousin Vinny.” The deck is stacked against the defense from the very start, and Beresford never seriously tries to sell us on the possibility of a happy ending. The British Army is unable to admit its own atrocities, and needs to find scapegoats to explain the wave of brutal executions of Boer prisoners; far easier to attribute such barbarous behavior to their uncivilized Australian cousins than to find fault with their own. The Australian government, seeking legitimacy, provides no assistance either. Morant’s been sold out by all sides.
The bulk of the action takes place in the courtroom, a dingy, cramped basement room with pale white/puke green walls. As various accusations surface, Beresford cuts to extended flashbacks, and the effect is often startling. Beresford relies heavily on long shots of rolling hills and wispy blue skies, producing some extended lyrical sequences which intensify the claustrophobia of the featureless courtroom. The sense of loss is palpable; the soldier/bard Morant once roamed free and proud under the open sky. Now he can only circle helplessly like a fish in a tiny bowl.
The entire film is painted in earth tones, ranging from pale khaki to dirt brown, with flesh tones popping and crackling in the middle of the spectrum. Primary colors need not apply. Yet the film is anything but drab or ugly. “Breaker Morant” features some remarkable sequences, including a daring dawn raid on the prison by Boer commandos and the assassination of the German missionary Hess, a scene filmed almost entirely in extreme long shots, capturing the majesty of the infinite landscape and reducing its human figures to mere cosmic specks. Beresford was obviously a Terrence Malick fan.
The courtroom is often the place where good films go to die, and the film suffers from the static, repetitive staging of the court martial. The testimony drags on and on and provides only a modicum of suspense since it’s obvious from an early stage that the verdict was long since decided. I frequently found myself waiting eagerly for each protracted courtroom interlude to end, so we could return to the good stuff out on the battlefield.
As strong as Woodward’s performance is, I would hesitate to call Harry Morant one of cinema’s most memorable characters. The film always maintains a cool distance from its subject, preferring to let Morant be defined mostly by the words of others, either in the courtroom or on the battlefield. The Morant we get to see is more the tamed, captured beast than the wild tiger of legend.
In the end, Beresford doesn’t really intend for us to see Morant as an unfairly accused victim. Quite the contrary, Breaker eagerly carried out his duties, showing not even the slightest compunction about executing a group of helpless prisoners. He might well have been following orders, but he sure as heck followed his orders with abandon. Rather, the focus is on the injustice of war, and the cowardice and duplicity of the British officials. War is hell, and modern warfare is no longer a gentleman’s affair (not that it ever was). The message is hardly original, but it’s still relevant and timeless.
“Breaker Morant” sticks mostly to familiar territory, and sometimes wears its cramped courtroom like a straitjacket. The uniformly impeccable cast and gorgeous photography also add up to a film a bit too neat and proper to portray the bloody mess of modern war. Nonetheless, the movie remains an enduring and effective drama with several unforgettable scenes and a superb lead performance. “Morant” is, by far, Beresford’s best work.
The Masterworks Edition features a new high definition transfer and is offered in an Anamorphic 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The muted color palette really makes flesh tones stand out, and the faces in this film are remarkably vivid. Some of the scenes in the courtroom appear a bit blurry, but this is likely from the source material and the room’s featureless white walls. The outdoor scenes are drop-dead gorgeous. Overall, this is an excellent transfer.
The DVD is offered in both Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. Beresford doesn’t use a score for the film at all, relying only on occasional musical interludes from a military brass band that appears in the movie. The sound design is simple and sparse, mostly dialogue, all of which is clear. You might need to rely on subtitles for some of the characters with thicker accents. There are no noteworthy surround sound effects to discuss.
Option English, French and Spanish subtitles support the audio.
The Masterworks Edition offers several features not available on Wellspring’s previous barebones DVD release. Most of them are informational or promotional in nature, including brief Character Breakdowns (one or two screen text descriptions of the real life characters), filmographies, and a short Director Biography. The most interesting offering on the Special Features menu is a sixteen minute interview with lead actors Edward Woodward, who reflects on his involvement with the film and what it meant to his career.
The DVD also includes a commentary track with Bruce Beresford. Unlike many such offerings, this is not a wall-to-wall commentary track, with quite a bit of dead air along the way. Still, Beresford has a lot to say about the production, and about its relation to the real events on which it was based. Needless to say, he made a few “creative decisions” along the way to adapt the historical event to film.
I was half-tempted to start my review with the following line: “Breaker Morant”, it’s Australian for “Paths of Glory.” The film does bear a certain resemblance to Kubrick’s masterpiece, but the similarities end with the subject matter. Where “Morant” is sober and realistic, “Paths of Glory” embraces exaggeration and parody, though both films wind up in the same, tragic place. If you like “Breaker Morant” and haven’t seen the Kubrick film, you should check it out. “Paths of Glory” may well be the greatest war film ever made, and every self-respecting film buff needs to see it.