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Breaker Morant (1980)

September 14, 2010

VERDICT:
10/10 Paths of Glory

One of the greatest war dramas you’ll ever see about the blurry line between right and wrong.

Breaker Morant is the true story of three soldiers in the British army who were court-martialed by their superiors for executing enemy prisoners during the Second Boer War in South Africa at the start of the 1900’s. What begins as a one-sided sham trial set up to make examples of the convicted soldiers in the hopes of forming a peace treaty quickly develops into a heated debate of facts and falsifications that if played wrong by their lawyer on his debut case could find them placed at the wrong end of a firing squad.

It’d been a good six years or so since I’d last seen this, and while I remembered loving it back then, it wasn’t until I caught wind of Wynter Tyson recently tagging it as one of his “Films You Didn’t Know You Needed To See” over at The List that I finally wised up and gave myself a refresher course. Needless to say, time has been mighty kind to this little gem from down under and the best part about it all is that I don’t see it being dated any time soon either.

So, I never paid much attention in history class, and as a result I didn’t exactly know there was a Boer War let alone a sequel war up until my twenty-third year of living. Apparently one viewing in my youth was not enough to ingrain this into my brain, but I doubt I’ll be forgetting it again. Granted, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a whole lot of Americans who can give you a rundown on Australian involvement in the British Army during the early 20th Century without including a sentence about Bloomin’ Onions and baby-eating dingoes, but the general impression I got from this movie is that the Boer War sure seemed awfully similar to the US involvement in Vietnam.

I’ll leave the details up to Wikipedia, but the bare facts worth knowing about the Second Boer War was that it was an ugly, useless mess in South Africa between the British Empire and the Dutch colonials that more or less led to a complete standstill and achieved nothing as the body count continued to rise with no end in sight. It was a war where ethics went out the window, where everyone from soldiers to priests could be waiting in ambush at every turn, and where throwing up a white flag in surrender was often greeted with a bullet to the brain.

And while it may sound like I’m rambling and trying to make up for all those Western Civ. classes I skipped, it’s the insane nature of the Boer War that makes so much of this movie memorable. Despite how horribly one-sided the court trial against our protagonists is from both a legal and moral standpoint, it’s almost hard to even call the defendants “protagonists” to begin with. After all, it’s hard to define who’s “good” or “bad” in a scenario where men carry out acts of unfathomable brutality on both sides of the battlefield without raising an eyebrow, but where are responsibility and blame placed when the said person is acting under orders?

And while there are a lot of elements about Breaker Morant that make it work so well, this whole meditation on the ambiguity of war crimes in a setting where everyone’s hands are stained with blood sends the message home in a whole new way. But like I said, there are a lot of elements that make it work.

The script, for one, is effing phenomenal. Written by Kenneth G. Ross and director Bruce Beresford, this is a true exercise in badassery filled with unforgettable characters that are all awfully well versed in the art of refusing to accept bullshit from anyone, choosing their words so that every last syllable directed at their accusers relays as a metaphoric “Fuck You” of the highest order, and then sending it home like no other even in the most dire of circumstances when most would just clam up and take it like a chump. I kid you not, every single one of these court room scenes will make you want to stand up and cheer or punch the nearest wall, and while the actors do an unbelievable job in their own rights, a lot of this raw emotion is rooted in the text and the unbelievable story it’s conveying.

As for the three soldiers, Edward Woodward is one outrageously hard mother effer as “Breaker” Morant himself, Lewis Fitz-Gerald is fine as Lt. George Witton, and Bryan Brown is the mother effing man with all the best one-liners and insults you could come up with in a life-or-death situation as Lt. Peter Handcock (dude sports a bitchin’ power ‘stache, too). With the exception of F/X (which I hear is good) it’s a shame that Brown isn’t a more mainstream actor these days after his performance here because he flat-out rocks it. But the real scene-stealer here is Jack Thompson as the soldiers’ attorney, Maj. J. F. Thomas. The guy hasn’t done a whole lot since, but he’s the real powerhouse of the bunch and it’s ’cause of him that these court proceedings manage to be as intense and riling as a freakin’ boxing match.

Man, Bruce Beresford put together one hell of a doozy with Breaker Morant. The issues and complexities it raises are still as pertinent as ever, it moves along an absolutely riveting pace (especially the court room scenes), some of the scenery is simply gorgeous and it’s unfortunately become one of those forgotten stories about the horrors of war despite its deserving of first-name recognition. If you’ve never heard of it, if you’ve never heard of the Boer War, if you think you could care less, check your hesitations at the door, mate, and revel in this timeless Australian masterpiece.

Amazing how history repeats itself.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. September 15, 2010 2:42 pm

    Very good review. I reviewed this not long ago on my blog as well. A fabulous movie really. At the end I sat there like I had just been slapped. I like all the so-called Australian new wave war movies. have you tried The Lighhorsemen? I reviewed that too a while back. Also a true story. maybe you know it.

    • September 15, 2010 2:45 pm

      Only heard about it from the Wikipedia page for this movie, but I have seen Gallipoli a couple times, and that also gave me the “slap in the face” reaction at the end. Will definitely check it out though. Thanks for visiting, man.

  2. September 15, 2010 2:53 pm

    Gallipoli is one of my Top Ten favourite war movies. I watch loads of other movies but dedicated my site to war movies only. It’s a bit like doing research. The more I watch, the more I find. Visit sometime if you like. I’ll be back soon.

  3. September 18, 2010 5:00 am

    great piece aiden – finally we have found a film we can agree on!

    cheers for the link

    • September 20, 2010 1:03 pm

      Thanks for the reminder, man. A mighty fine bond to share.

  4. truthsayer permalink
    January 28, 2011 6:32 pm

    A little known fact is that the British introduced the first use of concentration camps in an attempt to overcome the guerilla war tactics of the Boer settlers, by rounding up and incarcerating the families of the Boers while the menfolk were out fighting (http://boer.co.za/boerwar/hellkamp.htm) . Also, you can’t compare the Boer War with what happened in Vietnam, as the Vietnamese were the indigenous people some of whom wished to overthrow their French colonial rulers while others preferred the status quo that existed where they got to share the power, resulting in a civil war where a communist alliance supported one side and an anti-communist alliance the other.
    The Boers on the other hand were a mix of mainly Dutch and German settlers who decided to migrate to an area out of British control on the African continent and declared ‘their’ new lands as free states, and so the British declared war.
    The sad fact is that the indigenous African nations have been used by European powers and modern Africa is teeming with political problems as a direct result of its’ colonial history plus present day economic interference and manipulation by their so-called benefactors.

  5. Larry Kreger permalink
    January 14, 2013 3:56 am

    Incredible movie. Reviewer is right on if a little too frantic in his praise–not that this movie doesn’t deserve the praise, but he neglects the brooding undertones of melancholy in this tight drama of men in an absurd war situation that only gets stated more openly at the end…Truthsayer’s added comments are very apt. What a shame so few movies like this get made and instead the public is fed a whole slew of ultra violent crap where the real implications of all that gore are ignored instead of just providing jolts for jerks…

    • January 14, 2013 4:47 pm

      Agreed! And apologies for not addressing the melancholic undertones like you said, which are a big part of what makes this ugly story so compelling and important.

      And you said it, man. Reviewing movies would be a real peachy gig if they still made ’em like this. Thanks for stopping by!

      • Larry Kreger permalink
        January 14, 2013 5:14 pm

        You seem to write reviews very well, so keep it up

      • January 15, 2013 5:31 pm

        Hey now! Thanks, man! Much appreciated.

  6. Steve Smith permalink
    February 6, 2014 11:01 pm

    Enjoyed your enthusiastic and intelligent review. I respect your knowledge of British colonial history! Interestingly, I’d been aware of this movie for about 30 years but only got round to hiring it from my local DVD library a week or so ago. Did you ever see Bryan Brown in the 1981 TV movie adaptation of Nevil Shute’s novel A Town Like Alice? You’ll find the plot summary on http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0081949/plotsummary?ref_=tt_ov_pl and if you can get hold of it somewhere, I’d personally recommend it.
    Many thanks.

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  1. Breaker Morant (1980) – What the Hell Should I Watch on NETFLIX?

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