‘Breaker Morant’ Is an Epic Tale, Set During the Boer War

Breaker Morant uses a story about three colonial soldiers to illuminate much larger issues concerning war, heroism, and empire.

Breaker Morant, a 1980 film co-written and directed by Bruce Beresford, is an old-fashioned epic in every sense of the word. It’s based on a real incident that took place in 1901 in South Africa, during the Boer War, and uses a highly specific story about three soldiers to illuminate much larger issues concerning war, heroism, and empire.

It’s crammed with period detail, spectacular landscape shots (it was filmed in South Australia), action scenes, love scenes, high tension and noble speeches in a courtroom, and characters you can’t help but back and others you are obligated to hate. More importantly, like most epics, it never questions the assumptions of its main characters or the righteousness of their choices—it’s just not that kind of film.

The “Breaker” of the title is Harry Morant (Edward Woodward), an English émigré to Australia noted for his abilities as a horse breaker. Morant is a lieutenant in the Bushvelt Carbineers, a group of mounted soldiers fighting for the British Army in South Africa; the Carbineers were created as a mobile force to counter the guerrilla tactics used by the Dutch.

Also fighting with Morant are two Australians: Lieutenant Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown), a ladies’ man who joined up so he could support his wife and family, and Lieutenant George Ramsdale Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald, in his first film role), who is much younger and more naïve than Handcock or Morant—in fact, Witton joined the army based his family’s tales about the glories of serving the British Empire.

As the film begins, Morant, Handcock, and Witton are standing trial for the alleged crime of killing prisoners of war and a German missionary. In flashbacks, the free and unstructured nature of their work as members of the Carbineers is contrasted with the orderly life of the regular army and the even more regimented conduct of the trial. War is an inherently messy business, and guerrilla war even more so, and a key theme of Breaker Morant is the absurdity of applying the rules from an ordered and bureaucratic world to actions taken in a context when right and wrong are not always obvious and improvisation often holds the key to survival.

In the world of Breaker Morant, the British Empire is accepted as a given, as is its right to rule so much of the world that it was a popular saying at the time that “the sun never sets on the British Empire”. This type of colonialism is never questioned by the characters in the film—ruling the world is clearly the white man’s burden, as Kipling put it, and while dark-skinned people are often seen in the film (often performing menial tasks, although the trial scenes notably include a black court recorder), the story is not about them. Instead, it’s about Europeans serving colonial powers who, like the heads of the crime families in The Godfather: Part II, are dividing up ownership of a chunk of the world, and its peoples, among them.

If Breaker Morant has no problem with the British Empire in general, it does have a problem with its actions toward white colonials, who are seen as less valuable than the regular British troops. In fact, they are willing to use Morant, Handcock, and Witton as pawns in a game of international diplomacy, creating a situation in which the truth of the case is less important than how it will be perceived by other European powers. Notably, the behavior of Britain toward residents of its colonies was also a key theme in another contemporary Australian film, Peter Weir’s 1981 Gallipoli, suggesting that the relationship of Australia to Great Britain remained a topic of interest long after the Empire officially ceased to exist.

If the main characters in Breaker Morant don’t like the hierarchy and hypocrisy of the British Army, what do they like? Above all, mateship, meaning loyalty, respect and friendship among equals. Beyond that, fast horses, willing women, and reasonable freedom from interference. In fact, Breaker Morant can be seen as a paen to the Australian virtues of mateship and self-reliance, while the British characters represent antithetical values such as valuing rules for their own sake, being willing to sacrifice others as scapegoats, and a smug and abiding belief in their own superiority. This dichotomy appeals to the teenager in all of us, but it’ss so well embodied in Breaker Morant that it doesn’t feel juvenile at all, and is no doubt one reason for this film’s continuing appeal.

This release of Breaker Morant by the Criterion Collection is a two-disc set (I reviewed from z DVD, but a Blu-Ray set is also available), including a ten-page liner insert with an essay by film scholar Neil Sinyard. Extras included on the discs include a commentary track by Beresford, recorded in 2004; the 1973 documentary The Breaker, directed by Frank Shields, about the real Harry “Breaker” Morant (55 min.); a 2011 featurette by Shields focusing on a key bit of information that Shields deliberately omitted from “The Breaker” (5 min.); and a series of video interviews recorded in with Beresford (12 min.), cinematographer Donald McAlpine (8 min.), Brown (10 min.), and Woodward (16 min.); a featurette with historian Stephen Miller supplying background about what he refers to as the South African War (a.k.a. “The Boer War”) (16 min.); and the film’s trailer.

RATING 8 / 10