“Indeed, if there is a single distinguishing feature of Beresford’s technique, it is a persistent evenhandedness that refuses to either exalt or vilify. In writing the screenplay for Breaker Morant, he explains, ‘I wasn’t interested in making these men out to be heroes. I wasn’t trying to whitewash the situation. What I was interested in was the moral responsibility in times of war.'”
A quiet, starless evening on the South African veldt. The last bluish bands of light are slipping from the sky. It is 1902 and there is a war on. In a small farmhouse, a group of British officers have gathered for dinner. Their topic for conversation: the upcoming trial of Harry “‘Breaker” Morant, an Australian lieutenant charged with executing Boer prisoners and a German missionary. During a lull in the conversation, all eyes fall on Major Thomas, the only Australian of the bunch. “Why is it he’s referred to as ‘Breaker’ Morant?” a dinner guest politely inquires. “A ladies’ man, perhaps. A breaker of hearts.” “No,” Major Thomas curtly replies. “He was a horsebreaker. I understand one of the best in Australia.” The listeners clearly expect more, but Major Thomas has nothing further to offer. An awkward silence engulfs the room, leaving us, the audience, no less than the dinner guests, a little bemused. A question hangs soundlessly in the air, tantalizing us for the next hour and a half: who is Breaker Morant?
Oh! those rides across the crossing
Where the shallow stream runs wide,
When the sunset’s beams were glossing
Strips of sand on either side.
We would cross the sparkling river
On the brown horse and the bay;
Watch the willows sway and shiver
And their trembling shadows play.
. . .
‘Tis a memory to be hoarded —
Oh, the foolish tale and fond!
Till another stream be forded —
And we reach the Great Beyond.1
Then, in October 1901, Morant, along with two other members of the Carbineers, George Witton and Peter Handcock, was arrested for following those very same orders. Though he was offered immunity if he testified against his immediate superior, a major, who had ordered the killings, Morant demurred. During the court-martial that followed, numerous witnesses for the defense mysteriously found themselves unable to give testimony or transferred away. Other defendants, many more high-ranking than the Australians, were let off the hook or quietly discharged from the service, despite being charged with similar crimes. When, mid-trial, a Boer commando unit laid siege to the fort in which they were being held, the three prisoners gamely joined their gaolers in mounting a defense, though this was not weighed in their favor during the court-martial. Although they provided a wealth of evidence that the order to shoot prisoners originated in the uppermost reaches of the British high command (or perhaps precisely because they provided such evidence), the three men were found guilty and sentenced to death. Lord Kitchener himself signed the death warrants for Morant and Handcock, at the last minute commuting Witton’s sentence to life in prison. The two men were shot the next day at six in the morning.
Thus began Morant’s martyrdom. In little more than a month, the Australian government was demanding an explanation. By 1904, the furor had reached the British House of Commons, where a young MP named Winston Churchill clamored for Witton’s release. In 1907, after being freed from Portland Prison, Witton published his account of the events in South Africa, Scapegoats of the Empire, which remains the most comprehensive primary source document on the trial. (The exact whereabouts of the court transcripts remain a mystery, being either lost, destroyed, or still buried somewhere in British archives.)2 Since then, two novels, half a dozen histories, and one play have been written on Morant, yet few have managed to bring him fully into focus. Who was he? What made him tick? Was he victim or villain, gentleman or rogue? These are some of the questions posed by the film Breaker Morant (1980), adapted from Kenneth G. Ross’s 1978 play of the same name. That they remain, after a hundred and seven minutes, essentially unanswered reveals not some glaring omissions at the heart of the film but its most knowing insight: that the greatest characters, both in life and fiction, are too complex to be defined by such simple labels. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that the test of a truly first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at once and still be able to function. For most people this is difficult enough, but for a film it’s nigh impossible. Audience expectations and the very nature of the medium — its need for brevity (generally about two hours), clear-cut characters, and narrative resolution — ensure that cinema rarely deals in moral ambiguities. Take even a film as penetrating as Schindler’s List (1993), and you’ll find an oft-traveled character arc, a thoroughly contemptible villain, and an unequivocal vision of right and wrong. This makes Breaker Morant a standout. It is that most elusive of creatures, a film that sets up an ethical quandary, one of the most recurrent, in fact, of the twentieth century — the rightness or wrongness of obeying highly immoral orders during wartime — introduces the players involved, presents the arguments for and against, and then lets you make up your mind for yourself, on your own.
If this all sounds painfully pedagogic, put your fears to rest. The film captures all the élan of a cavalry picture, with the tense plotting of a trial movie. Though it may fence with weighty moral principles, it does so only behind a screen of dashing heroics and clipped repartee. There are rousing cavalry charges, fiery speeches, and even a Maxim gun shootout that would do Sam Peckinpah proud. The film reproduces — in a condensed form, of course — the events of Morant’s trial with admirable fidelity. We are introduced to all the major players: Morant’s codefendants, the coarse but charming Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) and the youthfully innocent George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald); Major Thomas (Jack Thompson), their inexperienced country town lawyer, and the grandly mustachioed prosecutor (Rod Mullinar). We see, too, how purposefully the odds have been stacked against them: all the best defense witnesses have been packed off to India, crucial pieces of evidence are denied admittance, and the presiding judge, played by the walrus-like Charles Tingwell, seems determined to tip the scales for the prosecution. Yet, through flashbacks, we also see how Morant and Handcock are hardly blameless scapegoats; at best they are accessories to murder, at worst little better than Kitchener. And so it is left to Major Thomas to navigate this ethical minefield, defending three hardly exemplary men, against overwhelming odds, with one hand tied behind his back.
Of course, the courtroom has long been a favorite staging ground for lessons in morality. Just consider, from a screenwriter’s point of view, all it has to offer: grand speeches, battles of wit and will, easily identifiable heroes and villains, and nail-biting conclusions, ending in either “guilty” or “not guilty.” Over the years, the conventions for the genre have fairly well ossified. The hero usual comes in one of two types: the young idealistic lawyer who bumbles at first but ultimately finds his way, or the older but reluctant pragmatist who must slough off his cynical carapace and take on the noble, long-shot case. There are, likewise, four dominant species of villain: the slimy, serpentine type (Paths of Glory, The Rainmaker ), the blustering blowhard (12 Angry Men , A Few Good Men ), the seemingly innocent but actually guilty defendant (Witness for the Prosecution , Primal Fear ), and the devil himself (The Devil and Daniel Webster , Devil’s Advocate ). Needless to say, this doesn’t make for exhibitions of much moral complexity. Many viewers were outraged by Mel Gibson’s depiction of Christ’s biblical trial in Passion of the Christ (2004), either by its insatiable bloodlust or its patent anti-Semitism, whereas I was simply bored. When your hero is a silken-haired Jesus and your bad guy an androgynous albino Satan, the outcome is about as indubitable as a Harlem Globetrotters’ basketball game.
This is an enlivening change of pace from the play by Kenneth Ross. In Ross’s drama, Morant is prone to long soliloquies and violent outbursts in the courtroom, and most of what we learn about him we learn during these unguarded moments of prolix emotion. The movie scraps this device almost entirely, turning Morant from a seething hothead into a gentleman of cool, wry observation. Yet, strangely, he is perfectly at ease in the company of men like Handcock, whose only apparent interest outside soldiering is bedding Boer women with his boots on. While Handcock quotes dirty limericks, Morant recites “Impromptus,” to the confusion of his cellmates:
WITTON: Did you write that, Harry?
MORANT: No, no. It was a minor poet called Byron.
HANDCOCK: Never heard of him.
MORANT: I did say that he was a minor poet.
Like each of these filmmakers, Beresford got a toehold directing relatively low-budget features in Australia (The Adventures of Barry McKenzie , Don’s Party , Breaker Morant) before thrusting himself into the more lucrative American film industry. If his name is not widely known, in the manner of, say, Spielberg, Scorsese, or Coppola, certainly some of his movies are. Tender Mercies (1983) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989) were each sleeper successes — quiet, redemptive films, fawned over by critics — while his more action-oriented pictures like King David (1985), Double Jeopardy (1999), and The Contract (2006) have ensured him a continued place at the Hollywood table. Technically speaking, of course, none of his movies have been runaway hits, and King David is not so much famous as infamous: namely, for being a gigantic financial bomb, as well as featuring Richard Gere in a cloth diaper. Nonetheless, his career, if uneven at times, has been more than simply durable. Black Robe (1991), for instance, was a risky venture, hardly one to excite a Hollywood executive: the story of a seventeenth-century Jesuit missionary who treks into the vast Canadian wilderness to proselytize the violent natives. Yet Beresford manages to pull it off, delivering a picture that is dark, frightening, and, in its brutal vision of a meeting of cultures, refreshingly unsentimental, especially after the syrupy sentimentality of Dances with Wolves (1990). The same could be said of Paradise Road, his 1997 film about a women’s vocal orchestra that formed in a Japanese POW camp during World War ll. Though the material certainly offers plenty of opportunities for melodrama, in Beresford’s capable hands it becomes a penetrating ensemble piece, featuring an array of fine performances, an unflinching portrait of Japanese brutality, and a legitimately touching story, all without placing too much emphasis on the orchestra, which was, after all, just a choral group, not, as a more saccharine director would have it, the raison d’etre of these poor women’s lives.
Indeed, if there is a single distinguishing feature of Beresford’s technique, it is a persistent evenhandedness that refuses to either exalt or vilify. In writing the screenplay for Breaker Morant, he explains, “I wasn’t interested in making these men out to be heroes. I wasn’t trying to whitewash the situation. What I was interested in was the moral responsibility in times of war.”8 He was initially offered two scripts to work from. One was Ross’s play, the other a screenplay by David Stevens and Jonathan Hardy. Beresford scrapped both, considering them each too generous to the defendants, and traveled to the Imperial War Museum in London to conduct fresh research. After he returned, he began his own script, building his dramatic structure around the trial (as the play had also done) but widening his field of vision to reveal what Ross, in his stage production, never could: the interior world of the characters. In addition to the scenes with Kitchener, the Boer attack on the prison, and Handcock’s confession to the murder of the German missionary, the film gives us tiny streams of consciousness — flashbacks, dreams, bursts of memory — shooting off from the broader story and offering windows into the protagonists’ minds. The film also breathes life into otherwise indistinguishable characters. In the play, for instance, Handcock is little more than a crass brute, but Beresford gives him a touch of humor and even, at times, cleverness. When Major Thomas first arrives, reeking of inexperience, the three defendants press him about his lack of credentials. “I was country-town solicitor,” Thomas explains to them. “I handled land conveyancing and will.” “Wills,” Handcock muses. “Might come in handy.” The casting of John Russell Waters as Captain Taylor is a nice touch, too. The actual Taylor was a ruthless murderer, using the war as an excuse to plunder Boer property and line his own pockets. In the film, he is the defendants’ only ostensible ally besides their attorney. Take one look at Waters, though, with that pencil-thin scar on his cheek and that haughty, dead-eyed stare, and you’ll see a glimpse of the monster lurking beneath the gentleman’s façade.
That’s Breaker Morant for you: the more simple, even noble, the note it strikes, the more you catch the hint of cynicism and doubt straining to reach the surface. After all, how much does that speech actually absolve the actions of the men on trial? If you’re the forgiving type, it gives you the excuse not to pass judgment on them. On the other hand, who spoke for the men Morant executed, including the German missionary, the circumstances of whose death remain a mystery to Major Thomas? In one light, Thomas can be seen as a principled do-gooder, bravely fighting a lost cause. In another, he can be seen as a naïve fool, duped by his own clients. (When, in 1929, the actual Thomas learned from Witton that Morant and Handcock had secretly confessed their murder of the German missionary, he was distraught, having rested his faith, for nearly thirty years, on their innocence.13) That’s the thing about the film: the instant you think you’ve got hold of its message, its import, it slips through your fingers like a wriggling eel.
The last act of the film is deliciously ripe with valiant detail, especially for those of us who still thrill to the sound of the stoic bon mot and the sight of the stiff Victorian lip in the face of death. “Could have had the decency to measure us first,” Handcock complains as he and Morant listen to the coffin-makers hammering together their caskets. “I don’t suppose they’ve had many complaints,” Morant replies, as unfazed as though he were being fitted for a new suit. On his last night on earth, he sits in his cell, cigarette in hand, coolly penning a final verse: “It really ain’t the place nor time to reel off rhyming diction, and yet we’ll write a final rhyme while waiting crucifixion.” When, next morning, he’s offered the council of a priest, he declines on the grounds that he’s a pagan, then requests an epitaph from the bible, Mathew 10:36: “And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” The epitaph is genuine. You can read it on Morant’s tombstone in Pretoria, but Beresford gives Handcock an equally cynical riposte to match:
HANDCOCK: What’s a pagan?
MORANT: Well, it’s someone who doesn’t believe there’s a divine being dispensing justice to mankind.
HANDCOCK (after a moment’s thought): I’m a pagan, too.
By this point, seasoned stoics should be licking their lips. Like many others, I have long admired the beauty of the perfectly chosen (or ill-chosen) final utterance. In my case, the interest began when I read George Plimpton’s Shadow Box, which contains a reasonable sampling, though for more ardent aficionados there is William B. Brahms’ Last Words of Notable People. They can range from the haunting (Victor Hugo: “I see black light.”)14 to the hilarious (Tallulah Bankhead: “Codeine … bourbon.”),15 but the best have a sublime brevity, not unlike a haiku, almost as if they’d been deliberately selected, which in some cases they were. (To wit, Gary Gilmore, just before being shot: “Let’s do it.”)16 Morant, however, beats them all hollow. After mounting the hill hand-in-hand, he and Handcock sit and face the firing squad. In voice-over, he recites his final poem, composed the night before. Then, as the riflemen take aim, he shouts out one final command: “Shoot straight, you bastards. Don’t make a mess of it!” It’s a wonderful line, the kind of thing you think people only say in Hemingway stories. But no, Morant really said it, or so the story goes, and it appears in both the play and the movie. “I don’t think I would have dared to invent [the line],” Kenneth Ross explains, “if he himself had not already spoken the words.”17 It’s the ideal note to end the film on: defiant, ironic, almost archaically masculine, but eloquent too. As the bodies are lifted into their coffins, “Soldiers of the Queen” starts up on the soundtrack, an amusingly sardonic choice considering the lyrics:
And when we say we’ve always won
And when they ask us how it’s done
We’ll proudly point to every one
Of England’s soldiers of the Queen.
Not that any of this ensured the film success at the box office. In fact, the picture might never have gotten off the ground at all, so to speak, were it not for in-flight movies. Withheld from most major festivals and far too low-budget to receive a wide release, the film, according to Beresford, was set to wither in the can until it began appearing on one of the airlines between New York and Los Angeles, a fortuitous route, as it turned out, because of all the studio execs who traveled it.18 Thereafter, it began popping up in theaters around the world: in America, where, predictably, frequent comparisons to the My Lai Massacre were made, and England, where, surprisingly, audiences and critics alike were receptive to the film’s anti-British flavor. Ever modest, Beresford likes to claim (incorrectly) that the movie never turned a profit, but even he’ll admit that it launched his career. “Once Breaker Morant was shown in America,” he explains, “scripts turned up from Hollywood in staggering numbers.”19 Among others, he was offered the first Rambo film, which he turned down (“When thousands of people are dying all over the set and an actor asks me: ‘What am I thinking?’ what am I supposed to tell him?”), as well as Dying Young (1991), which he also wisely declined. Yet his career has hardly been impoverished; a septuagenarian now, he continues to average nearly a film a year, many with budgets that could have bought Breaker Morant twenty-times over. (The Contract, for instance, weighed in at $25 million, not bad for a director who could barely afford to process the print of his first feature film.)20 Still, if you reach your artistic high before the age of forty, it’s hard not to feel that the rest of your career has been a bit of a letdown. “I have a feeling it doesn’t really matter what other films I make,” Beresford admits. “I’ll always be introduced as Bruce Beresford who made Breaker Morant.”21
Beresford, Bruce. Interview with Peter Thompson. Talking Heads with Peter Thompson. Web.http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/09/ January 1, 2007.
Bleszynski, Nick. Shoot Straight, You Bastards! Sydney: Random House Australia, 2002.
Coleman, Peter. Bruce Beresford: Instincts of the Heart. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.
Denis, Brian. Tallulah, Darling: A Biography of Tallulah Bankhead. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1980.
Filmink. “Shoot Straight, You Bastards.” Sydney: June, 2009.
Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. 4th ed. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.
Magnus, Philip. Kitchener: Portrait of an Imperialist. New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1959.
Mailer, Norman. The Executioner’s Song. New York: Random House, 1979.
Manchester, William. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, 1983.
Maurois, Andre. Olympico, ou la vie de Hugo. 1954.
Morant, Harry Harbord. “At the River Crossing.” The Poetry of Breaker Morant. Perry Middlemiss. November 30, 2005. http://www.middlemiss.org/lit/authors/moranth/poetrybulletin.html#cont ents
Ross, Kenneth. Breaker Morant: A Play in Two Acts. Australia: Edward Arnold, 1992.
Stratton, David. The Last New Wave: The Australian Film Revival. Sydney: Angus & Robertson Publishers, 1980.
- Morant [↩]
- Bleszynski, pp. 442-43. [↩]
- Magnus, p. 133. [↩]
- Manchester, pp. 279-80. [↩]
- Stratton, p. 41. [↩]
- Katz, p. 118. [↩]
- Stratton, p. xvii. [↩]
- Filmink, p. 70. [↩]
- Coleman, p. 81. [↩]
- IMDBPro, Ordinary People. [↩]
- Filmink, p. 71. [↩]
- Coleman, p. 19. [↩]
- Bleszynski, p. 490. [↩]
- Maurois. [↩]
- Denis, p. 1. [↩]
- Mailer, p. 984. [↩]
- Ross, p. 8. [↩]
- Beresford. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Imdbpro. [↩]
- Coleman, p. 78. [↩]