Bright Lights Film Journal

Kangaroo Court: On Bruce Beresford’s <em>Breaker Morant</em>

“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?

Edwin Henry Murrant was born on December 9, 1864, in the town of Bridgewater, England. The early years of his life are sketchy. His father, also named Edwin, died two weeks before he was born, leaving his mother, a widow at twenty-seven, the meager salary of £40 per annum, which she earned as matron of the local workhouse. Like so many men who rise from obscurity to world fame, Murrant has been claimed by the aristocracy; a recent biographer, Nick Bleszynski, suggests that his true father was not Edwin Murrant at all but Admiral Sir Digby Morant, a well-to-do member of the landed gentry whose near-relations included High Sheriffs, Members of Parliament, and an aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria. There is little evidence to support this theory, though it does neatly resolve two nagging questions: how he obtained his education, which was considerable for a youth of his caste (despite his family’s poverty, he somehow managed to attend boarding school), and where he picked up his expertise on horseback, for which he would later gain so much renown. Both were already in evidence when he first set foot in Australia at the age of eighteen, determined to make his fortune. Crisscrossing the country, he worked as a stockman, a drover, a store clerk, a journalist, and a horsebreaker. Somewhere along the way, he shed his given names, trading them in for a more romantic-sounding trinity: Harry Harbord Morant. Starting in the early 1890s, he began publishing poetry in a weekly Sydney paper, The Bulletin. His verse is fairly lightweight stuff. Mostly, it consists of jaunty little odes on the pleasures of the outback — horses, women, and nights spent lying out beneath the stars — though at his best he does manage to capture some of the flavor of his hero Byron, seasoned perhaps with a sprinkling of Kipling:

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

When the Second Boer War broke out in 1899, Morant enlisted in the South Australian Mounted Rifles, a unit, like all Australian units of the time, subject to British command. He landed in South Africa in February 1900 and, thanks to his excellent horsemanship and experience in the bush, quickly ascended the ranks, climbing from private to corporal to sergeant to lieutenant in little more than a year. In April 1901, he joined the Bushveldt Carbineers, a mounted infantry regiment (what you might call an early-modern Special Forces outfit) tasked with suppressing Boer commando attacks in the remote Northern Transvaal: what we today refer to as counterinsurgency. He restored discipline to the unruly Carbineers, broke up illegal liquor stills, and returned Boer cattle stolen by troopers. He also executed Boer prisoners under orders handed down from Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the overall commander of British and colonial forces in South Africa.

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.

Many observers will note that this scenario bears some resemblance to Paths of Glory (1957), Stanley Kubrick’s venerated tale of justice gone awry on the fields of World War l. Stark and frightening as that film is, Kubrick’s mistake was rigging the deck too heavily in his protagonists’ favor. The antagonist in that film, the scar-faced George Macready, is such a hypocritical monster, and the three defendants such obvious innocents, that between them there’s really no choice for the viewer to make. Breaker Morant, on the other hand, offers no such easy outs. In actuality, Morant did order the execution of Boer prisoners, and he did it not out of a principled respect for his superiors but with a bloodthirsty yen for vengeance after the death of his friend Hunt (Terence Donovan). The fact that he received orders to do so should, at least from a moral point of view, in no way get him off the hook. One of the oft-used conceits of movies is that, no matter how low the villain may sink, whether it be lying, stealing, or cheating at cards, the hero will never permit himself to abandon his principles. This, indeed, is what makes him a hero: his continued integrity in the face of overwhelming odds. Not so in Breaker Morant. Morant and Handcock really did murder the German missionary, a fact they hide not just from the court members but from their own loyal attorney, Major Thomas. Morant, to put it bluntly, is a murderer and a liar, just as guilty of cozening justice as the prosecution.

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 [1997]), the blustering blowhard (12 Angry Men [1957], A Few Good Men [1992]), the seemingly innocent but actually guilty defendant (Witness for the Prosecution [1957], Primal Fear [1996]), and the devil himself (The Devil and Daniel Webster [1941], Devil’s Advocate [1997]). 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.

Again, Breaker Morant breaks the mold. The Kitchener of the film is no one-dimensional villain but a pragmatic man who, like Morant, is forced to play with the opaque ethics that war has dealt him. His treatment of the heroes may be iniquitous, but his motivation is reasonable enough. The German government, angered by Morant’s killing of the missionary, is clamoring to join the conflict (“On the Boer side, of course.”), and Kitchener is doing all he can to prevent them. “I’m not trying to prove some academic point. I’m trying to put an end to this useless war,” he explains to one staff officer. “If these three Australians have to be sacrificed to bring about a peace conference — a small price to pay.” As ethical arguments go, this one’s pretty flimsy, but as a political and military strategy it’s reasonably sound. Kitchener’s job is to win the war as quickly and as bloodlessly as possible, and if executing three men will accomplish that, then so be it. Seen from this perspective, Kitchener is possibly the one sturdy bulwark preventing a premature outbreak of World War l. In reality, of course, the general was hardly so altruistic. (As Baron of Khartoum, he kept the skull of his Mahdi adversary as a souvenir,3 and his casual disposal of Sudanese civilians prompted even Winston Churchill, not exactly a bleeding-heart anti-imperialist, to cry foul.4) The Boer War saw some of the first use of large-scale concentration camps, barbed wire and machine guns, and military measures, including starvation and mass relocation, carried out against a civilian population. By demonstrating his willingness to deal harshly with those who carried out such cruel orders, Kitchener conveniently freed himself from accepting his own share of responsibility for their implementation.

The film’s title role is played by Edward Woodward, a British actor known mostly for his roles in television, but a refreshing choice for those of us who tire of the brawny and beautiful on screen. The real Morant did, in fact, have movie star good looks; a photograph from the turn of the century reveals a face that rather resembles a young Frederic March. Woodward supplies a far less eye-catching visage by comparison. Nearly fifty years old (compared to Morant’s actual thirty-six at the time of his death) and wispy-haired, he is hardly the hail hero one expects from a typical action-adventure movie. Yet he brings an older man’s patience to the role. He tends to hold lines back a beat before delivering them, as when he sums up his military record for the court, in the beginning of the film. “There were requests for volunteers to join the Bushveldt Carbineers in the Northern Transvaal. I joined on April the First,” he says. “April Fool’s Day.” Any other actor would have probably verbally italicized that last sentence for added emphasis. Woodward, however, delivers it like an afterthought, as if the irony just occurred to him. Notice the quiet flourishes that pepper his performance: the half-grin that lifts only a tiny corner of lip, the way his eyes flick inquiringly back and forth while the rest of his face remains serene, and the note of faint contempt that underscores even his most somber statements, like a spectator whimsically observing the hopelessness of his own situation. Woodward’s Morant is not the dashing young hero of a Kipling story but a middle-aged soldier whose more glorious feats are already behind him. Watch the film once and you’ll be awed by him: by his bravery, by his esprit, by his stoicism in the face of death, and by his obviously fierce intelligence. Catch it a second or third time, though, and you’ll start to notice the cracks in the noble exterior: he repeats himself, retelling old anecdotes once too often; drinks too much; and bores the other soldiers with his poetry. From a dramatic perspective, of course, these are not flaws at all but the very qualities that make him most interesting. Homeliness and corruptibility, as every great dramatist knows, play much better than spotless, youthful purity. Indeed, there is something rather touching in Morant’s weariness, even admirable. Given the chance to escape, on the second-to-last day of his life, he refuses. “Where would I go?” he asks. “You might take a boat,” Captain Taylor tells him. “See the world.” For a moment, we can actually see the world rushing through Morant’s eyes. Then he quietly replies: “I’ve seen it.”

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.

For this amendment, so crucial to our understanding of the character, we can thank writer-director Bruce Beresford. Born in Sydney, Australia, in 1940, Beresford was obsessed with film from an early age, making eight-millimeter shorts from the time he was thirteen years old.5 After graduating from the University of Sydney, he moved to London, hoping to break into the British film industry. Failing to gain a union card, however, he ended up working in a factory and teaching at a girl’s school.6 Undaunted, he moved to West Africa to edit films for the Nigerian government, only to discover, upon arriving in Lagos, that the unit he’d joined didn’t even exist. Returning to London, he found a job as head of production for the British Film Institute’s Production Board. During his five-year tenure, he produced over a hundred documentary shorts and three feature films, before returning to Australia, in 1971, just in time to catch the crest of the Australia New Wave. Fanned, for the first time, by government financing — the Australian Film Development Corporation Act of 1970, to be precise — the Australian film industry grew, in a few short years, from the faintest ember to a raging inferno, its flames forging the careers of such renowned filmmakers as Peter Weir, Philip Noyce, Fred Schepisi, and George Miller.7

Like each of these filmmakers, Beresford got a toehold directing relatively low-budget features in Australia (The Adventures of Barry McKenzie [1972], Don’s Party [1976], 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.

Beresford and his crew had to work on the sheerest of budgets, roughly $800,000.9 (By comparison, that same year Ordinary People, hardly what you would call a sprawling epic, cost nearly ten times that much.)10 As so often happens in the film industry, though, the financing came with strings — in this case, actually, just one string — from the production company, Village Roadshow: that actor Jack Thompson appear as one of the leads. Consequently, casting revolved around Thompson, who was cast first as Morant, then Handcock, and finally Major Thomas. Unable to afford the trip to Africa, the crew filmed in South Australia, where the foothills most closely resembled the African veldt. The wintry clime, however, was hardly conducive to Method preparation, as the actors quickly found out. “It was bitterly, bitterly cold,” Lewis Fitz-Gerald recalls. “I can remember breaking half an inch of ice in the horse troughs in the mornings when we began. It was freezing cold — more like Flanders than the Transvaal.”11 Incredibly, though, none of this comes across onscreen. The film, despite its meager budget, has many images of affecting beauty: the dappled amber light on the prison wall as the prisoners trudge to court; the sight of a lone soldier, pistol in hand, picking his way amongst the corpses atop a windy aerie; the two condemned men, at film’s end, seated alone, amongst the gently rolling hills, quietly watching the sunrise and waiting to die. Beresford makes it a habit to carefully storyboard each of his films before production,12 and his eye, while not as astute as that of, say, Nicolas Roeg, obviously has a feel for wide, open spaces; just think of what he did with the dusty plains of Texas in Tender Mercies. Even the casting of Jack Thompson, forced upon the filmmaker by necessity, worked to his advantage. Thompson hands in an excellent performance, at once seeming idealistic, practical, kindly, and gruff. I’m usually rather put off by big courtroom speeches, with their characteristic histrionics and bombast, but Thompson’s closing argument bears reprinting, for it offers a taste of the movie’s singular method: “The fact is that war changes men’s natures. The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men. The tragedy of war is that the horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations … I say that we cannot hope to judge such matters unless we ourselves have been submitted to the same pressures and the same provocations as these men whose actions are on trial.”

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. 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. 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.

  1. Morant []
  2. Bleszynski, pp. 442-43. []
  3. Magnus, p. 133. []
  4. Manchester, pp. 279-80. []
  5. Stratton, p. 41. []
  6. Katz, p. 118. []
  7. Stratton, p. xvii. []
  8. Filmink, p. 70. []
  9. Coleman, p. 81. []
  10. IMDBPro, Ordinary People. []
  11. Filmink, p. 71. []
  12. Coleman, p. 19. []
  13. Bleszynski, p. 490. []
  14. Maurois. []
  15. Denis, p. 1. []
  16. Mailer, p. 984. []
  17. Ross, p. 8. []
  18. Beresford. []
  19. Ibid. []
  20. Imdbpro. []
  21. Coleman, p. 78. []