Breaker Morant (1980) or An Australian Look at the Second Boer War

The Australian movie Breaker Morant is one of those movies that leave you thoughtful and pensive for quite a long time. It leaves you feeling helpless and infuriated as well by unmasking the hypocrisy of those in charge. It brilliantly illustrates the absurdity of war and deserves to be named together with the most important anti-war films ever done.

The movie is based on the true story of the court-martial of three Australian officers Lt Harry “Breaker” Morant, Peter Handcock and George Witton by a British court. They were accused of having shot first one, then six POWs and subsequently a German missionary. Their defense attorney Jack Thompson who was inexperienced and soon tried to accuse those in charge of the trial as well.

The movie tells the storiy alternating court-room scenes with flashbacks.

The second Boer war (1899-1902)  was by far worse than the first. The Dutch started to fight a guerilla war against the British who then fought back and organized a special troop, The Bushveldt Carabineers, for wich they appointed Australian soldiers. The idea was to fight the Boer with their own means.

Harry Morant volunteered to go to South Africa because he believed in the British Empire. How utterly tragic.  In Australia he was famous as a breaker of horses and poet. Edward Woodward plays this proud, upright and poised character with an excellence I have rarely seen. This is such a brilliant actor I wonder why he never made it to more fame.

The longer we watch the trial the more we realise that it is a sham. The British need scape goats to save their reputation. What those officers are ultimately accused of is what they were told to do. Only now no one wants to take responsibility for it. Of course this is also a meditation on what is good or bad during war.

Breaker Morant is interesting for cinema historic reasons as well since it is part of the so-called Australian New Wave, of which Gallipoli and The Lighthorsemen are other great examples.

This is without any doubt a 5 star movie.

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16 thoughts on “Breaker Morant (1980) or An Australian Look at the Second Boer War

  1. Aiden R. says:

    Well said, man. I keep getting confused as to whether this was set in Australia or South Africa. Care to clear that up for me?

  2. warmoviebuff says:

    I agree with you. A great movie and thought-provoking. Unfortunately, I wonder if the audience understands that Morant is not necessarily a wronged-hero. You could argue that he was a war criminal. Although personally I sympathize with him and feel he was railroaded. You might want to check out my review at “//warmoviebuff.blogspot.com”

  3. Eliseo says:

    Great post! 😛

    Eliseo

  4. […] Breaker Morant (1980): Second Boer War. True story. The court-martial of Breaker Morant. Three officers are accused of a war crime. Outstanding legal drama and a truly tragic story (see my post on Breaker Morant). […]

  5. […] realized that from the start, I was totally fixed on his going to be executed. I saw him like some Breaker Morant character (which he isn’t) and thinking he did something that would have this consequence set […]

  6. Breaker Morant is a fascinating movie, for two reasons. 1 – its a great movie thats well written and has a brilliant cast. 2 – it has influenced our understanding of our military history and our place in the world far more than any other movie, book, text book etc

    The movie is, as you say, part of the ‘New wave’ of Australian Military history invented in the 1970’s. And yes, sadly, I say ‘invented’. Now before my fellow Aussies get all up in arms I need to put on my amateur Australian Military Historian cap for a second. This version of the Breaker Morant story was created by Kit Denton (Andrews father for those keeping score at home). In his last years Kit Denton regretted his part in creating this mythical version of the Breaker and helping launch the ‘theme’ of the New Wave of Australian military history that sadly is now accepted as factual. The whole ‘the British are bastards they sacrificed our men without care and our ‘Diggers’ are godlike warriors stout of heart and embody all that is good’ was created at this time and continues on to some extent today. This movie represents the start of that perversion of our true military history.

    If I may, Morant was a bastard. A liar, thief, drunk, conman and sometime mediocre poet. He did not join the Australian Contingents to South Africa out of any sense of loyalty or duty, he joined because he had nowhere else to go. From the time he landed in Queensland he meandered through the bush chased out of one town after another, always one step ahead of the law, people he owed money to and people who’s property he stole. Once in South Africa he was an ordinary soldier at best. It was only through his friendship with a British Officer who he conned with his ‘bastard son of a famous peer’ routine that he was offered a Commission in the Bushveldt Carbineers. This was his foot into the ‘High Society’ he craved.

    There is absolutely no doubt he was guilty of the crimes he was charged for. None. Lets get that straight. What Morant did that was ‘wrong’ in context of the times was that he allowed the Boers to surrender and executed them sometime later. What was deemed ‘legal’ at the time, and what other similar units did, was to shoot the Boers down in the act of trying to surrender but not accepting their surrender. Yeah, its utter bollocks but legally different. And yes, British Officers in the Carbineers did ‘get away with it’ including one that was far worse than Morant and Hancock who was killing Boers and stealing their lands and cattle. And yes, the Brits did do their best to protect career British officers.

    Far from being inexperienced, the trial lawyer was an Australian Lawyer from Tenterfield who was fully versed in Military Law and Australian Law. He was infact a hero of Elands River – probably Australia’s most famous battle of the war. So he was not new to the law or to the Military. There was plenty of opportunity for the men to be pardoned but they decided to ‘make an example of them’ due to the severity of their crimes, so there is no real case to say that they were wrongly convicted and executed.

    OK, far more than I wanted to type but really – you need to know the context of the movie or else you get the problem that we have today – a fanciful view of our military history.

    Breaker Morant is a great movie. It is one of my favourites. Jack Thompsons performance as Major Thomas is brilliant. Its like a very early and far more realistic version of Tom Cruises defence lawyer in A Few Good Men without the over the top Hollywoood histrionics. For our foreign friends, Jack Thompson would have to be one of the greatest actors Australia has produced. I think this is his best performance of his career with his role alongside a younger Russell Crowe in The Sum of Us a close second. Edward Woodward is his classic self. You know what you are going to get with him and he plays true to his ‘type’. Don’t quote me, but I think this is one of Bryan Browns first major roles. He would go on to become a legend of the Australian screen in his own right but like Thompson not a lot of overseas success.

    Breaker Morant IS an important film. No doubt about it. As you say in your review – it launched a resurgence in not only Australian Military history but in finely crafed Australian cinema. Soon films like Gallipoli and TV Series like the ANZACs would follow but I think we owe it to the viewers to explain that the movie has little factual relevance and should stand on its own as a great piece of entertainment.

    • That was a very interesting comment, thanks a lot. I like it a lot but am nowhere as familiar with Australian history as you are, of course.
      I see that it’s a bit of a mythical approach but the acting is oustanding and as an earyl cout room drama it was probabaly influential as well.
      It’s been a while since I watched this, Gallipoli and The Lighthorsemen. At the time when I first watched it I liked Gallipoli best.
      I watched the Monocled Mutineer a while back and the charcater of the real Morant is similar.
      I think the movie is far more interested in the aspect of what was or wasn’t legal and what was practiced by the British than in Morant as such. Maybe I’m wrong.

      • Of all ‘our’ wars that we’ve joined in on, the Boer War is probably the most unknown to the average Aussie, more so I believe than the Korean War. Which is why Breaker Morant is such an influential movie. I’ve always said that our ‘ANZAC Spirit’ we cherish so much was actually born on the veldts of South Africa and not on the beaches and gullies of Gallipoli.

        Most people don’t know that Australian contingents to South Afroica were broken up and distributed around the place. No Australian officers over the rank of major were accepted all all military decisions, justice, leadership was under British command and jurisdiction. The Boer Wars were very harsh affairs. Concentration Camps were invented by the British in this war and many other tactics we’d abhor today. Australians were not on their own in ill feelings towards the British when these tactics were used. Other Dominion troops from Canada and New Zealand also questioned British tactics and methods. As Australian troops at the time said – and I paraphrase here because I can’t remember the quote, but as the war progressed the Australians (and Canadians and New Zealanders) felt more affinity for their Boer counterparts as a kindred spirit, being farmers and settlers in a harsh far flung corner of the empire, than they did with their British masters. Such was the ill feeling that when Morant and Hancock were executed Australian troops in Pretoria were confined to barracks, had their weapons taken from them and then not told of the executions till lat in the day AFTER the executions had occurred. The Australian Government was not informed of the charges, the court case or the execution till weeks after it happened when a returning Australian officer told the Australian government on his return to Australia.

        The legacy of the Boer War would take us into WW1 where no Australian soldier would be subject to British Military justice – despite ongoing and strong demands from the British. Not a single Australian soldier would be subject to the death penalty ever again as it was felt unfair to volunteer soldiers. Australia, with the exception of Vietnam (where you still had to actually volunteer for Vietnam service, contrary to modern anti-war retoric) and some militia in PNG during WW2 (which was considered Australian territory at the time) has only ever fielded volunteer soldiers.

      • Interesting. I can understand how there would be a feeling of similarity between the Boers and the Australian. I alwys find it incredible when you see the Australian and British mentalities clash in war movies. Often it’s used with a lot of humour but it’s not a funny thing really and I also got the impressions that Austrlaina and Canadian troops were abused and sent on the most dangerous missions.

      • Australian, Canadian and New Zealand troops formed the backbones of many of the special anti-Boer units, like the Bushveldt Carbineers, due to the nature of the war. Regular massed formations of British troops were far too big and unwieldy to use on the vast veldts and after the initial moves of the war the Boers settled back into what we call today an insurgency. The operated as small ‘Commandos’ – from which we got the term during WW2 – essentially small lightly armed groups that pop up to ambush and destroy infrastructure then dissapear back into the populace. Dominion troops were the ones who had the skills and ability to live off the land in long range horseborn patrols to track down and engage these Boer Commando’s in their own backyards that regular British troops could not.

        I suppose the best way of looking at it is in terms of a modern conflict like Afghanistan where the Boers were the Taliban and Irregular troops like the Carbineers are akin to Special Forces operating in the Green Zones providing reconnaissance and strike capabilities.

        The downside to that kind of warfare is that the British were extremely harsh on the Boers and the Boer civilians. They created the worlds first concentration camps and herded Boer civilians in them to separate them from the Boer fighters and not allow them to provide aid, support etc but many thousands of them died in the extremely poor conditions. Famously they put Boer Prisoners in the front carriages of armoured trains bringing supplies and troops to garrisons so that the Boers would have to kill their own in order to derail the trains as they had been doing.

        It was these tactics and living for long periods in the Boers backyards, combined with the typical British Officer class arrogance that Dominion troops resented and saw the Boers as little different from themselves. They had great affection for the ordinary British Soldier, and still do, but the British class system rubbed them all the wrong way given the very egalitarian societies they had come from.

        The Boer War is a fascinating subject, I keep saying ‘its a little known war’ and it very much is, more so than the Korean War, but I think its a very important subject that people should know more about. It does set the tone, attitudes, tactics etc for modern warfare that we still see in action today.

        And I really should be doing some work instead of typing in these ‘walls of text’ :p

      • It does sound fascinating. I didn’t know anything about the British being the first to use concentration camps.
        A lot of what we see in later wars must have its origin here. It should be interesting for military history.

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