The box art for the new Criterion Collection edition of “Breaker Morant” features the image of a lone man standing, arms tied behind his back, awaiting a firing squad.
Except that in Bruce Beresford’s 1980 movie, things look quite different. Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward) faces his executioners not on his two feet, but sitting, in the middle of a field in a little wooden chair that looks like it was swiped from someone’s kitchen table. The sun is setting over the hills — it could be a nice little moment, if it weren’t for the rifles.
It’s a surreal touch of civilization in the middle of a very uncivilized war in Africa. Throughout Beresford’s gripping film, we see civilization and savagery at odds with each other, the former offering a veneer of cover for the latter. It’s a great film, and the new Blu-ray edition gives “Breaker Morant” its due.
Set in 1901 during the Boer War in Africa, which pitted British colonialists against Dutch settlers, the film is based on the true case of Morant, an Australian nicknamed “Breaker” for his skill at breaking horses. He fights with the British, and as the settlers’ guerrilla tactics offer a surprising resistance, the British soldiers are tacitly encouraged to push the line of acceptable behavior farther and farther.
Morant and two of other officers (one played by Bryan Brown of “F/X”) are charged with executing a group of Dutch prisoners and a German missionary who was thought to be colluding with them. Morant insists that he was following orders (he bitterly refers to “Rule 303!” — as in a .303 Lee-Enfield rifle), but his superiors are nervous about Germany being drawn into the war. They want Morant convicted and executed swiftly in a kangaroo court.
So “Breaker Morant” is a courtroom drama, spiked with flashbacks of the war, flashbacks that sometimes contradict the testimony that we’re hearing. The effect is bracing, as Beresford cuts from the claustrophobic environs of the makeshift courtroom to the vast plains of Africa (actually South Australia, beautifully captured in the Blu-ray’s 4K restoration). But even the staging in the courtroom is dynamic and unexpected, with a witness giving testimony in close-up profile as we see Morant’s inexperienced lawyer (the excellent Jack Thompson) in the background, trying to win an unwinnable case.
It makes for riveting viewing, full of suspense and thunder but also black comedy, as Morant almost amusedly faces his long odds. (“So this is what comes of empire-building,” he mutters.) Woodward, later know to U.S. audiences from the TV show “The Equalizer,” is so good as an educated man for whom war has either perverted or revealed his true nature. (In a 2004 interview included on the Blu-ray, Woodward says he thinks the film goes too easy on Morant, calling him a “bit of a bastard” in real life). And that’s the rub of “Breaker Morant” — these men may be being railroaded, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the punishment that awaits them.
Despite being set a century ago, “Breaker Morant” fit perfectly into the moral uneasiness of a post-Vietnam world, and it’s no surprise that it became a worldwide hit, sending Beresford to Hollywood where he would make Oscar winners like “Tender Mercies” and “Driving Miss Daisy.” But those are safe mainstream entertainments; “Breaker Morant” is a bracing film, a bitter moral pill packed inside a David Lean-sized epic, and one that is wise to the cruel ironies of war.
As we see bodies folded into makeshift coffins at the film’s end, we hear a voice jauntily singing “Soldiers of the Queen” on the soundtrack, its chipper patriotic spirit — its civility — mocked by the cruelty and betrayal we’ve seen. The singer is Edward Woodward — Morant himself.