Monday, January 24, 2011

“Breaker Morant” 1980 (Australia) Dir: Bruce Beresford

What I Remember:

What I remember: This was a film that came out during the first real wave of films from down under, including such standouts as “Walkabout” from Nicolas Roeg, “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “The Last Wave” from Peter Weir, and this director’s first work of international acclaim, “Don’s Party”.

What I loved about “Breaker Morant” was that it represented the holy trinity for my generation; 1) Authority questioned, 2) Anti-war and 3) Irreverent humor. Ahhh, you were expecting Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll, no? That is the UN-holy Trinity. I also remember a breakout performance by Brian Brown (of “F/X” fame), and the other lead being just as impressive, Edward Woodward as Morant. Both Brown and Jack Thompson, who played the defense counsel, had been in Fred Schepisi’s “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith”, but neither really registered for me before this film.

Along with the theme and great acting, I recognized the film’s connection to one of my all-time favorites, Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory”, which, though released in 1957, was picked up as a bell-weather film for the Anti-Vietnam movement. These were both part of the micro-genre of court-martial dramas, which included “The Caine Mutiny” and subsequently the Reiner/Sorkin collaboration “A Few Good Men”.


“It’s a new war for a new century”- ‘Breaker’ Morant.


Three Australian soldiers are being court-martialed for killing prisoners during the Boer war in South Africa. They were actually following direct orders from the high command, but are enduring a trial-for-show and will certainly be found guilty of murder. They are being scapegoated in order to mollify other nations with interests in South Africa, and hopefully in order to help end the war. Their defense is ably handled, but it is for naught. The titular character is actually British born, but lives in Australia and identifies with the Ozzies. He is somewhat of a Poet Warrior, extremely learned and cultured, yet quite courageous and soldierly.

Q-Was my memory accurate?

STORY/THEME: I remembered the obvious influence of “Paths of Glory” correctly. They are almost the same film, but there are subtle and important differences. In Kubrick’s film, it is Frenchmen court-martialing Frenchmen for following bad orders (firing on their own men to halt a retreat). In “Breaker Morant”, the men who are being court-martialed for killing Boer prisoners are Australian, but the judges are British. This provides a political/cultural element to the film that failed the memory test. The British wanted to settle the Boer war before the Germans entered on the side of the Boers. At one point, the commander of the British forces, Lord Kitchener explains that the Germans are interested in the gold and diamonds of South Africa, and an underling replies “They aren’t like us. Altruistic.” It is this hypocritical ethos of the British Empire that the film shines it’s harsh light upon. The Brits don’t mind sacrificing soldiers for political reason so long as they are colonials.

Interestingly enough, my wife pointed out that the book written by the defendant who was not executed (George Witten), “Scapegoats of the Empire”, was published long before “Paths of Glory”, and for all we know may have been an influence on Kubrick’s film!

Was there a reason for me to associate this film with the not yet moribund anti-war Vietnam movement? The Boers are described as guerrillas who will eviscerate a prisoner, and who are poorly armed and fighting for their land by any means possible. The British are an occupying force, who have been reduced to less civilized tactics in order to combat the enemy, and have infighting between the people being ordered to do so.
You’re damned right there’s a connection!

FILMMAKING: The opening has a ‘70’s cinema realite feel. It reminds me of something Michael Ritchie would do to make you feel like you are part of the events. Ritchie used candid shots of marching bands and the like, with extras that look like they were pulled out of the local high school and supermarket. Obviously in a period piece like “Breaker Morant” it is difficult to get that “you are there” feeling, but still, the style gives you the sensation that “This REALLY happened”. Although there are later shots of the band playing in a Gazebo right outside the prison walls, this style is pretty much abandoned after the open.
Beresford then takes a more standard approach, with the occasional eye-popping shot of the Transvaal, or some great close-ups. There is one point during the beginning of the trial when he shows Morant in 3 consecutive head shots: Right profile, directly in front, and left profile. It’s not clear what the purpose is, but it is nevertheless quite arresting. Some standout moments are 1) The shot after the death sentences have been handed out, showing the coffin builders right on the other side of the wall from the prison yard, 2) A wonderful cut from when a senior officer is told to perjure himself, to that same officer swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth etc., and 3) right after the defense’s summation, an overhead shot showing all the participants in the courtroom dissolves to the same shot with no people in it. It’s a brilliant way to show the emptiness of the proceedings.

There are a few false notes: one scene in which each prisoner has a dream/flashback to his home is a touch heavy-handed. For the most part, what could have been a simple courtroom drama like “12 Angry Men”, elevates from stage play thanks to the beautiful cinematography, and the extensive and well-placed use of flashbacks.

PERFORMANCES: Although I thought that Brown’s and Woodward’s were the standouts before re-watching, the two performances that really got me were Charles Tingwell as Lt. Col. Denny, the chief judge on the case, and, of course, Jack Thompson as the defense counsel. Tingwell does a superb job of showing that he knows this trial is a sham, but still he must do what is necessary. His conflict is physically palpable in a superb piece of support acting. Thompson’s Maj. Thomas is a cross between Columbo and Clarence Darrow. He looks distracted and confused, and then comes in for the kill with incredible force and conviction. His frustration and determination are rendered with an intensity that earned him awards from the Australian Film Institute and the Cannes Film Festival. It is a powerful, scene-stealing turn.

After their sentence, the prisoners are asked if they need religious representation at their executions.
Morant- I’m a Pagan.
Handcock- What’s a Pagan?
Morant- I don’t believe in a divine being going around and dispensing justice.
Handcock- Oh. Then I’m a Pagan too.

ON SECOND LOOK; “Breaker Morant” is a better film than I recalled. It is far more visually stunning than I remember, and it stands the test of time in style, performance and pertinence. It is not as funny as I thought, but there are some laugh out loud moments. It is on Netflix streaming, so there is no excuse not to go watch this.

1st Look- ★★★1/2 2nd Look- ★★★1/2

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