Friday, July 17, 2009

Film Friday: Breaker Morant (1980)

You should all see Breaker Morant. Directed by Bruce Beresford (Driving Ms. Daisy), Breaker Morant is a gripping courtroom drama that centers on the real-life murder trials of three Australian soldiers during the Boer War. Not only is this an outstanding drama, but it raises complex moral issues that remain relevant today. Indeed, if you replaced British Lord Kitchener with Pennsylvania Democrat Frank Murtha, you would be half way to making a movie about Iraq.

** spoiler alert **

The Boer War
Before discussing the film, let’s start with a brief (relevant) history of the (Second) Boer War (1899-1902). Tensions between the British Empire and independent Boer republics in Southern Africa simmered for nearly two hundred years. In 1899, the South African Republic (Transvaal) and the Orange Free State declared war on the British and promptly routed the out-numbered and out-motivated British Army. But after heavily reinforcing their Army, the British easily conquered all the Boer lands by early 1900. At that point, the Boers scattered into small “commando” groups (yes, that’s where the term originated). These commandos roamed the countryside, blending in with civilians, ambushing British soldiers, blowing up trains and telegraphs, and raiding British settlements. Sound familiar?

To combat the Boers, Lord Kitchener, the British commander, implemented a scorched-earth policy. He ordered British soldiers “to sweep the country bare of everything that could give sustenance to the guerrillas, including women and children.” This included systematically destroying crops and farms, burning homes, poisoning wells, and rounding up women and children into concentration camps -- the first recorded instance of concentration camps. Approximately 26,000 women and children eventually died in 109 camps of disease and malnutrition, and whole portions of the country were de-peopled (another 25,000 men were deported). This policy finally broke the will of the guerrilla movement, though it proved a political disaster, both for the British government and for Britain’s standing worldwide.
The Movie
In addition to the concentration camps, Lord Kitchener established small, mobile units to hunt the Boer commandos in open country. One of these units, the Bushveld Carbineers, is recognized as the first modern special forces unit. Breaker Morant involves three members of the Bushveld Carbineers: Lt. Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward from The Equalizer), Lt. Peter Handcock (Bryan Cox from Cocktail), and George Witton, who are on trial for the murder of several Boer prisoners and a German missionary. Handcock and Witton are Australians, and Morant is Anglo-Australian.

The facts are these. When Morant’s commanding officer and friend, Captain Hunt, was killed (and mutilated and likely tortured) by a Boer commando group, an enraged Morant led the Carbineers on a search for the commando group. Soon enough, Morant came across a group of commandos, who sought to surrender. Several members of the group were wearing pieces of British uniforms, possibly including Hunt’s jacket. This caused Morant to conclude they killed Captain Hunt. As he considered what to do with the prisoners, the British Intelligence Officer assigned to the unit reminded Morant of Lord Kitchener’s standing verbal order that commandos should not be taken prisoner: “You know the orders from Whitehall. If they show a white flag, we don't see it. I didn't see it.” Thus, Morant ordered the prisoners shot.

Before the trial begins, it is made clear that the British government wants to make an example of Morant, Handcock and Witton. Lord Kitchener’s scorched earth policies caused a tremendous backlash against Britain, and the British hope to shift the blame from their policies onto “out of control” soldiers. To ensure a conviction, the army stacks the deck at the trial. The Australians are assigned an attorney (Major Thomas) who has never litigated a single case. Thomas is given no time to prepare. He is deprived of access to necessary witnesses, who are shipped to India. He faces biased witnesses. And he faces a biased judge.

Unlike a typical Hollywood movie, everything presented in this movie is well within the zone of what really happens at court. There are no impossible theatrics or last-second, mystery witnesses. The judge’s behavior, while infuriating, is nothing I haven’t seen many times in court. Indeed, while we despise many of the judge’s decisions, they are all well within what the law and the procedures allow. Moreover, Thomas does not suddenly transform into a super trial attorney who trips up witness after witness with an amazing wit that exists only in films. Thomas grows into his role as trial attorney, visibly improving as the trial progresses, but he remains only an average attorney at best -- though, as he grows, you begin to wonder if he just might pull it off.

That is all I can tell you about the ending without spoiling the tension for you, except for one interesting fact. The reason the story is constructed so realistically is that this is a true story. The film is based on a play, which was itself based on the book Scapegoats of the Empire, written by defendant Witton himself in 1907.
Issues Raised
Beyond being a great drama, Breaker Morant raises many issues that remain relevant today. During the trial, the movie delves into issues like: (1) can soldiers be held to the same standards to which we hold civilians; (2) does it matter that this was a new kind of war, with a new kind of enemy, that required new strategies to defeat; (3) does it matter that the defendant’s actions were militarily effective; and (4) does it matter that they were following orders or that they believed the were following orders? Indeed, right at the beginning of the trial, Major Thomas challenges the propriety of trying the defendants at all: "soldiers at war should not be judged by civilian rules."

And as for this being a new kind of war, Morant puts it best when he says:
"This is a new kind of war for a new century, George. I suppose this is the first time our enemies have not worn uniforms. Some of them are women, some are children, and some... are missionaries."
Thus, new strategies were called for. For example, Morant is accused of putting Boer prisoners in open carts at the front of trains, where they might be shot at by the enemy. This violated provisions of the Second Convention of The Hague, signed two years earlier, which prohibited soldiers from exposing prisoners to danger. But, as Thomas shows, this action stopped the Boer commandos from blowing up trains. So was this right or wrong? Also, is it relevant that Kitchener ordered that no prisoners be taken? Can they still be tried for shooting prisoners? Does it matter if this policy was the only way to break an insurrection that had already gone on for two years? What if they only believed such an order existed? And what are the moral implications of the same state that issued the “no prisoners” order being the prosecutor of Morant, Handcock and Witton? Should a state be allowed to cast off its own guilt on the people it ordered to carry out the order?

These issues all arise in Breaker Morant. They are not answered because there are no clear answer to any of these. But they are presented in interesting and thought-provoking ways that will give you much to consider, and that could challenge your views. I highly recommend seeing this film.

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Writer X said...

Thanks for another great review. I've added this to my summer viewing list. And, you're right: the parallels to today are eerily similar.

Joel Farnham said...

I have seen this movie. It is very good.

Yes, it does bring up questions.

I believe they are insoluble questions when viewed through a civilian court.

freedom21 said...

Excellent review. Michael Savage recapped this movie on his program once after the Murtha mess. I never watched it because...well, the man likes poodles, but I suppose I'll give it a go now. Queue me up blockbuster.

You mentioned that one of the issues concerned whether it mattered that they were following orders or that they believed the were following orders? I think that is especially relevant today. It seems to me that orders and chain of command are things that are scoffed at by our politicians.

Sidenote: To me, that has always been the crux of the matter with the international courts and why W was so on the money to never ratify the Rome Statute (that Clinton signed).Do you think Obama will join the ICC? And will the ambiguous language relating to temporal relations allow for prosecution of the Bush administration and all the soldiers that followed commands?

CrispyRice said...

You know I'm a dedicated reader when I continue to read something that starts with "let’s start with a history of the Boer War..." ;)

Seriously, though, I have seen this too and it's an excellent movie. And it's horrifically compelling to think about in terms of what is happening to our military in recent times. Soldiers were already being prosecuted under Bush for doing their job. >:(

And Freedom, I agree that Savage's fondness for poodles puts his judgment in question, but I find I mostly agree with him nevertheless, LOL.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I think you will be pleased -- it really is a gripping film. Please let me know if you like it.

Joel, it does make you wonder how we can judge people who we are put under pressures that we can't imagine ourselves, especially with the notoriously difficult problem of hindsight, in that we know things after the fact that they could only have guessed at the time. But we have begun to make such judgments, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.

AndrewPrice said...

CrispyRice, I knew you were a fan of the Boer War! :-)

Glad you liked the review and that you liked the film. I think this is a really great film, even without the modern parallels, but what is going on today (with guys like Murtha) make the ideas behind this film very timely.

AndrewPrice said...


The whole world court idea is a mess, and it's coming at us from several angles. Even without the world court, you have a system in Spain that lets anyone bring war crimes charges against anyone else, and presumably the Spainish government must go along for the ride. (Italy is a problem on this issue too.)

At the same time, you have several groups trying to set up international courts with broad jurisdictions, usually with very left-wing mandates.

I don't know if Obama will sign up for these or not. Bush actually came close, cutting deals where the US would participate so long as certain guarantees were left to protect American solders. Though I don't see how those protections would survive.

I don't know what the current thinking is on those things, but generally I suspect Obama will want to avoid giving potential power over his own administration to a foreign entity.

That said, whether Obama signs up or not, expect indictments for some Bush people in the coming years -- though I doubt those will be anything more than attempts to grab headlines.

P.S. Poodles... hmm.

Tennessee Jed said...

Breaker Morant is already in my collection and one of the best and favorites. It was one of the first movies I ever saw in the dawn of "premium" movie channels. Edward Woodward (no relation in 10 generations) is phenomenal as the breaker. War of this sort "ain't easy" is all I can say since I don't want to provide spoilers either.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, It's one of my favorites too.

Unknown said...

Andrew: The movie ends by showing that (gotcha, I ain't gonna tell).

I've watched the movie multiple times, and always find something new to admire about it. The issues of command blame-shifting, soldiers following what appear to be immoral orders, a military lawyer attempting to follow military rules while at the same time attacking military decisions, and what goes on in the mind of the good soldier under orders on the battlefield are all addressed in depth without either sentimentality or gimmicks. Very fine movie.

Mike Kriskey said...

I loved this movie when I first saw it---must have been 12 or 13---and watched it again about a year ago. I usually don't do that, because I usually can't believe what bad taste I had as a kid. In this case, I think 13-year-old me had exceptionally good taste. Terrific performances, and I was enthralled by the courtroom scenes. I'm not a lawyer and have never seen a trial (OJ excepted), but you can sense when something is authentic. (OJ didn't seem authentic.)

I had forgotten about the commandos wearing bits of the enemy uniform, and I can't remember if this was offered in the defense. Wasn't that grounds for summary execution at the time?

I'd like to say more but can't spoil it. (Thanks for ruining the end of the Boer War for me, by the way.)

Unknown said...

MikeKriskey: My practice was split between the tri-counties (Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo)and Los Angeles. Trust me, nothing in Los Angeles courtrooms is real. I gave some of my best acting performances and worst legal performances in the L.A. courts. As Andrew mentioned, the military courts are a third version, and the British system is different from ours. But it was a very accurate depiction.

AndrewPrice said...


The uniform question was raised by the defense as part of the reason for shooting the prisoners because they claimed that Kitchener had issued an order that any prison found "wearing Khaki" should be shot. That's how they got into the whole question of following orders.

In terms of authenticity, I can assure you that I've sat in trials where these very events happen -- different facts, but the same kinds of results, the same feeling of helplessness, the same feeling of elation, and the same sense of real anger at what is going on, the same smug reactions by judges.

You just don't get this in normal Hollywood trial movies.

Mike Kriskey said...

Boy, I'm dumb. I remember the whole "wearing khaki" thing now, but when I was watching it I didn't think of that as meaning they were dressing in British uniforms. What I thought, I don't know. (Anyone wearing khaki had stolen it, maybe?)

DCAlleyKat said...

Okay, it's on my 'Netflix' list. Being married to an Army vet (1964-68) movies like this are difficult for me to sit through. I tend to lose my objectivity, but then again they often remind me that few they are that can keep it.

Andrew, have you seen "Miracle at St. Anna's"?

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, One of the issues that came up during the trial was that the commandos were wearing parts of British uniforms, but were not "trying to impersonate" British soldiers, which is how Kitchener's adjunct re-interprets the order later on. Thus, there is the question of whether or not Morant had correctly interpreted the orders.

DCAlleykat, It is a really good film and I hope you enjoy it. IMO, it does elicit strong emotions. Please let me know what you think after you see it.

I have not yet seen Miracle at St. Anna's. I heard bad things, so I didn't rush out to see it. It's on HBO now though, so I do intend to check it out. How was it?

DCAlleyKat said...

I have not yet seen Miracle at St. Anna's. I heard bad things, so I didn't rush out to see it. It's on HBO now though, so I do intend to check it out. How was it?

I can understand you having heard bad things. It's too long. Had I seen it in theatre I would probably have been a bit unhappy with the length. However, the depth of characters was well played, but they could have been so much more edgy considering the circumstances. It was worth the watch in my living room. When you view it, please let me know what you think of it. On a scale of 1-5 I'd give it a 3.5.

AndrewPrice said...

DCAlleykat, I'll definitely let you know.

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