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Breaker Morant

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Bruce Beresford
Produced by Matt Carroll
Written by Screenplay:
Jonathan Hardy
David Stevens
Bruce Beresford
Kenneth G. Ross
Starring Edward Woodward
Jack Thompson
John Waters
Bryan Brown
Cinematography Donald McAlpine
Editing by William M. Anderson
Distributed by Roadshow Entertainment
Release date(s) May 15, 1980
Running time 107 minutes
Country Australia
Language English
Budget A$650,000

Breaker Morant is a 1980 Australian feature film about the court martial of Breaker Morant, directed by Bruce Beresford and starring British actor Edward Woodward as Harry "Breaker" Morant. The all-Australian supporting cast features Bryan Brown, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, and Jack Thompson.

Beresford co-wrote the screenplay with the 1978 play Breaker Morant: A Play in Two Acts, written by Kenneth G. Ross,[1] being the source material for the screen story.[2]

It preceded other Australian New Wave war films such as Gallipoli (1981), The Lighthorsemen (1987) , and the 5-part TV series ANZACS (1985). Recurring themes of these films include the Australian identity, such as mateship and larrikinism, the loss of innocence in war, and also the continued coming of age of the Australian nation and its soldiers (later called the ANZAC spirit).

The film was a top performer at the 1980 Australian Film Institute awards, with ten wins, including: best film, best direction, leading actor, supporting actor, screenplay, art direction, cinematography, and editing.

It was also nominated for the 1980 Academy Award for the Best Writing (Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium).



Breaker Morant concerns the murder trial of three Australian Army officers of the Bushveldt Carbineers serving in South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899-1902). Lieutenants Harry "Breaker" Morant, Peter Handcock, and George Witton are accused of the murder of one Boer prisoner and the subsequent murders of six more. In addition, Morant and Handcock are accused of the sniper-style assassination of a German missionary, the Rev. H.C.V. Hesse. Their defence counsel, J.F. Thomas, has had only one day to prepare their defence.

Lord Kitchener, who ordered the trial, hopes to bring the Boer War to an end with a peace conference. To that end, he uses the Morant trial to show that he is willing to judge his own soldiers harshly if they disobey the rules of war. Although, as Major Thomas mentions in court, there are great complexities associated with charging active-duty soldiers with murder during battle, Kitchener is determined to have a guilty verdict, and the chief of the court, Lt. Colonel Denny, supports him.

The causes and occurrences relating to the trial are developed. Morant's execution of the Boer prisoners was revenge for the mutilation and death of his friend and commanding officer, Captain Hunt. Enraged by the incident, Morant led an attack on a Boer camp, where a Boer, Visser, wearing Captain Hunt's khaki battle jacket was captured. Morant had him executed on the spot. (It was later proved that the mutilation of Hunt's body was done by black witchdoctors, and not Boers as Morant believed, and that Visser did not wear any of Hunt's clothes.)

Morant later executes, again by firing squad, six other Boer prisoners for the same reason after they had surrendered under a white flag. He later said of the incident, "You know the orders from Whitehall. If they show a white flag, we don't see it. I didn't see it." Just prior to the firing one of the Boers tries to escape and is shot in a struggle with Lt. Witton. Before their execution, Morant notices the German missionary, Rev. Hesse, speaking with the Boer prisoners, despite Morant's orders to the contrary. Morant, furious, is convinced that Hesse is a spy, though he has no proof. A conversation with Handcock leads to the latter taking a rifle and horse and following the missionary, who is found shot the next morning.

During the trial, the court's bias toward a guilty verdict becomes apparent, as are the political machinations behind it. Morant and Handcock repeatedly display their contempt for the proceedings by insulting their accusers and lashing out at the prosecuting attorney, Major Bolton. At one point, the presiding officer of the court, Lt. Colonel Denny, warns Handcock that if he does not behave, he will find himself in "very serious trouble" (this to a man on trial for multiple murders). In a poignant scene between trial sessions, Morant tells his friend Captain Taylor, an intelligence officer who had come to testify in his behalf, that he knows he and Handcock are going to be shot, and that the trial had been a sham from the beginning. Morant makes it clear that he does not care what happens to him any more, since his life in England was in shambles and there was nothing to go back to. He declines an offer from Taylor for assistance in an escape. In an effort to bolster Morant's spirits, Taylor describes him as a "black sheep" and Handcock as "a simple and wild fellow". Morant replies sardonically, "We won't be missed".

The main focus of the trial is on whether or not orders were issued by Kitchener to shoot Boer prisoners. Major Thomas's case is that there were standing, though unwritten, orders to execute Boer prisoners in the field, which Morant acknowledges he did. But since these orders were verbally relayed to Captain Hunt, and by Captain Hunt to Morant, there is no way to prove that they were really issued. To the surprise and delight of his three clients and the growing discomfort of the British High Command, Major Thomas proves to be a very skilled defence lawyer, although his only previous legal experience had been in "handling land conveyances and preparing wills". He repeatedly scores points for the defence by proving that many of the prosecution's witnesses, having been dismissed from the Bushveldt Carbineers, were biased against the accused, and that the high command was actively interfering with his efforts to defend the three officers. He also establishes that both Morant and Handcock were admired by their men for their courage and effective leadership in battle. In one scene, Thomas forces the first witness for the prosecution (former Bushveldt Carbineers Captain Robertson) to admit that Handcock's irregular tactics had proven to be effective in suppressing train ambushes by the Boers—so effective that he himself continued them.

During the court-martial, the fort is attacked by Boers. The three defendants are temporarily released, issued firearms, and ordered to assist in the fort's defence. The defendants perform these duties with valour and efficiency, killing several attackers in the process. However, when the trial resumes and Major Thomas attempts to point out that such fine conduct under fire should be cause for dismissing the charges against the defendants, Lt. Colonel Denny becomes incensed. He states that the defendants' actions are "irrelevant," and cannot be used to terminate the trial.

In what is perhaps the most dramatic scene in the film, Major Thomas delivers a brilliant summation in which he indicts the British government's policy in South Africa as well as its case against the defendants, whom he describes as sacrificial pawns to be offered up in the name of international politics. He lists the atrocities and brutalities that he himself has seen performed by other British Empire troops, and describes these actions as standard operating procedure instituted with the knowledge and blessing of the General Staff (but again, without putting the orders in writing). Thomas points out to the court that it is impossible to fairly judge men for their behaviour under the circumstances of war, where conventional norms do not apply. As the camera pans the faces of the board of judges, it is clear that they have been shaken by Thomas's words, and that some are in grudging agreement with him. Finally, Thomas pleads with the court to at least show mercy to Witton, who had nothing to do with the alleged crimes of Morant and Handcock and was guilty of nothing more than "having shot a Boer who was trying to shoot him."

At this point, it develops that Morant and Handcock were in fact responsible for the murder of Reverend Hesse, the German missionary and suspected spy for the Boers. Handcock, who took care to set up an alibi with two "lady friends", admits to Witton that he did follow Hesse and shoot him. When Witton recoils at the killing of the clergyman, Handcock explodes and rails against the war and the British Army. He points out that they are all about to be shot for the sake of political expediency for simply fighting a commando war using commando tactics, and that the Boers were under no such legal restraints. Morant expounds on this, explaining to Witton that "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." In any event, the court acquits Morant and Handcock of the murder of Hesse, but finds them guilty of the other two charges of murdering Boer prisoners.

Some time after the conclusion of the trial, each of the three accused is marched one at a time from his jail cell into the office of presiding court officer Denny, who informs them, "You have been found guilty of murder and are sentenced to death." Morant stiffly comes to attention, salutes, and clicks his heels as he shouts out "Sir!" As he is marched back to his cell, Morant shouts out to Witton, "Shot in the morning." As Handcock returns to his cell after receiving his sentence, he growls to Witton "Same as Harry." That afternoon, both Handcock and Morant listen as carpenters on the other side of the prison wall construct their coffins. Handcock sarcastically says "You'd think they could at least measure us for those first", Morant quips "I'm sure they don't get too many complaints." Morant begins to write his last poems, one of which serves as the backdrop as the men are led off to be shot the next day. He hands his last work to Major Thomas and thanks him for his skilled defence efforts in court. He asks Thomas to post the poems as soon as possible, since he fears government censorship. He remarks, "After all, we poets do crave immortality." When the execution detail comes to get Morant and Handcock, the military chaplain asks their religious affiliation. "Pagan." replies Morant. "What's a pagan?" inquires Handcock. Morant replies, "Well, it's somebody who doesn't believe there's a divine being dispensing justice to mankind." Handcock nods and says to the chaplain, "I'm a pagan too." As the march to meet their firing squad begins, Morant requests his epitaph to be Matthew 10:36, which states: "And a man's foes shall be they of his own household." After that Morant quips "Well Peter, this is what comes from empire building!" While walking to their execution site (two chairs in a vast open field), Morant and Handcock nod to each other and hold hands in a display of solidarity. After being seated, and just before the execution squad opens fire, Morant yells "Shoot straight, you bastards! Don't make a mess of it!"

Kitchener conveniently makes arrangements to be absent from his headquarters in the aftermath of the execution, and is therefore unavailable for pleas for a reprieve, although he does commute Witton's sentence to life imprisonment before leaving. Morant and Handcock are shot as Witton is taken to a railway station, the first step on his way back to a prison in England. As a final indignity, Handcock's coffin is found to be too small for his tall frame, and the soldiers of the burying detail are forced to clumsily cram his body in as the soundtrack plays a stirring paean to the British Colonial Armies.

A summary at the end of the film reveals what later happens to some of the characters. Major Thomas returns to his native Australia and continues his civilian law practice, which is confined to estate planning and wills. Witton serves three years of his sentence, then is released after a national outcry. In 1907 he writes a book entitled Scapegoats of the Empire, an account of the Breaker Morant affair (it was reprinted in 1982). Witton's book proves so inflammatory and anti-British that it is suppressed during both world wars.



The film was shot almost entirely on location in and around the South Australian town of Burra, with the Pietersburg courtroom scenes filmed at the former Redruth Gaol. Other South Australian locations included Ayers House and Rostrevor College.


Rotten Tomatoes gave it an average rating of 8.3/10 based on 18 reviews and also comments "Superbly executed in every area, the film is a memorable evocation of the hypocrisy of empire."[3]

The film also acted to stir debate on the ongoing effect and legacy of the trial with its anti-war theme. In one analysis of the film, D. L. Kershen comments: "Breaker Morant tells the story of the Court-Martial of Harry Morant, Peter Handcock, and George Witton in South Africa in 1902. Yet, its overriding theme is war's evil. Breaker Morant is a beautiful anti-war statement--a plea for the end of the intrigues and crimes that war entails."[4]

Another comments: "The clear issue of the film is accountability of soldiers in war for acts condoned by their superiors. Another issue, which I find particularly fascinating, concerns the fairness of the hearing. We would ask whether due process was present, after accounting for the exigencies of the battlefield. Does Breaker Morant demonstrate what happens when due process is not observed?"[5]

After the success of Breaker Morant, Bruce Beresford was offered dozens of Hollywood scripts including Tender Mercies, which he would later direct. The 1983 film earned him his only Academy Award nomination for Best Director.[6]





A DVD is available by REEL Corporation (2001) with a running time of 104 minutes. Image Entertainment released a Blu-ray Disc version of the film in the U.S. on February 5, 2008 (107 minutes), including the documentary "The Boer War", a detailed account of the historical facts depicted in the film.

See also


  1. ^ Subsequent to the film's release, Ross—who began writing under the name "Kenneth Ross" in order to set himself apart from other creative Australians known as "Ken Ross"—has found that he must write under the name of "Kenneth G. Ross" in order to distinguish himself from that other, also famous, Kenneth Ross: the Scottish/American Kenneth Ross that was the scriptwriter for The Day of the Jackal.
  2. ^ Many people labour under the misapprehension that it was Kit Denton's 1973 book The Breaker that was the source (see Ross' successful legal action for details).
  3. ^ Breaker Morant (1980) Retrieved 2009-07-24.
  4. ^ BREAKER MORANT Oklahoma City University Law Review Volume 22, Number 1 (1997). Retrieved 2009-07-24.
  5. ^ BREAKER MORANT Retrieved 2009-07-24.
  6. ^ Bruce Beresford (actor), Gary Hertz (director). (2002-04-16). Miracles & Mercies. [Documentary]. West Hollywood, California: Blue Underground. Retrieved 2008-01-28.  
  7. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Breaker Morant". Retrieved 2009-05-25.  


  • Ross, K.G., Breaker Morant: A Play in Two Acts, Edward Arnold, (Melbourne), 1979. ISBN 0-7267-0997-2

External links



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