Breaker Morant

Provost's Film Series

November 7, 2002



Beresford and Australia

Director Bruce Beresford's Breaker Morant (1980) was part of a wave of Australian movies in the late 1970s and early 1980s that captured the attention of international film critics and represented a revival of Australian cinema.  In 1973, Beresford released The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, a film which popularized "ocker comedy" as a national genre.  Ocker comedies found humor in the bluster of Australian working-class "mates" and stressed Australian slang (much like the Foster beer commercials on American TV).  The funny, ribald, and offbeat slang was actually something of an Australian rebuttal to the "Queen's English" of the British, who had governed colonial Australia after its founding.  Australian films began to celebrate "larrikinism" (irreverent and humorous opposition to authority) as well as the lone, anti-social wanderers of the Outback, most notably the apocalyptic "road warrior" Mel Gibson in the Mad Max series.

Breaker Morant signals Beresford's shift to a more serious investigation of moral and political issues, yet like the comedies it explores tensions arising from the British control of colonial Australia.  Along with the film Gallipoli (1981) by the famous Australian director Peter Weir, Breaker Morant examines the ethical and psychological ramifications of Australian soldiers fighting for the advance of the British Empire.  After earning acclaim for his work in Australia, Beresford has gone on to a notable career in America, including Tender Mercies (1983) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989), which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.


The Breaker and the Poet

Based on a stageplay by Kenneth Ross, Breaker Morant recounts the true story of three Australian soldiers who were court-martialed by British military authorities during the Boer War (1899-1902).  Additional material was gathered from The Breaker, an historical study of the commander Harry Morant, the leader of the men on trial.  A complex figure, Morant was an impetuous wanderer, a horse trainer or "breaker" and a poet, equal parts romantic and cynic.  Full of good humor and loyalty to his men, he could also drink in excess and was known as something of a "black sheep" among his friends and colleagues. 

Morant's poetry sounds much like the work of Rudyard Kipling, especially in its moralistic rhythms and military themes.  Like Kipling, Morant provides an expatriate's view of the British Empire.  Founded as a colony of debtors and prisoners, Australia at the turn of the twentieth century was still viewed by many of the British as a nation of renegades and ne'er-do-wells.  As a military man, Morant maintained a code of honor and duty, though it was laced with a creed of personal integrity, self-reliance and Byronic heroism.  At a critical moment in the film, Morant quotes from the poetry of Lord Byron, the British Romantic who wrote the high-spirited and ironic epic poem Don Juan.


The Boer War

The events of the film take place in 1901 in the Dutch territory of southern Africa known as the Transvaal.  Until the British began to infiltrate the region, the area was loosely filled with local African tribes and Dutch farmers ("boer" is the Dutch word for farmer).  When English settlers began to arrive in the nineteenth century, some of the Dutch resented the imposition of British ways (such as the ban against slavery; this was the region, after all, where the Dutch word "apartheid" would become such a prominent part of the political language of the twentieth century).

What changed everything was the discovery of gold in the Transvaal in the late 1800s.  English settlers and miners rapidly spread into the territories and seized land.  Early on, the Dutch villagers, with the help of some of their African allies, led a successful resistance, but England eventually overpowered them by sending some 400,000 soldiers into the region, more than five times the forces of the Boers.  Among the British forces were soldiers from the newly independent nation of Australia, which the British still refer to in the film as a "colony."  Faced with the overwhelming numbers of the British, the Boers often resorted to guerilla warfare and commando raids.  Upon victory, the British established some of the world's first concentration camps, where they interned hundreds of Boer families.  This was clearly a new day for warfare, as the claims of Empire and imperialism came face-to-face with emerging forms of terrorism and recrimination.


The Empire and the Modern World

Breaker Morant captures this sense that the world was at a transitional moment in the shaping of modernity.  The film unmasks the arrogance of the Empire, as the British authorities cling to old notions of military honor and integrity in the face of more desperate forms of civil rebellion.  In fact, Mahatma Gandhi studied the horrors and the imperialism of the Boer War in developing some of his own ideas of non-violent resistance to colonialism.

The Boer War also anticipates the coming of World War I, which erupted only twelve years after the ceasefire in the Transvaal.  One of the thorniest issues in the film is the question of who killed a German missionary.  There is an important political backdrop to this question.  During the Boer War, German politicians and writers tended to side with the Boers against the British, and England feared that Germany, if provoked, would enter the conflict.  Even in the Transvaal region of southern Africa, therefore, England and Germany were drifting toward violence against each other. 

Like many good courtroom dramas, Breaker Morant withholds certain information from the audience in order to create suspense.  You might consider how the filmmaker serves as a lawyer, assembling the episodes in a certain order so that he can develop specific themes and leave the audience (his "jury") with a verdict on the court martial.   Also, how do the camera angles—and the ironic blend of images in particular scenes— contribute to the film's perspective on justice?