J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Breaker Morant

Posted by J on November 15, 2007

Breaker Morant is the best movie about the Boer War. It is probably the only movie about the Boer War, but if they made fifty of them it still might be the best. This war, of course, was one of the nastier of modern colonial wars, wherein both sides lusted for diamonds and gold and the Brits began the modern practice of rounding up women and children and shoving them into concentration camps. It was a very complex colonial situation, with native Boers, native Africans, and Brits and British colonials all involved.

In Breaker Morant, this complexity is figured in the trial of three men–Lt. Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant and two Australians. The men are charged with murdering three Boer prisoners and a German missionary. They will be tried by a military court and, if found guilty, sentenced to death. Appointed to their defense is a native Australian who has never practiced law and has one day to prepare for the trial, in contrast to the British prosecutor, whose bushy moustache signals smarminess. The movie intercuts present-day narration (the trial) with past goings-on in the accused men’s military company, so that the historical truth from the perspective of the camera eye is contrasted with what at times is a sham trial with false witnesses.

Why is it a sham trial? There appears to be a cover-up. British high command, led by Lord So-and-So, had possibly ordered British companies that engaged Boer commandos to take no prisoners (i.e., kill them even if they wave a white flag of surrender). And the reality of Boer war battle is that guerrilla warfare tactics were used by both sides, so that no one in any situation could be trusted. Enter the German Missionary. An old man who claims to be spreading the Word of God in a warzone, he is not trusted by Morant and the soldiers, who think he’s spying. But is he really guilty of anything? And do they really murder him?

The answer to these questions complicates the moral position of this movie, which lays it on a bit thick about the culpability of British high command and the “just doing my duty, sir” of the three accused soldiers. These accused men and their noble defense lawyer claim to be scapegoats for the moral and tactical failures of British command. This command, they say, is part of a corrupt and falling empire, which, soddened by its own unChristian brutality, needs to be cleansed of its sins. What better way to “cleanse itself” than to lay blame for atrocities on colonial underlings paid to do the biddings of imperialists?

If Breaker Morant at all exemplifies cultural feelings, Australians must really loathe their past associations with the British empire. For a non-Australian, however, Breaker Morant can be appropriated to other contexts wherein empire is waning and its overseas efforts are destructive to all parties involved. Of course warmongering imperials–guilty of great crimes–tend to blame others for their failures. Although they may not receive justice in the moment, as in this movie, we know that they will indeed beyond this Earth.

Engagement: 8
Intelligence: 7
Morality: 8


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