'Breaker' Morant Reviews
Luckily, if any producer at the South Australian Film Corporation received such a pitch, they agreed to make the film. Patriotism may have had something to do with the decision, however it was made, because as it turns out this is a thoroughly Australian historical drama. Rather quietly, beneath the shouted legalese of a movie court martial and the coldblooded depiction of a brutal guerrilla war, "Breaker Morant" is about three men from different strata of turn-of-the-century Australian society, and how their loyal service to the British crown in time of war lands them in deadly peril when the crown decides that they are more useful as scapegoats than as soldiers or subjects. In the most moving, character-driven scenes, each man remembers and longs for home, Australia, where they have families and where the title character once enjoyed riding and "breaking" horses. Meanwhile, the script takes numerous not-so-subtle digs at the part-German royal family and at Lord Kitchener, Britain's most famous soldier.
For a certain kind of patriotic and historically-minded Australian, this based-on-a-true story which was originally a play that premiered in Melbourne must be a rousing defense of Australian independence and Australian bravery. It's a fascinating watch even for those without a dog in that hunt, but it is also fair to ask whether the movie is too uncritical of its subjects. Are they, after all, war criminals? Or does the movie successfully make the case that the real guilt lay farther up the chain of command, and that the King's Australian soldiers were caught up in an unprecedented and complex kind of war from which nobody could come out both alive and clean? The tone at the end is harder to swallow if you haven't been persuaded of the latter interpretation. But those beautiful shots of the veldt, and the thoughtful examination of a historical moment not often brought to the big screen, make it a satisfying film regardless.
The first I ever heard of the Boer War at all was in one of the [i]Anne of Green Gables[/i] books, wherein one of the characters expresses delight that the Boer War is over, so Anne's oldest boy will not be able to be a soldier as he wishes and will not go to war. And for many years, that was pretty much what I knew about the Boer War. In that it was only when I intentionally looked it up that I even found out what the Boer War was about. I don't know if this is just because I'm American, but let's face it. We in the United States don't even know what the Boers are/were, really. I'm not sure how much we think of African colonialism at all, and the idea that different Europeans were fighting over who was going to run various colonies doesn't much make it into our history books, even though this was all part of the lead-up to World War I. So I will not be able to tell you how accurate this movie is to real events because Lord, I don't know.
Lieutenant Harry "Breaker" Morant (Edward Woodward), Lieutenant Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown), and Lieutenant George Ramsdale Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) are on trial for their lives. They are accused of killing Boer prisoners of war . . . and a German missionary. Morant insists that they were obeying orders. He insists that Lord Kitchener, the highest-ranked British soldier in South Africa, has declared that there shall be no more prisoners taken. He swears that the chain of command is just as responsible for his actions as he is. I believe they claim just to be innocent of the murder of the missionary, and I never did catch why he'd been killed in the first place. However, it's pretty clear from the outset that they are destined to be found guilty. No fair trial would involve your lawyer's having less than a day to go over your case with you, if you're on trial for your life. What's more, most of the people who would testify for the defense have been transferred to India.
My understanding is that this is one of those things which people in Australia are really inclined to feel passionately about. Sort of like Gallipoli; I'm pretty sure this movie was recommended to me because I watched movies about that. This is one of those things where colonialism failed all kinds of people, including both those dead prisoners and the soldiers who unarguably killed them. The men had joined the military in Australia, were under the understanding that they could only be tried by an Australian military court. They were the last Australian soldiers who weren't, is my understanding, too. The problem, however, is that there are no primary sources which might be considered entirely reliable. The trial transcripts have long since vanished. Witton wrote a book about the events, but he had every reason to specifically write to exonerate himself. It's also true that changing the story to support your bias is not unusual.
The movie, however, is pretty even-handed. It doesn't actually say very much on the subject of whether the orders existed or not, though it's quite clear that the filmmakers considered the trial a farce. (If the bit about the witnesses' being shipped off to India is true, it assuredly was.) Morant and Handcock are the sort of grizzled army officers you get in any movie about any army, and Witton was the standard young man there because young men join the army and fall in among Bad Influences. He believes that his companions are innocent of the murder of the missionary, and he cannot quite believe that anyone will seriously be able to hold them responsible for following orders. Morant and Handcock know that they probably will be found guilty, because they know that the British Empire needs scapegoats, and a group of nobody Australian officers will serve that purpose much better than sacrificing Lord Kitchener would. Each actor finds his character's note and hits it perfectly, though they don't really need to hit more than one.
The setting is pretty basic; large amounts of the movie is just your standard men-in-a-room courthouse drama. The scenery is actually South Australia, not South Africa; apparently, this was the first time Australia stood in for another actual country. However, by all accounts, it's a pretty good replacement. The movie only hints at the atrocities that the Boer War bred on both sides. Apparently, it is the war which introduced the word "commando" into the English language, for all there had been commandos in wars for well over a hundred years by that point. The term "concentration camp" wasn't invented during the Boer War, but it certainly gained a great deal more prominence then. There is an argument to be made that the Boer War is what planted the seed for warfare as it existed through the rest of the twentieth century. How much responsibility for the events as they took place can be reasonably borne by Morant will remain the subject of debate, but the Boer War lit a fuse which still hasn't finished burning.
The film also raises interesting moral questions when warfare was becoming more and more brutal, and the first real guerilla war was being fought. The real question of good vs. evil can start with the events depicted here, and its clear from the start that its not easy to decide what's the right choice in warfare.
It's also an era that not many people know anything about, and that makes it even more interesting to watch today. In this era where guerrilla warfare and terrorism are commonplace, it would be good to remember the lessons of Breaker Morant and his fellows.
[b]Breaker Morant[/b] is based on the actual events during the Boer War, and subsequent court marshalling of three Australian officers. The government has set them up for a fall, providing them with an inexperienced defense attorney and allowing him little time to prepare his case. The trial scenes are tense and the flashbacks to what the men actually did in the field are also engaging. But I was really fascinated with how the men held up in their cells, preparing to face their verdict, and the politics of it all. Very good.
Ah, the [b]Sweet Smell of Success[/b], good in so many ways. Burt Lancaster ("Field of Dreams") is a gossip columnist and Tony Curtis ("Reflections of Evil") is a PR agent trying to get his clients some publicity. Only Lancaster's shutting him out because he wants Curtis to break up his sister's relationship with a musician. Then the plot gets twisty. Curtis is fast talking and sleazy and grasping for fame. The dialogue is so quick you have to sit up and take notice. Two of my favorite lines: "The cat's in the bag and the bag's in the river." and "That fish is four days old. I'm not buying it." I thoroughly enjoyed this.
[b]Rocket Science[/b] reminded me of Thumbsucker. Mostly because the main kid is shy and then suddenly inspired to join the school debate team. The style of this is different though, less dreamy than Thumb. It was funny, but not too funny. The best bits being with the younger kid who lives across the street from the love interest. The soundtrack has some really cool instrumental covers of classic Violent Femmes songs. I'm lukewarm on this.
[b]Hellboy II: The Golden Army [/b]is just a whole lotta fun. Ron Perlman ("In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale") just eats up this character and loves every minute of his screen time. Director Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth" lets his imagination run wild with all the creatures and sets in this story. And the story starts strong and just keeps on going, quickly re-establishing the Team and introducing a very worthy villain in Luke Goss ("The Dead Undead"), an elf who wants to destroy the human race. Go see it.
A classic noirish thriller, [b]The Third Man[/b], stars Joseph Cotten ("The Survivor") as a writer who goes to visit a friend in post WWII Berlin, only to discover the friend has been killed just before he arrived. Cotten then sets out to solve the mystery of his friend's death. It's fast paced and intriguing, asking which loyalty a man should follow. There's a femme fatale love interest. And Orson Welles ("Moby Dick") is awesome. Very good.