In the End, the Dead Are Still Dead
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.