Breaker Morant is an Australian war film directed by Bruce Beresford, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Based on Kenneth G. Ross’s eponymous play (1978), the film dramatizes the 1902 court martial of Lts. Harry Morant, Peter Handcock, and George Witton, Australians serving in the British Army during the Second Anglo-Boer War accused of murdering captured enemy combatants and an unarmed civilian in the Northern Transvaal.
Since his court-martial and execution by the British for alleged war crimes committed during the Boer War, Harry “Breaker” Harbord Morant (1864–1902) has been an Australian folk hero rivaling the legendary bushranger, Ned Kelly. Morant’s legend was firmly established in 1907 by Scapegoats of the Empire, an exculpatory tome written by his surviving co-defendant, George Witton (1874–1942). In the 1970s the legend was revived in a small way by writer Kit Denton with a novel based on Morant’s life entitled The Breaker (1973) and by neophyte filmmaker Frank Shields’ low-budget documentary, also entitled The Breaker (1974). Of greater cultural impact in Australia was Breaker Morant, a two-act play by Kenneth G. Ross that ran at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne in 1978 and was a critical and commercial success, so much so that Ross turned his play script into a screenplay. As film historian Graham Daseler notes, filmmaker Bruce Beresford (The Getting of Wisdom) “had two scripts to work from. One was Ross’s play, the other a screenplay by David Stevens and Jonathan Hardy. Beresford scrapped both, considering them each too generous to the defendants, and traveled to the Imperial War Museum in London to conduct fresh research. After he returned, he began his own script, building his dramatic structure around the trial (as the play had also done) but widening his field of vision to reveal what Ross, in his stage production, never could: the interior world of the characters” (Daseler, 2013).
American actor Rod Steiger was Bruce Beresford’s first choice to play Harry “Breaker” Morant. Later, Australian actor Terence Donovan (who played Morant in the original stage production) was considered, but Beresford decided he needed a more famous actor in the role (Donovan was cast as Capt. Simon Hunt). The part ultimately went to English actor Edward Woodward—a casting choice resented by some Australian Actors Equity members, even though Woodward bore an uncanny resemblance to Morant. The Major Thomas role was originally offered to Bryan Brown before it went to Jack Thompson (Brown ended up playing Lt. Handcock). Though set in the high veldt of South Africa, Breaker Morant was filmed in and around Burra, South Australia, on the edge of the Great Desert, 100 miles north of Adelaide. Breaker Morant was made on a shoestring budget of 800,000 AUD. The Australian Film Commission contributed 400,000 AUD, and the South Australia Film Corporation (SAFC) put up another 250,000 AUD. The remaining funds were provided by Seven Network and PACT Productions and raised privately.
In 1902, during the Second Boer War, three officers of the Bushveldt Carbineers (aka BVC, a 320-man Australian irregular mounted infantry regiment)—Lieutenants Harry Morant (Edward Woodward), Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown), and George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald)—are arrested by the British and charged with murdering Boer prisoners-of-war and Reverend C.A.D. Heese, a German missionary. Major Charles Bolton (Rod Mullinar) prosecutes the court-martial while Major J. F. Thomas (Jack Thompson), a solicitor from New South Wales in civilian life, acts as defense counsel. After a number of damning character witnesses testify, Bolton focuses on the shooting of Floris Visser (Michael Procanin), a wounded Boer prisoner, in order to avenge the torture, death, and mutilation of BVC Capt. Simon Hunt (Terence Donovan), a close friend of Morant. Major Thomas argues that standing orders existed to shoot “all Boers captured wearing khaki,” but Morant damages his own defense by defiant testimony on the witness stand. The next day, Bolton turns to the shooting of the six Boers. BVC Capt. Alfred Taylor (John Waters) testifies that Lord Kitchener issued orders that no more Boer prisoners were to be taken alive. On cross-examination, Bolton nullifies Taylor’s testimony by forcing him to admit that he is also awaiting court-martial for shooting prisoners. Other witnesses testify that Morant had six Boer guerrillas lined up and shot after they had surrendered. Major Thomas demands that Kitchener be summoned. Lt.-Col. Denny (Charles “Bud” Tingwell) and Major Bolton try to dissuade Major Thomas from pressing the matter, but he persists. At any rate, Kitchener has since reversed himself. Rather than “total war,” he now advocates peace with the Afrikaners—a stance necessitating that a few soldiers will need to be sacrificed for all the war crimes committed by the British Army. Kitchener’s surrogate Col. Hamilton (Vincent Ball) takes the stand and denies ever having relayed a take-no-prisoners order from Kitchener to the BVC. The trial then examines the murder of Rev. Heese. After leaving Fort Edward in a horse-drawn buggy, Heese was later found shot to death along the road. Bolton accuses Morant of ordering Handcock to kill Heese to prevent him from informing the BVC’s commander of Morant’s plans to kill his Boer prisoners. On the stand, Morant denies the allegation, as does Handcock, who claims that he was visiting the homes of two married Afrikaner women that day for sex. Major Thomas produces signed depositions from the women to corroborate Handcock’s alibi. During a lull in the trial, Handcock admits to Witton that he did indeed shoot Heese before visiting his two lady friends. When Witton asks if Major Thomas knows, Morant tells him that there is no reason for Thomas to know. Despite an impassioned closing argument by Major Thomas, the defendants are found guilty of shooting the prisoners but acquitted of murdering Rev. Heese. The next morning the defendants are sentenced to death, but Witton’s sentence is commuted to “life in penal servitude.” Major Thomas hurries to Kitchener’s headquarters to plead for commutations for Morant and Handcock, only to learn that Kitchener has already left and that both the British and Australian governments have publicly affirmed the verdict and sentences. He also learns that a peace conference is in the offing and that the troops will soon be going home. At dawn the next morning Morant and Handcock are put before a firing squad. Morant, defiant to the end, refuses the comfort of clergy and a blindfold (as does Handcock). The firing squad musters as Morant’s poem, “Butchered to Make a Dutchmen’s Holiday,” is recited in voice-over. Just before they fire their fatal volley Morant shouts, “Shoot straight, you bastards! Don’t make a mess of it!”
Breaker Morant proved to be the most popular indigenous movie released in Australia up to that time, grossing 4.7 million AUD at the box office (the equivalent of almost $50 million in 2017 U.S. dollars). After screenings at Cannes, the New York Film Festival, and other venues, the movie received international acclaim, rave reviews from critics, and 18 AACTA Award nominations, winning 15 of them, plus an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, a Palme d’Or nomination at Cannes, and a win at Cannes for Best Supporting Actor (Jack Thompson). Breaker Morant also inaugurated Bruce Beresford’s career as a film director of international stature and is now recognized as one of the key works of the Australian Film Renaissance of the 1970s and 1980s.
Reel History Versus Real History
In order to enlist optimal viewer empathy for Morant, Handcock, and Witton, Breaker Morant alters history in large and small ways. For example, it depicts Lord Kitchener as demanding convictions for the killing of Rev. Heese so as to appease Germany and keep it from entering the Boer War on the side of the Afrikaners. In actuality, Germany did not officially protest the murder of Heese. Though ethnically German, Heese was born in Cape Colony (present-day South Africa), so he was technically a British subject. Besides misrepresenting the geopolitical context, the movie omits the three other defendants who were also on trial with Morant, Handcock, and Witton: Lt. Henry Picton, a British-born BVC officer, charged with participating in the shooting of Floris Visser (found guilty of manslaughter and cashiered from the British Army); Capt. Alfred Taylor, the Irish-born commander of military intelligence at Fort Edward, accused of ordering Lt. Handcock to murder B. J. van Buuren, an Afrikaner BVC trooper who had objected to the shooting of prisoners, also accused of the murder of six unarmed Afrikaners and the theft of their money and livestock (acquitted on a technicality); and Major Robert W. Lenehan, the Australian Field Commander of BVC, accused of covering up the murder of Trooper van Buuren (found guilty and reprimanded). Breaker Morant also mischaracterizes the enlisted men at Fort Edward who testify against Morant, Handcock, and Witton as British-born malcontents motivated by personal grudges against their Australian officers. In reality, the 15 enlisted men at Fort Edward who signed an accusatory letter were Australians stirred by genuine disgust for the war crimes they had personally witnessed. Furthermore, the movie portrays the prosecution as single-mindedly bloodthirsty while neglecting to note that Morant and Handcock actually rejected offers of immunity from prosecution if they would agree to testify against Capt. Taylor and Major Lenehan for issuing take-no-prisoners orders. The effect of all these changes is to encourage viewers (especially Australian viewers) to see the defendants as martyrs to British political intrigue and injustice rather than guilty of war crimes, which they most assuredly were. Somewhat disingenuously, Bruce Beresford has since deplored the fact that Breaker Morant has been widely misconstrued “as a film about poor Australians who were framed by the Brits.” In a 1999 interview with Australian film critic Peter Malone, Beresford said, “The film never pretended for a moment that they weren’t guilty. It said they are guilty. But what was interesting about it was that it analyzed why men in this situation would behave as they had never behaved before in their lives. It’s the pressures that are put to bear on people in war time … That was what I was interested in examining” (Malone, 1980).