Saturday, September 26, 2015

#1,867. Breaker Morant (1980)

Directed By: Bruce Beresford

Starring: Edward Woodward, Jack Thompson, John Waters

Tag line: "HERO OR VILLAIN ...his exploits shook an empire...and made him a legend"

Trivia: This was the first Australian film to win a major award at the Cannes Film Festival

Based on an actual court martial that occurred in 1902, Breaker Morant stars Edward Woodward as Lt. Harry “Breaker” Morant, an Australian officer in the Bushveldt Carbineers, which was stationed in South Africa to help the British in their fight against the Boers. Arrested by the high command and charged with the murders of several Boer prisoners as well as a German missionary (played by Bruno Knez), Morant and two of his fellow Carbineers, Lt. Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) and Lt. George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), were to stand trial for their lives.

Due to the sensitive nature of this case (the Germans had protested the killing of their missionary, and could have used it as an excuse to assist the Boers), the British sought to expedite the court martial. To this end, they assigned Maj. J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson), a lawyer with absolutely no trial experience, to act as the attorney for the accused. Yet, despite being a novice in the courtroom, Thomas managed to stage an effective defense, arguing that Morant and the others were merely following orders issued by British Commander Lord Kitchener (Alan Cassell), which stated that all prisoners of war were to be immediately executed. Were Morant, Handcock, and Witton loyal soldiers doing their duty, or cold-blooded killers acting contrary to military law?

Directed by Bruce Beresford, Breaker Morant features a handful of well-executed battle scenes, the most exciting of which occurs late in the movie, when the Boers launch a surprise attack on the base where the court martial is being held (though prisoners, Morant, Handcock, and Witton join in the fight, doing their part to keep the attackers at bay). That said, the film’s best skirmishes take place not on the battlefield, but in the courtroom.

Given only a single day to prepare his case, Maj. Thomas seems a bit disorganized at first (he’s constantly fumbling through his notes, which are always a jumbled mess), yet is as ferocious as a rabid dog, and as sly as a fox, when it comes time to cross-examine witnesses; he wins the respect of Morant and the others when he peppers Capt. Robertson (Rob Steele), the prosecution’s first witness, with one question after another. The entire cast does an exemplary job, especially Woodward as the title character, but for me, it’s Jack Thompson who delivers the film’s standout performance, portraying a man who believes his clients are innocent, and will do whatever is necessary to save them from their date with the firing squad.

Winner of 10 Australian Film Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, Breaker Morant addresses the hypocrisy of accusing solders of murder during a time of war while also challenging the chain of command that encourages such actions in the first place. An anti-war film in the vein of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (another movie about a trio of soldiers subjected to a sham trial, the result of which was a foregone conclusion well before it started), Breaker Morant is as dramatic as it is unforgettable.

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