Part staid courtroom procedural, part trenchant exploration into the justifications of wartime brutality, Bruce Beresford’s 1980 drama Breaker Morant forgoes the usual did-they-or-didn’t-they legal rigmarole, instead questioning where the culpability lies when soldiers do horrific things while “just following orders.” The film unfolds as an angry study in loyalty and betrayal, a castigation of the political and systematic necessities that leave the leaders of a cause unwilling (or unable) to reciprocate the devotion shown it by its followers.
Yet Beresford never comes to fully place his sympathies on the side of the accused. Early in the film, we see British Army Lieutenant Harry “Breaker” Morant, officer of the Bushveldt Carbineers during the latter stages of the Boer War, order his men to shoot a surrendering Boer commando after they discover the him wearing the coat of the regiment’s recently killed Captain Hunt. The Carbineers are just doing their job, after all—standing orders stated that any Boer captured wearing British khaki was to be immediately executed (although this command would later be conveniently altered to strengthen the case against Morant and his fellow officers.) But Beresford refuses the temptation to martyrize his protagonists; Morant is shown to be emotionally distraught after Hunt’s death, and he exudes an unsettling aura of righteous vengeance as the Boer prisoner is shot by a battlefield firing squad.
This one death isn’t the only charge, though, and Morant isn’t alone in being accused. By his side are Lieutenants Peter Handcock (Brian Brown) and George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), both implicated in the killing of a different group of surrendering Boers, plus the murder of a German missionary, all under the watchful eye of Morant. Again, the film makes no effort to paint these crimes as justifiable, rather showing Morant and co. as willing agents of barbarities perpetrated by the British Army as an act of wartime need. The Boers are fighting a guerrilla campaign against the English forces (a substantial portion of which is made from Australian volunteers), and the British soldiers patrolling the South African countryside have neither the means nor the desire to take prisoners. Thus, such executions are the norm, albeit approved through unwritten commands.
Still, as monstrous as these acts appear, Beresford takes pains not to cast Morant, Handcock, and Witton as heartless beasts. All three are likeable to a degree; Morant, a horse-breaker by trade with a penchant for writing poetry, comes across as a stoic, gregarious leader with an undeniable fierceness and devotion to his men. Handcock’s a sarcastic loverboy whose defense against the missionary’s murder comes by way of cuckoldry. And Witton’s the kid, a young inexperienced officer whose lone crime is killing an escaping prisoner as an act of self-defense. Colonel Jessup and Lieutenant Kendrick from A Few Good Men they ain’t. In this way Beresford plays rather ruthlessly upon the audience’s sympathies; these are genial, relatable protagonists doing terrible things. Or as the three’s defense council Major Thomas (Jack Thompson) states, “The tragedy is that these horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal conditions.”
Instead, Beresford aims his ire at the system itself, at the hypocrisy of acts condoned by the British Army during the fighting, yet condemned once treaty talks commence. Breaker Morant becomes less about justice for the Boers and more about the shortsighted institutional necessities that made such violence a seemingly rational and acceptable code of conduct. Morant, Handcock, and Witton (all Australians) turn into unfortunate patsies of the peace process, “scapegoats for the bloody empire” as Morant himself indignantly puts it. Such a shift in focus can make the film seem cold and apathetic to the Boer cause—indeeed, the Boers receive next to no representation other than as nameless commandos with a proclivity towards lighting dynamite with cigars—but Breaker Morant thankfully refuses to exonerate the accused. Sure, they were following orders, but ultimately the blood is on their hands as well.