Following the mid-70s wave of critically acclaimed Australian cinema, thanks to names like Peter Weir, Fred Schepisi and Gillian Armstrong, director Bruce Beresford would score his first of several iconic moments in cinematic history with 1980’s Breaker Morant, based on the play by Kenneth G. Ross. The film premiered at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival, and was awarded a Best Supporting Acting accolade for Jack Thompson (a category that no longer officially exists), and began a prolific decade for Beresford, which closed with a controversial Best Picture win at the 1989 Academy Awards with Driving Miss Daisy. Documenting a particularly heinous miscarriage of justice from the country’s military history, Beresford’s title helped established a legacy of commemorative reenactments from his native country and showcases a trio of excellent performances.
Set during the Boer War at the turn of the century in South Africa, a trio of three Australian lieutenants, led by Lt. Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant (Edward Woodward) and fighting on the side of the occupying British forces, are court-martialed for the murder of several Boer civilian prisoners (the Dutch population fighting against British rule). The men are being used as scapegoats by the empire in a dastardly move to quell German interest in joining the war on the side of the Boers (though really, everyone wants to control the South African nation in order to have access to the easily accessible diamonds in the region). And so, an obvious conspiracy is unveiled when defense attorney Major J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson) is thrown into the mix. Never having participated in court marital proceedings before, its clear interested parties have sent in a novice in order to railroad the three men to an unjust death sentence.
The title is derived from Morant’s nickname as a successful horse breaker, an aspiring poet who has done his best to follow drastic orders during the viciousness of wartime only to be abandoned by his superiors as they fail to admit commands to execute Boer prisoners. More or less a courtroom drama aided by the frequent use of flashbacks, this may as well have been called They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? for all of the poetic exchanges included in the adapted screenplay from Jonathan Hardy (Mad Max) and David Stevens (The Sum of Us).
It’s difficult not to feel empathetic towards Morant and his men, facing unjustifiable actions taken by the imposing British forces, here played out in stark juxtaposition amidst the beautiful arid landscape captured by Donald McAlpine (who worked on McTiernan’s Predator as well as the features of Baz Luhrman). Edward Woodward, famous for his television series “The Equalizer” (not to mention his unforgettable turn in Robin Hardy’s genre classic The Wicker Man) is quite moving as the titular Morant, though Jack Thompson carries away the film’s most dramatic sequences. The film also marks a turning point for supporting player Bryan Brown, who would star in a number of high profile 80s projects following the international renown of Breaker Morant.
Criterion presents Beresford’s title with a 4K digital transfer in 1.85:1 aspect ratio. McAlpine’s frames are filled with suggestion, most of the more invasive bits of violence happening off-screen, the flashbacks enhancing Beresford’s ability to move beyond the play’s stage confines (though the court martial deliberations sometimes feel a bit stagey). While some of Criterion’s extra features are from 2004, (and there’s optional commentary from Beresford) brand new interviews with most of the major forces are included.
Bruce Beresford Interview:
This twelve minute 2015 interview with Beresford finds the director and co-screenwriter recalling the film’s production. Beresford claims about four other scripts concerning Morant were floating around at the same time even though Morant and the Boer War were not well known events to Australians at the time. Beresford wanted to discuss moral issues the original script treatment didn’t delve into.
Donald McAlpine Interview:
The cinematographer recalls his experiences making Breaker Morant in this 2015 Criterion interview. McAlpine describes filmmaking as telling a big lie, discussing his lack of formal training as a DoP, and his development as a self-taught artist.
Bryan Brown Interview:
This 2015 Criterion interview with actor Bryan Brown remembers the film as breakthrough in his career in this ten minute interview. Brown was in Beresford’s previous film Money Movers and discusses the audition process (he originally read for the role that went to Thompson).
2004 Edward Woodward Interview:
This sixteen minute interview with Edward Woodward from 2004 finds the actor recounting his initial introduction to the script via Beresford.
The South African War:
Historian Stephen Miller, author of Volunteers on the Veld, discusses the Boer War and the conflict depicted in Beresford’s film in this sixteen minute feature produced by Criterion in 2015. Miller discusses the effects of the war on varying populations, as well as a more comprehensive overview of the area’s history.
This 1973 documentary from Frank Shields focuses on the life of Harry Morant. The hour long production is a fascinating treatment on material obscure at the time.
The Myth Exploded:
This five minute segment from piece finds filmmaker Frank Shields discussing a post script on the narrative concerning Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant, an item neglected in his original documentary.
Though Beresford’s more prestigious American titles haven’t withstood the tests of time, Breaker Morant still stands as one of the director’s finest achievements.
Film Review: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆