A short history of the Boer War: as early as 1652, Dutch, German and Huguenot farmers (boers) began settling in Kaapstad (later Cape Town) that served as a half-way supply station for Dutch ships en route to and from the Dutch East Indies. European migration steadily increased over the years until 1806 when Britain seized control of the area to protect its sea route to India. Conflict with the Cape government led to over ten thousand Boers trekking northward between 1835 and 1842, a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other, to areas further north that became the Orange Free State and Transvaal republics, where they successfully held off British incursions and partly subjugated the local native population. The discovery of diamonds in the Transvaal in 1872, followed by gold in 1886, led to a mass influx of foreign prospectors, adventurers and speculators that rapidly outnumbered the Boer citizens.
Powerful London financial networks won control over the extensive mining activity and exerted pressure on the Boer government for representation and influence. The British government was very much on side, epitomised by the Colonial Secretary, Joseph (father of Neville) Chamberlain’s arch-imperialist vision: “I believe that the British race is the greatest of governing races that the world has ever seen.” He secretly authorised the arming of 500 adventurers organised by Cecil Rhodes, then prime minister of the British Cape Colony, for an unofficial take-over of Johannesburg, Transvaal’s largest city. This was unsuccessful and, stung by the dishonour, conservative British newspapers and even some churchmen allied with the financial Establishment spread largely invented stories of brutal Boer atrocities that rallied much of the British population into demanding war. Negotiations seeking a political voice for the foreigners in Transvaal broke down. “It’s our country you want!” declared President Paul Kruger, who issued an ultimatum to Britain demanding the removal of its troops. The ultimatum expired and Kruger reluctantly declared war in October 1899.
There was no official call-up in the Australian states or other British colonies but thousands of young recruits willingly volunteered for colonial units, eager for foreign adventure and imbued with loyalty to the Empire. In 1900 General Horatio Herbert Lord Kitchener took command of 250,000 full time soldiers, including at least 20,000 Australians, and eventually occupied the major Boer cities, resulting in 50,000 Boer farmers/soldiers/civilians taking to the countryside and waging guerrilla attacks against the British military. To counter the Boers’ mobility, Kitchener reorganised some of his troops into commando units known as the Bushveldt Carbineers. Still impatient with the lack of progress, he introduced a barbaric scorched earth policy, ignoring the generally accepted international rules of war by systematically torching around 30,000 Boer farmsteads and their crops, herding over 100,000 homeless civilians, mainly women and children, into internment centres and unofficially ordering that no prisoners be taken.
This is where our film begins:
Maj. Bolton: So then why did you order him to be shot?
Lt. Morant: It’s customary during a war to kill as many of the enemy as possible.
Self-exiled Englishman Henry Harbord Morant, adventurer, bush balladeer, breaker of horses and women’s hearts (and also, according to some who knew him well, exhibitionist, confidence man, cheat and liar) has joined the South Australian Light Horse in Adelaide, transferred to the Bushveldt Carbineers in South Africa and been promoted to lieutenant. Enraged by a Boer killing and mutilating a fellow officer, he orders the execution of six Boer prisoners in accordance with a “take no prisoners” directive he believes originated from General Kitchener. A fellow officer, Lt. Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown), secretly kills a German missionary who may have witnessed the firing squad and Lt George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), a young Empire loyalist, shoots a prisoner in self-defence. Kitchener denies the directive and selects these three colonials to face a British army court martial, an obvious “show trial” to appease Germany which is threatening to enter the war on the Boer side. Major Thomas (Jack Thompson), a former country solicitor, is given less than 24 hours to prepare the men’s defence. The trial is held in secret, the British Army’s evidence is loaded, the verdict is pre-ordained, the court records are suppressed and the prisoners are denied an appeal.
Determined to emphasise the moral ambiguities faced by soldiers in wartime – “the horrors committed by normal men in abnormal situations” – director Bruce Beresford flew to London to research the original trial transcripts and partly rewrote the existing script, which had been based on a stage play that had assumed the prisoners’ innocence and opened out the play’s one set trial structure. Cinematographer Don McAlpine made the most of the South Australian locations: the township of Tanunda stood in for Pietersburg and action sequences shot in and around Burra where the terrain closely resembles the rolling Transvaal veldt. With confidence, skill and passion Beresford directed his strong cast, all Australian save Edward Woodward, the popular star of the UK TV series “Callan” who had been chosen for his physical likeness to Morant.
Bryan Brown’s laconic Aussie larrikin with a streak of gallows humour and Lewis Fitz-Gerald’s innocent Empire idealist are effective dramatic contrasts to Woodward’s steely fatalism and Thompson’s stirring embodiment of compassionate morality that won him well-deserved acclaim at Cannes.
The exhausted Boers finally sued for peace in May 1902 and their republics became part of the British Empire. The death toll had been horrific: 22,000 British and colonial troops and 7,000 Boer farmer-soldiers had died in battle or from disease, while 28,000 Boer civilians, predominantly children, perished in the concentration camps from disease, starvation and exposure. Nearly 115,000 black African tenant farmers and servants were interned, of whom more than 12,000 died. All sacrificed for the glory of the Empire and the gold and diamond-mining magnates who had covertly and unscrupulously manipulated British government policy and public opinion. The once prosperous Boer farmlands lay in ruins. As in all wars, the aftermath of hatred and resentment was felt for decades. In prison, George Witton wrote “Scapegoats of the Empire”. Its publication generated an Empire-wide protest and a petition signed by 80,000 Australians, leading to his life sentence being commuted in 1904. Meanwhile General Kitchener was named a Viscount, promoted to the rank of Field Marshall and later appointed Secretary for War in time for World War One.
Breaker Morant scored a major success with local critics and audiences, grossing $A4.7m in its Australian release and won ten AFI Awards. It was the third Australian film to be shown in competition at Cannes following The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978) and My Brilliant Career (1979). Well received internationally, it was among the most successful of Australia’s 1970 “New Wave” that managed to crack the American market, grossing over $7m, mainly in arthouses, and hanging in Variety’s Top 50 box office list for 43 weeks. It struck a strong resonance in the American national psyche, reinforcing the guilt felt by many after the Vietnam debacle, particularly the Mai Lai massacre.
On 10 February this year a petition for the pardon of Morant and Handcock was forwarded to the Queen on the grounds that the trial was unfair, that the judge advocate made mistakes, that the right to petition the King for mercy was ignored and that the Australian prime minister Andrew Barton was first notified by a brief cable from Kitchener only after the executions had taken place. A response from the Palace has yet to be reported. The petition has shocked the historian Richard Scully, who protests that much of its case stems from emotion and crude anti-British Australian nationalism evoked by that “sensationalist” Beresford film. Interestingly, he now asks what legal precedent might a pardon establish for British and Australian troops currently serving in Afghanistan.
— Introduction to the film at the session ‘The Rebirth of Australian Film’, WEA Film Study Group, Sydney, Australia, 24 October 2010
Australia | 1980 | 107 minutes | Eastman Color
Directed by Ken Hannam
South Australian Film Corporation, in association with the Australian Film Commission, the 7 Network and Pact Productions. Producer, Matt Carroll; screenplay, Bruce Beresford, Jonathan Hardy, David Stevens, based on the play by Kenneth Ross, with additional material from “The Breaker” by Kit Denton; cinematography, Donald McAlpine; film and sound editing, William Anderson; sound recording, Gary Wilkins; sound mix, Phil Judd, Phil Heywood; production design, David Copping; costume design, Anna Senior; music arranger, Phil Cuneen; songs: “At Last” by H H Morant, “Soldiers of the Queen” performed by Edward Woodward, “Sari Marais” performed by John Pfitzner; brass music played by the Tanunda Town Band.
Edward Woodward (Lt. Henry Harbord “Breaker” Morant), Jack Thompson (Major J. F. Thomas), Bryan Brown (Lt. Peter Handcock), Lewis Fitz-Gerald (Lt. George Witton), John Waters (Captain Alfred Taylor), Charles Tingwell (Lt. Col. Denny), Terence Donovan (Capt. Simon Hunt), Vincent Ball (Col. Ian “Johnny” Hamilton), Ray Meagher (Sgt. Maj. Drummond), Chris Haywood (Corp. Sharp), Russell Kiefel (Christiaan Botha), Rod Mullinar (Maj. Charles Bolton), Allan Cassell (Lord Kitchener), Bruno Knez (Rev. H.V.C. Hesse), John Pfitzner (Boer leader).
- 1980 Cannes Film Festival: Best supporting actor: Jack Thompson. Nominated for the Golden Palm award: Bruce Beresford.
- 1980 AFI Awards: Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Actor (Jack Thompson), Supporting Actor (Bryan Brown) and three other actors nominated; and Best Achievements in Cinematography, Costume Design, Sound, Production Design, Editing.
- 1981 Academy Awards: Best Screenplay adapted from another medium.
- 1981 Golden Globes: Nominated for Best Foreign Film.
Bleszynski, Nick. Shoot Straight You Bastards!: The Truth Behind the Killing of Breaker Morant. Milson’s Point: Random House, c2003.
Coleman, Peter. Bruce Beresford: instincts of the heart. Pymble, NSW: Angus & Robertson, 1992.
Denton, Kit. The Breaker: a novel. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1973.
Scully, Richard. “Pardoning Our Past? – ‘Breaker’ Morant and Today’s Australia” in Australian Policy and History, March 2010 at: http://www.aph.org.au/files/articles/pardoningPast.htm.
Stratton, David. The Last New Wave. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1980.
Weber, Mark. “The Boer War Remembered” in the Institute for Historical Review at http://www.ihr.org/jhr/v18/v18n3p14_Weber.html
Witton, George. Scapegoats of the Empire: the True Story of Breaker Morant’s Bushveldt Carbineers. Sydney: Angus & Rorertson, 1982. Originally published: Melbourne: D W Paterson & Co., 1907.