And The Winner Is… Breaker Morant (1980)

David Ashton is watching all the AFI Best Film winners – so you don’t have to…

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1980, the dawn of a new decade. The Moscow Olympics are held (the USA didn’t go, Australia did). Voyager I visits Saturn (why wasn’t I invited?). The world loses John Lennon, but gains Iron Maiden. Cultural icon Pacman is unleashed onto a world of hungry ghosts. Lindy Chamberlain utters the immortal words “a dingo’s got my baby!” – there’s probably a film in that. Ronald Reagan becomes President of USA. In Australia, the state of Victoria decriminalises homosexual acts between consenting adults, and in Pakistan the Urdu typewriter keyboard layout based on Naskh script is standardised.

In the world of movies audiences were treated to a cornucopia of movies which went on to cult fame: Elephant Man, Raging Bull, The Shining, The Long Good Friday, Airplane! (aka Flying High), The Blue Lagoon, Xanadu, Flash Gordon, The Empire Strikes Back, The Blues Brothers and Altered States, to name a few. The Oscar for best film in 1980 went to the rather more mundane Ordinary People. The Cannes Film Festival were perhaps a little more adventurous that year with their top prize being shared by Bob Fosee’s All That Jazz and Kurasowa’a Kagemusha.

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In Australia there was a typically (for this time) diverse set of films released. We had nuclear meltdowns in The Chain Reaction (dir: Ian Barry); behind-the-scenes sports shenanigans in The Club (directed by Bruce Beresford, based on David Williamson’s play); foreign stars in films cheaply made for the international market such as Harlequin (dir: Simon Wincer); and the prison drama Stir (dir: Stephen Wallace). Stir – based on a true story and starring Bryan Brown – is one of the earliest (the first?) of the tough prison dramas that Australia seems to make so well. Other examples include Ghosts… of the Civil Dead (1988), Everynight Everynight (1994) and parts of Chopper (2000). Stir should not be confused with Stir Crazy, a US film released the same year starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. It really shouldn’t.

Meanwhile another film starring Bryan Brown based on true events was sweeping the pool at the Australian Film Institute Awards. The winner of ten AFIs, including best film was…

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Breaker Morant

Directed by Bruce Beresford. Based on the stage play by Kenneth G. Ross. Starring Edward Woodward, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Charles ‘Bud Tingwell, Terence Donovan, Chris Haywood and many others.

What’s It All About?

It’s 1901 in South Africa. As the Boer War drags on three members of an Australian regiment are being court marshalled by their British commanders for executing Boer prisoners and a German missionary. The trial is a sham from the outset – the British need a guilty verdict to appease the Germans (who are thinking of joining the war on the Boer’s side.) The accused men claim that they were just acting as ordered. In flashback we see that the Australian troops were fighting a new kind of war – a guerrilla war – where the rules of proper and improper behaviour are not clear. Based on a true story.

Is It Hauntingly Beautiful?

Mostly not. Donald MacAlpine won his second AFI in a row for his cinematography on this, but while the previous year’s My Brilliant Career was all pretty scenery, here the landscape is depicted much more harshly, possibly because it has to convince you that South Australia (where it was filmed) is really South Africa. The one exception is the final scene, which is set against a hauntingly beautiful sunset backdrop.

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As a whole the film is not as obviously ‘artsploitation’ as some previous AFI winners, although the fairly complicated flashback structure and the political nature of the subject makes the film more highbrow than your regular popcorn fare.

Is It Any Good?

Yes. Thanks to a cracking script, emotive subject matter, great performances and Beresford’s assured direction Breaker Morant is a gripping courtroom drama/war movie.

The performances from all the cast are excellent, particularly Woodward (in a role not too far away from his role in the TV series Callan) and Jack Thompson as the inexperienced lawyer who rises to the occasion. It’s interesting to see that, despite the ‘stiff upper lip’ nature of many of the characters, Bruce Beresford directs in a way that heightens the emotion of each scene. This is quite a contrast to most of the previous AFI winners we’ve looked at in this series, which tended towards a cool distance from their characters. Impressively Beresford achieves this without using any incidental music at all, but through use of dramatic sound effects and camerawork which emphasises the drama in the performances. Beresford was a prolific director at this time with seven features to his name and his experience shows – the film is confidently and effectively directed without needing to be showy.

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Although the film is clearly critical of the scapegoating of Morant, Hancock and Witton (played by Woodward, Brown and Fitz-Gerald) it is careful not to portray them as heroic, or give any easy justifications for their crimes. Morant may have thought he had orders to shoot prisoners, but he was still mostly motivated by anger at the killing and mutilation of his friend. And Hancock lies to his defence counsel (Thompson) over the death of the missionary. Also, the “We were just following orders” defence was the same defence rejected at Nuremburg after World War II.

The fate of a few soldiers in the Boer war may not be of great interest in itself, but there are clear parallels with the Vietnam war. The voiceover on the film’s trailer makes this explicit: “It was a new kind of war for a new century. Farmers defending their land against foreign troops who wondered what they were dying for. It was a taste of things to come…”

Even more striking for me were the parallels with the US army’s abuse of prisoners in Abu Garib in the current Iraq conflict. As in that case the only people called to account are soldiers who were doing (or at least believed they were doing) what their superiors wanted them to, while the real power giving those orders (Lord Kitchener in the case of the Boer War) denies all knowledge.

Breaker Morant was a critical and popular success. It took nearly five million dollars at the box office in Australia and as well as sweeping the pools at the AFIs it won the Kansas City Film Critics Circle award for Best Foreign Film and Jack Thompson picked up the Best Supporting Actor award at Cannes. The screenplay was nominated for an Oscar too.

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Beyond the Film

The court-martial of Morant, Hancock and Witton continues to be controversial. In 1910 Lord Kitchener refused to unveil a Boer War monument in South Australia unless Morant’s name was erased from the honour roll. As well as the play on which the film was based there has also been books written on the subject, including one by Kit Denton. In 2002 then-National Party leader Tim Fischer called for a pardon for Morant and Hancock.

Where Are They Now?

Edward Woodward first came to fame playing the title role of the excellent UK television series Callan (1967 – 1972.) Besides Morant, his other most famous film role is in The Wicker Man (1973.) He has played many TV roles including squandering his talents on 87 episodes of The Equaliser (1985 – 1989.)

Jack Thompson was already a regular fixture in Australian films by 1980, having appeared in Sunday Too far Away (1975), Caddie (1976), The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) and The Club (1980), amongst others. His later appearances would include The Man From Snowy River (1982), The Sum of Us (1994) and Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones (2002.) He also appears in Baz Lurhmann’s forthcome Australia.

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Bryan Brown’s career included many Australian films – The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) Newsfront (1978), The Odd Angry Shot (1979), Two Hands (1999), Dirty Deeds (2002) and Baz Lurhmann’s forthcome Australia, to name a few – and a spell in Hollywood starring opposite Tom Cruise in Cocktail (1988) and taking the lead in the F/X movie series (1986, 1991).

Bruce Beresford was one of Australia’s most prolific directors in the 1970’s and 80s, with films including the two Barry McKenzie films (1972, 1974), Don’s Party (1976) The Getting of Wisdom (1978) The Club (1980) Puberty Blues (1981) Tender Mercies (1983) and The Fringe Dwellers (1986.) He found major success in the US with Driving Miss Daisy (1989) a film which won four Oscars including Best Film, but controversially Beresford wasn’t acknowledged with a Best Director nomination – a fact that was acknowledged on stage by Jessica Tandy who quipped that the film “apparently directed itself”. Other films include The Black Robe (1991), Last Dance (1996), Paradise Road (1997) and Double Jeopardy (1999).

– David Ashton

What did you think of Breaker Morant? Comments below, please. Images from the film are taken from the excellent DVD review at Blu-ray.com. You can read previous instalments of this series by clicking “afi best film series” in the categories menu on the right.
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6 Responses to And The Winner Is… Breaker Morant (1980)

  1. Anne-Marie says:

    David, did you call Ordinary People mundane? Watch it again. Or I may be forced to rant.
    Although All That Jazz is also bloody good.

  2. Dave AA says:

    By ‘mundane’ I guess what I meant was that in a year in which a lot of very adventurous films were released it is perhaps a bit of a safe choice for the Oscars. Perhaps I should see it again, though.

    A couple more things about Breaker Morant;
    – There are some very Monty Python moustaches in this film.
    – What do you call a man with three wooden heads?

  3. Janet says:

    Why is there a ferret in the bottom left hand corner (just below) the poster?

    • outlandinstitute says:

      The ferret represents truth. No, the ferret probably represents a company who sell copies of the poster, but just tried to find who it was and I can’t…

  4. Tim says:

    Breaker Morant was a worthy winner – it managed to take a potentially dull subject, a courtroom drama about a long-forgotten event in a dimly-remembered war – and bring out all the human drama in it. Good performances, good direction. Also a good example of an Australian historical drama not requiring the Outback for a change.

  5. Janet says:

    Outlandinstitute: Or did it escape from Jane Badler kitchen?

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