Breaker Morant is an incredibly compelling Australian film from 1980. It was the breakout film of Bruce Beresford, who would go on to direct many successful films such as Tender Mercies, Crimes of the Heart, and Driving Miss Daisy. It is basically a courtroom drama, which tells the true story of the court martial of Harry “Breaker” Morant, Peter Handcock, and George Witton.
They were Australians who fought for the British during the Second Boer War. The way the film tells it, the men were tried and punished as a way to end the war. As a result, the men come off as martyrs. And you can well imagine how the film played in Australia in 1980, given that there is a distinct nationalistic feel to it.
As a result of this reading of the film, Beresford has said, “The film never pretended for a moment that they weren’t guilty.” And that’s true. The film is quite clear about the men’s guilt. But I think people watching it pick up on something deeper. It doesn’t much matter that Morant and Handcock were guilty. (Witton appears not to have been guilty at all; it isn’t clear why he was ever put on trial.) The men were martyrs.
Now this isn’t to say that they were great guys. But I’ve never really understood how it is we apply ethics to war. If a superior officer gives you an order in the battlefield that you think is wrong, you have two choices. You can face being put to death right then. And you can face being court-martialed afterward. That’s not much of a choice.
The Evil Is War
In Breaker Morant, the regiment — the Bushveldt Carbineers — was tasked with fighting the Boer guerrilla fighters. The Bushveldt Carbineers thus used tactics that were irregular. As a result, they were more successful than traditional forces had been. Of course, when you start monkeying with exactly what is and is not allowed in fighting the enemy, it isn’t surprising that there will be some disagreement.
I always find myself siding with people like the men in Breaker Morant. When the awful photographs came out of Abu Ghraib (Baghdad Central Prison), I was unhappy about the prosecution of the service members. That’s not to say that I think much of them as human beings. But there is something about it that strikes me as an effort to cleanse an evil system.
There is some evidence that the British were only prosecuting Morant and the others because they were trying to get testimony against Captain Simon Hunt. Assuming that’s true, the wrong is even worse. It means that the authorities were willing to kill men they didn’t even think deserving. And they were asking men who fought together to turn on each other. It’s adding insult to the ultimate injury.
In the end, what we see in Breaker Morant is what we always see in war — and more generally in the society at large. It’s a way for society to try to justify its evil behavior. It’s like they are saying, “Sure, we did all these evil things, but we aren’t as bad as these guys! And to prove it, we’re going to murder them!”
The Meaning of Breaker Morant
According to Bruce Beresford, he wanted to show in Breaker Morant what war does to otherwise decent men. I think we can pass this off as another case of artists being the worst people to analyze their work. Because it doesn’t show this at all.
What it shows instead is how war soils everyone. The only difference between those who live and those who die is power. If there were any justice, Lord Kitchener and those of his rank should be killed for the sin of their wars and how they were fought.
Barring that, the least we could ask for is that we didn’t have these token court martials. Because they don’t clean away the sin of war; they just extend it; at least when the punishment is death.