"Breaker Morant" may be welcomed as a bracing throwback to well-defined and well-made historical melodrama by viewers overreacting to the muddleheaded slackness of so many contemporary movies. Opening today at the K-B Cerberus and Outer Circle, this prestigious Australian import is admirable in its clarity, eloquence and conciseness, although these qualities ultimately reinforce a rather smug account of a notorious episode from the nasty last days of the Boer War.
Director Bruce Beresford and his superb cinematographer Dan McAlpine don't allow any slack to accumulate in the tempo, the performances or the compositions. The presentation is so consistently incisive that the movie begins to embody an almost military formality. The scenes keep snapping to attention smartly, but the underlying text, a play by Kenneth Ross, betrays a suspicious fondness for historical hindsight and smartypants ironic moralizing.
Thomas Packenham's recent history of the Boer War summarized the Morant incident in a single paragraph: "The guerrilla war was fast brutalizing both adversaries. The worst scandals on the British side concerned colonial irregulars. . . The most notorious case involved a special anti-commando unit, raised by Australians to fight in the wild northern Transvaal, and called the Bush Veldt Carbineers. . . In August 1901, twelve Boers, earlier taken prisoner, had been shot by the Carbineers on the orders of their officers. The Australians' defense: as a reprisal, shooting prisoners was now accepted practice. Two of the . . . officers, Lieutenants 'Breaker' Morant and Handcock, were executed in February 1902. . . The affair caused an outcry in Australia. There arose a misconception (still current) that foreign political pressures had induced Kitchener to make scapegoats of Morant and Handcock. In fact Kitchener's motives were cruder: evidence of his own army's indiscipline drove him wild with frustration."
Beresford contrives to retain the theatricality of court-martial and prison scenes while expanding the pictorial scope to include evocative locations (shot in Australia rather than South Africa) and action sequences. The account of the court-martial is punctuated by depictions of the Boer ambush which provokes Morant's reprisals; the subsequent raids and executions by the Carbineers; a skirmish in mid-trial where Morant and his two co-defendants, Handcock and Witton, valiantly fight off attacking Boers yet fail to earn brownie points from the court.
While it's certainly desirable to open up the material beyond its theatrical framework, Beresford adds another sort of frame-up to the arbitrary justice allegedly being imposed on Morant and his mates. The continuity jumps around restlessly, withholding critical documentation until the court-martial is well under way and partisanship is firmly established at the table of the defendants, two of whom, Edward Woodward as Morant and Bryan Brown as Handcock, also specialize in sassing hostile witnesses and members of the tribunal.
Such one-sided rhetorical dueling seems calculated expressly for grandstanding theatrical effects. Similarly, the role of the stalwart defense counsel, Maj. Thomas, offers overripe oratorical opportunities to Jack Thompson, whose fluency makes nonsense of the introduction of Thomas as a simple barefoot solicitor arguing his first case.
In his most stirring summation Thomas-Thompson says that "Barbarities are committed by normal men in abnormal situations. . . War changes the nature of men." Ironically, one of the consequences of this line of defense is to draw attention to a questionable tactic in the screenplay. The argument might have more merit if the audience were immersed from the outset in the embittered, deteriorating wartime environment experienced by the Carbineers. The backtracking, hit-and-run continuity may do the characters a disservice.
Morant has all the best of the argument as formulated. The issues are reduced to a personality contest which favors the salty Aussies over the hypocritical English -- or the actors with all the punchlines over the actors with all the straight lines. While Americans may elect to see a parallel between the court-martial of Lt. Morant and the court-martial of Lt. Calley, the analogy would be more secure if the movie's methods weren't so calculatedly facile. Were principal players in the Morant drama really inspired to Wise Reflections like "It's a new kind of war . . . a new war for a new century," or "This is what comes of empire-building"?