Bruce Beresford grew up with the dream of becoming a movie director. And he grew up on a continent without a movie industry.
"I've just been mad about movies since I was a kid," says the 40-year-old director of "Breaker Morant," the most successful Australian movie in the 10 years since Australia began making them. "Everyone used to say to me. 'Well, of course we don't make movies in Australia." And I said, 'Well, why not?'"
From 1950 to 1970, all of three feature films were produced there. Otherwise, Australians seemed content with American and British imports, just as they seemed content with British commentators for their TV news shows.They thought their own coarse accents were all right in private, but rather an embarrassment in public (as Beresford recalls in an Australian accent that doesn't seem to embarrass him). The first time a TV station tried to put an Aussie newscaster on the air, he says, there was a great "scream of astonishment."
That was the Australia he left in 1961, at 21, for England. He spent most of the next 10 years working for the British Film Institute and making documentaries about painters, yearning all the while to make features, but afraid that the British unions would never tolerate an alien director. Toward the end of the '60s, Beresford heard rumors that the Australian government would be investing vast sums of money to build a movie industry from scratch. "And I said, 'Well, they're going to make this money available, but they won't have anybody to make the films.'"
So he and his Irish wife made the 12,000-mile move back home, where he found just the sort of vacuum he expected -- and moved right into it. Soon he was writing and directing a comedy called "The Adventures of Barry McKenzie," which cleaned up at the box office despite "dreadful" reviews. "That broke the ice," says Beresford, a handsome, curly-black-haired native of Sydney who could pass for a retired soccer star.
Interviewed during a recent stopover in Washington to talk about. "Breaker Morant," Beresford says that government money is the basic explanation for all the Australian movies that have poured forth onto the international market -- for "My Brilliant Career," "The Last Wave," "The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith," "Mud Max" and the rest. The Australian government doesn't produce movies directly. It does so through a network of federal and state film commissions, all sufficiently free from government control that the South Australian Film Commission could (and did) sponsor a pornographic movie soon after it did "Breaker Morant."
"To go to those government film corporations when a film is finished is really depressing," says Beresford. "They're terribly public-service minded . . . They're hopeless."
Of the nine movies he has directed, only two -- "Breaker Morant" and "The Getting of Wisdom" -- have been released outside Australia and Britain. But "Morant" has been running for five months in New York, and it has already led to Beresford's first Hollywood deal -- to make a Biblical film about King David.
Part of "Breaker Morant's" trans-global appeal has to do with the parallels between its story -- a true one about a mass-murder trial during the Boer War -- and the My Lai massacre. In both cases, questions of guilt and innocence seem to shift as you widen your focus. But compared to Lt. William Calley, Lt. Harry "Breaker" Morant was an enormously subtle and thoughtful and surprising man to become, like it or not, a worldwide symbol of brutality.
"It was the complexity of it that appealed to me," says Beresford. "What I was interested in doing was defending what appears to be almost indefensible, and saying none of these issues are as simple as they appear." Morant and his two co-defendants were guilty -- "guilty as hell," says Beresford. Yet the British high command had subtle encouraged the very sort of tactics they later decided to regard as criminal. They had wanted a messy situation dealt with, and they hadn't wanted to know too much about how.
The "Breaker Morant" story was a hot topic among Australians in the first decade of the century, when Lt. George Witton, the one defendant who wasn't executed, wrote a book called "Scapegoats of the Empire." Now, thanks to Beresford's movie, the story is hot again. But it was an obscure piece of history, and growing more obscure by the minute, when he first thought of treating it on film. And he nearly gave up the idea because the first draft of the screenplay didn't satisfy him.
The project was brought back to life by an unsuccessful play on the subject that "crystallized" things for Beresford. The playwright had focused on the court-martial, and in that choice Beresford saw a way to bring some order to the sprawl of the story. (He didn't much care for the play's other simplifications, however, including a decision to make the defendents innocent of the secondary charge of killing a missionary "in order to win sympathy for them." Actually, they were guilty of that charge too, says Beresford, although they deluded their lawyer on that point.
The courtroom emphasis may have helped keep the budget in line, too. Even allowing for Australia's lower salary scale, "Breaker Morant's" $800,000 cost seems incredible against American film standards. Beresford is proud of what he was able to do on that modest budget, using three period houses in Adelaide as Lord Kitchener's headquarters, for example, and staging the battle sequences so that only 18 extras were necessary. Cecil B. DeMille had extras to burn, he points out, and DeMille's movies wound up looking cheap anyway.
At the first screening in Sydney, Beresford had a glimpse of "Breaker Morant's" potential appeal. When the movie was over, he found the projectionist in tears. A hardened veteran of a profession known for its ability to utterly disregard what happens on a movie screen had actually cried, and, says Beresford, "I thought, 'My God, it works.'"