BREAKER MORANT -- At the Jenifer and Springfield Mall.

The contrast between the style and the content of "Breaker Morant," an Australian film that won 10 of its country's Academy Awards, is so great as to turn it into two conflicting pictures. One is about three courageous, loyal and sensitive Australian soldiers in the Boer War who are framed by the British for political reasons, and the other is about a trio (the same trio) of war criminals who get what is coming to them.

One might think that the script writer and the director were unable to reconcile opposite views about the story -- except that the same man, Bruce Beresford, directed the film and wrote it (with Jonathan Hardy and David Stevens).

Visually, the film is starkly beautiful, with the relentless landscape and crude frontier accommodations of 19th-century South Africa rendered in shades of gray and tan. In this harsh setting, Harry "Breaker" Morant, who got his nickname from his ability to break horses, but who is also a poet, is tried, with two companions, for the murder of a German missionary and for killing Boers who had surrendered.

Edward Woodward, Bryan Brown and Lewis Fitz-Gerald play the three as robust and brave fighters; Jack Thompson, as their lawyer, has the spirit of zealous idealism fighting a heartless bureaucracy. In contrast, the British officers are tight-lipped, fussy and indifferent to the humanity of the case in their eagerness to impress their superiors and to pursue abstract political goals.

One can see, in this strong presentation, how the episode made folk heroes of these men. But the effect is spoiled if one pays attention to the facts as presented by the script, and to the evidence made at the trial.

There it's shown that the Australian soldiers did indeed shoot people who were approaching them waving a white flag, and that they then shot a neutral missionary for fear of his reporting the incident. This certainly puts into question the defense's claim of following their officers' wishes about disobeying the rules of warfare, which, in any case, they fail to prove in court. We have only their word, and we know that they are perjuring themselves in the matter of the missionary.

Unless one accepts the idea that war, by its nature, makes a mockery of any distinguishing rules about whom to shoot when, one is forced to go against what is obviously intended as the emotional thrust of the picture and to acknowledge that the heroes have committed war crimes. Whether they write poetry on the side, have loved ones at home, or might have been spared if their punishment had not been politically advantageous is irrelevant to the justice of the trial.

And to present a simple progression from crime to trial to death, when a moral dilemma was promised, is a dramatic crime.