It’s no bloody secret our graves were dug the day they arrested us at Fort Edward!
Lieutenant Peter Handcock, played by Bryan Brown, Breaker Morant (1980)
The Boer War, a conflict pitting the British Empire against the mostly Dutch population of South Africa, is nearing an end. Three Australian officers serving in the British army, including the notorious Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant, face a politically-driven court martial in relation to the murder of Boer prisoners and a civilian sympathetic to the Boer cause. Were the men simply following orders from a superior during a brutal guerrilla war? As their lives hang in the balance, the military assigns them a single lawyer on the eve of their hearing. The panel of judges soon discover, however, that Defence counsel exhibits a zealous and fearless advocacy that they did not anticipate.
Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant is a compelling courtroom drama that unfolds primarily through flashbacks.
The film dramatizes the importance of due process and the critical role of counsel for the Defence. In the absence of disclosure and reasonable time for preparation and investigation by their counsel, the accused persons sense that the hearing is merely a political show-trial where the outcome is a foregone conclusion.
Beresford makes interesting choices in visual style that draw out the pressures on each participant during the hearing. For example, at one point there is a close-up on the face of an anxious witness whose eyes dart around the room nervously as counsel argue in the background. At another point, the accused persons look at each other in exasperation as their counsel fumbles through a messy pile of documents.
The film also reminds us of the power of extreme environments to elicit disturbing behavior in ordinary individuals. Most of us are lucky never to be placed under such pressure or confronted with how we may act in those circumstances.
· The definitive consumer release of this film in North America is the 2015 Blu-ray edition released by the Criterion Collection (spine #773)