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    In prison cell I sadly sit -
    A d-d crestfallen chappy!
    And own to you I feel a bit-
    A little bit - unhappy!

    It really ain't the place nor time
    To reel off rhyming diction-
    But yet we'll write a final rhyme
    While waiting cru-ci-fixion!

    No matter what 'end' they decide-
    Quicklime? or 'b'iling ile? sir!
    We'll do our best when crucified
    To finish off in style, sir!

    But we bequeath a parting tip
    For sound advice as such men
    As come across in transport ship
    To polish off the Dutchmen!

    If you encounter any Boers
    You really must not loot 'em,
    And if you wish to leave these shores
    For pity's sake don't shoot 'em!

    And if you'd earn a D.S.O.-
    Why every British sinner
    Should know the proper way to go
    Is: 'Ask the Boer to dinner'!

    Let's toss a bumper down our throat
    Before we pass to Heaven,
    And toast: 'the trim-set petticoat
    We leave behind in Devon.'
        -Harry "Breaker" Morant

Given that it came out just four years after the fall of Saigon, it is perhaps understandable that critics, particularly American critics, tended to view Breaker Morant as a kind of a backhanded commentary on the Vietnam War, specifically on My Lai.  But to treat it as such is to put the cart before the donkey.  The fact of the matter is that, despite the longing of 60s radicals to see it as unique, Vietnam was a fairly typical conflict and American actions, both official and otherwise, were largely consistent with the history of superpower involvement in foreign wars.

War is always a confused and brutal business, but when you pack soldiers off thousands of miles from home and tell them to prop up an obviously unstable government (otherwise the soldiers wouldn't be needed) and to shoot some of the foreigners, but not all of them, you virtually guarantee that atrocities (defined here as the willful killing of potential noncombatants) will follow.   And when it is a democracy that is sending the soldiers abroad, and when the war goes poorly, you virtually guarantee that someone, usually the grunts, will pay the price for these crimes.  Breaker Morant alludes to this fact himself when he quotes Lord Byron's poem written early in the 19th Century:

    When a Man Hath No Freedom to Fight for at Home
        George Gordon Byron (1788-1824)

    When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home,
        Let him combat for that of his neighbors;
    Let him think of the glories of Greece and of Rome,
        And get knocked on his head for his labors.

    To do good to mankind is the chivalrous plan,
        And is always as nobly requited;
    Then battle for freedom wherever you can,
        And, if not shot or hanged, you'll get knighted.

From Byron to Breaker Morant to Lieutenant Calley, it has ever been the same.  It is then the mark of an immature people to hold the soldiers solely responsible for these actions when they do occur, rather than to blame the society at large for putting them in the situation to begin with and for not being prepared to cope with such incidents when they do occur.

In the actual case upon which Breaker Morant is based, seven Bushveld Carbineers were charged with shooting Boer prisoners and a German missionary during the British-South African War.  The film deals with the January 1902 trial of Lieutenant Harry "Breaker" Morant, a British ne'er do well who had emigrated to Australia and become a breaker of horses, and two native Australians, Peter Handcock and  George Ramsdale Witton, all of whom were defended by Major Thomas, an inexperienced attorney from New South Wales.  It was a true kangaroo court, its verdict foreordained, and both Morant and Handcock were shot by a firing squad on February 27, 1902 (Witton's death sentence was reduced to life in prison and he was later freed by the House of Commons).

Bruce Beresford's terrific film version of these events avoids the staginess that typically afflicts courtroom dramas by the extensive use of flashbacks.  The contrast of the wide open veld to the confines of court and prison in itself conveys the drastic difference between "civilization" and frontier.  He gets excellent performances all around but especially from Edward Woodward (The Equalizer), Bryan Brown, and Jack Thompson.  Woodward eats up the scenery as the boozy, intellectual, black sheep, Morant.  Brown plays off him nicely as Handcock, all temper and appetite.  And Thompson, as their attorney, starts out a bumbler but builds confidence as he scores unexpected points in court and finishes with a summation that, for my money, is one of the most powerful pieces of writing in film :

    The fact of the matter is that war changes men's natures.  The barbarities of war are seldom
    committed by abnormal men.  The tragedy of war is that these horrors are committed by normal
    men in abnormal situations; situations in which the ebb and flow of everyday life have departed
    and have been replaced by a constant round of fear and anger, blood and death.  Soldiers at war are
    not to be judged by civilian rules...  Even though they commit acts which calmly viewed
    afterwards could only be seen as unchristian and brutal...[W]e can not hope to judge such matters
    unless we ourselves have been submitted to the same pressures, the same provocations, as these
    men, whose actions are on trial.

The thing that most stands out about that speech is that it could have been given by the defense attorney during any of a dozen wars that Britain and America have fought.  But it is the conceit of civilized nations that we do indeed judge soldiers by peacetime standards, not by the circumstances that prevail in the situations in which we place them.  And so Morant chooses as his epitaph Matthew 10:36 :

    And a man's foes shall be they of his own household.

And says of the whole patently unjust episode :

    This is what comes of empire building.

These are awful truths, but truths we would do well to face up to. Breaker Morant forces us to confront them directly and, because of this, is an extraordinarily powerful and important film.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

    -INFO : Breaker Morant (1979) (
    -INFO : Breaker Morant (David Hart)
    -INFO : Breaker Morant (Rotten Tomatoes)
    -PHOTO : Breaker Morant (Military Stories & Anecdotes : The Bushveld Carbineers )
    -A poem from the movie Breaker Morant
    -Breaker Morant, Empire and War (David Hart)
    -ARCHIVES : Articles about the Trial and Execution of Breaker Morant in the Sydney Morning Herald 10 March - 4 April 1902 (David Hart)
    -ARCHIVES : "" (chomsky)
    -Breaker Morant : a soldier in the Boer War
    -Breaker Morant : Hero, scapegoat or Rogue?
    -ARTICLE : A facelift for 'Breaker' Morant's grave : The Australian government takes over care of the grave of 'Breaker' Morant, the Boer war soldier who became a hero back at home after he was executed by the British. (ED O'LOUGHLIN, Mail & Guardian)
    -Harry The Breaker Morant and Peter Handcock (Oz Folk Heroes)
    -ARCHIVES : "breaker morant" (Find Articles)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Bruce Beresford (
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Edward Woodward (
    -The Edward Woodward WWW Main Page.
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Bryan Brown (
    -REVIEW : of Breaker Morant (DREW L. KERSHEN, Oklahoma City University Law Review  (1997), Law in Popular Culture Collection)
    -REVIEW : of Breaker Morant (David Denby,  New York Magazine, (12/29/80))
    -REVIEW : of Breaker Morant (Leah Krevit, July '96 EQ/EW Int'l Electronic Bulletin)
    -REVIEW : of Breaker Morant (David Macdonald)
    -REVIEW : of Breaker Morant (Edwin Jahiel)
    -REVIEW : of Breaker Morant (Doug Pratt's DVD Reviews)
    -REVIEW : of Breaker Morant (Wesley Lovell, The Oscar Guy)

BOER WAR (1899-1902) :
    -The Anglo Boer War
    -Anglo Boer War Museum
    -Anglo Boer War 100th Anniversary (News 24 ZA)
    -Australian War Memorial
    -Australians at War
    -The Australian Light Horse Association
    -The Boer War in South Africa, including Australians' roles
    -Pietersburg and the Anglo Boer War
    -ESSAY :  THE BOER WAR AND ITS HUMANITARIAN CRITICS : David Nash argues that opposition to the Second Boer War began the tradition of peace politics that has flourished through the twentieth century (History Today, June 1999)
    -ARCHIVES : "boer war" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "boer war" (Mag Portal)
    -REVIEW : of A Rain of Lead: the Siege and Surrender of the British at Potchefstroom 1880-1881 by Ian Bennett (Andrew Roberts, booksonline)
    -REVIEW : of Kitchener: the Road to Omdurman by John Pollock (Philip Ziegler, booksonline)
    -REVIEW : of Kitchener: The Road to Omdurman by John Pollock (John Grigg, booksonline)
    -REVIEW : of Ladysmith by Giles Foden (Julia Flynn, booksonline)
    -Ladysmith by Giles Foden (W. F. Deedes,  booksonline)
    -REVIEW : of  The Russians and the Anglo-Boer War by  Apollon Davidson and Irina Filatova (R.W. Johnson, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of GALLIPOLI By Les Carlyon (Stephen Matchett, Sydney Morning Herald)
    -REVIEW : of BLINDFOLD AND ALONE: British Military Executions in the Great War By Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson (Michael Samaras , Sydney Morning Herald)
    -REVIEW : of  Blindfold and Alone: British Military Executions in the Great War by Cathryn M Corns and John Hughes-Wilson (Malcolm Brown, The Guardian)
    -PODCAST: The Boer War: Professor Jeremy Black talks about why the British found the Boers so difficult to defeat (The Critic, 1/27/22)