Breaker Morant

  • Directors: Bruce Beresford
  • Producers: Matt Carroll
  • Writers: Screenplay, Jonathan Hardy, David Stevens, Bruce Beresford, Story, Kenneth G Ross
  • Genres: Drama, History, War
  • Actors: Edward Woodward, Jack Thompson, John Waters, Bryan Brown

Breaker Morant concerns the murder trial of three Australian Army officers of the Bushveldt Carbineers serving in South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899-1902). Lieutenants Harry “Breaker” Morant, Peter Handcock, and George Witton are accused of the murder of one Boer prisoner and the subsequent murders of six more. In addition, Morant and Handcock are accused of the sniper-style assassination of a German missionary, the Rev. H.C.V. Hesse. Their defence counsel, J.F. Thomas, has had only one day to prepare their defence.

Lord Kitchener, who ordered the trial, hopes to bring the Boer War to an end with a peace conference. To that end, he uses the Morant trial to show that he is willing to judge his own soldiers harshly if they disobey the rules of war. Although, as Major Thomas mentions in court, there are great complexities associated with charging active-duty soldiers with murder during battle, Kitchener is determined to have a guilty verdict, and the chief of the court, Lt. Colonel Denny, supports him.

The causes and occurrences relating to the trial are developed. Morant’s execution of the Boer prisoners was revenge for the mutilation and death of his friend and commanding officer, Captain Hunt. Enraged by the incident, Morant led an attack on a Boer camp, where a Boer, Visser, wearing Captain Hunt’s khaki battle jacket was captured. Morant had him executed on the spot. (It was later proved that the mutilation of Hunt’s body was done by black witchdoctors, and not Boers as Morant believed, and that Visser did not wear any of Hunt’s clothes.)

A summary at the end of the film reveals what later happens to some of the characters. Major Thomas returns to his native Australia and continues his civilian law practice, which is confined to estate planning and wills. Witton serves three years of his sentence, then is released after a national outcry. In 1907 he writes a book entitled Scapegoats of the Empire, an account of the Breaker Morant affair (it was reprinted in 1982). Witton’s book proves so inflammatory and anti-British that it is suppressed during both world wars.

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