Movie Review: Breaker Morant (1980)

Quote from Breaker Morant by Major Thomas

“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.”


Finally, Eight Years Later

It took me around eight years to watch Breaker Morant (‘Breaker’ Morant: original title).  It was the first movie I put into my Netflix queue and then it disappeared and never came back.  I finally bought the Criterion version and it sat on my shelf for many years.    So, what is this movie about?  Keep reading to find out and there will not be any major spoilers involved.


People Behind Breaker Morant

Breaker Morant is drama, history, war movie with a running time of one hour and 47 minutes.  It has an MPAA rating of PG for adult situations, some violence, and language.  This movie is an adaptation from the play ‘Breaker Morant’ by Kenneth Ross and additional material by Kit Denton.  The screenplay is written by Jonathan Hardy, David Stevens, and Bruce Beresford.  It is directed by Bruce Beresford.  It is produced by Matt Carroll.  It stars Edward Woodward as Lt. Harry “Breaker” Morant, Bryan Brown as Lt. Peter Handcock, Lewis Fitz-Gerald as Lt. George Ramsdale Witton, Jack Thompson as Maj. James Francis Thomas, John Waters as Capt. Alfred Taylor, Alan Cassell as Lord Kitchener, Vincent Ball as Col. Hamilton, and Rod Mullinar as Maj. Charles Bolton. This South Australian Film Corporation and Australian Film Commission movie is about three Australian lieutenants who find themselves in trouble for carrying out orders as directed by their superiors.  They are now on trial for their war crimes, but their newly appointed lawyer will do everything in his power to get a verdict he thinks they deserve.


    Watch the Trailer to Breaker Morant

    Short Summary of Breaker Morant

    Breaker Morant begins in Pretoria, South Africa during 1902.  We learn about Lord Kitchener’s insistence of seeing three men, all lieutenants of the Bushveldt Carbineers, guilty for their involvement in murdering Boers and a German missionary during the Second Boer War or the South African War.  The three lieutenants, Morant, Handcock, and Witton, hire Maj. James Thomas to do their bidding in court.  The proceedings remain as is where the three will continue to be tried under British law despite being Australian.  As witnesses paint a picture of drunkenness and corruption, we are brought back with flashbacks of what prompted the killings. While Morant, Handcock, and Witton continue to be scrutinized, more witnesses testify for the prosecution and strengthen their case.  Maj. Thomas does his best to chip away at their progress during cross examinations. After both sides make compelling reasons for guilt and innocence, the three men wait for their verdicts.  Each one takes stock of his life and what he is leaving behind if found guilty.  The truth about some of the killings surface and no matter what side you’re on, there’s always someone more powerful above, below, and around you.

    Other Responses to Breaker Morant

    There will be some inaccuracies or bending of the truth in practically every movie.  Breaker Morant took some creative liberties.  The first is the German government involvement with the murdererd German missionary.  There was not adequate evidence to support what was portrayed where the British government feared German entry into the war despite it being stated in the movie.  The second involved the focus of the three men, Morant, Handcock, and Witton being charged for war crimes.  Lieutenant Henry Picton, Capt. Alfred Taylor, and Maj. Robert W. Lenehan were also on trial in reality.  Most of the men were arrested outside of Pietersburg in 1901 and not at Fort Edward as portrayed in the movie.  The third was Morant and Handcock rejecting full immunity because they refused to implicate Maj. Robert Lenehan and Capt. Alfred Taylor where the movie does not cover this.  There was a lot of ground to cover and you can’t fit it all in, but what the director himself said later, “I always get amazed when people say to me that this film is about poor Australians who were framed by the Brits” is a good point.  The movie he directed was so much more than this simplified takeaway.

    Pisaries Creator’s Evaluation of Breaker Morant


    Breaker Morant is the kind of movie that tends to bring up more questions than answers.  The three men are guilty for the crime of murder, but whether it crosses that thin line when dealing with war and military begs the question of should they be punished for it.  The Boers protecting their lands by guerrilla warfare was forced onto them, thus creating the Second Boer War or South African War.  It never would have happened had the British not invaded, but here we are still today dealing with colonization in some areas.  The message of this movie points to the intricacies and consequences of war: how it affects a soldier and what can’t be discarded once the fighting is over.  The British eventually gobbled up the Republic of Transvaal and Orange Free State.   This critical let them keep life or give them death situation of the three men and those helping or harming them is the strength of the movie.  It had that dramatic nuance where the relationship among and between the three men and their counsel was near perfection.  While I wished there was a little more flashback sequences, it was enough to be satisfied.  It drove the nail in deep where these are changed men.  It took time for the movie to gain traction despite being nominated at the Golden Globes, Academy Awards, Cannes Film Festival and Australian Film Institute. It won ten awards at the Australian Film Institute and one at Cannes Film Festival.  So, the question remains, would I recommend this movie to others?  The answer is yes. There is not much not to like about this movie even though a few scenes moved at a little slower pace than others.  And if you don’t notice by the end of it, one of the three men is the same actor who jumped off the building in Along Came Polly although he’s much younger looking but recognizable.


    I rate Breaker Morant NEAR PERFECT.

      It gets FOUR FINGERS AND ONE THUMB at 97%.



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