Many of my favorite films are historical biopics that uncover slices of history I had never heard about. I've spent my movie-going years tracking these films down, but until recently, I was oblivious to a critically acclaimed Australian film called 'Breaker Morant,' that focuses on the infamous Boer War. I jumped at the chance to review this award-winning wartime drama (the film nabbed ten prizes at the 1980 Australian Film Institute Awards and was nominated in numerous Academy Award and Golden Globe categories).
'Breaker Morant' focuses on the last days of the Second Boer War -- a conflict that raged between the British Empire and the Boer republics in South Africa from 1899-1902. As peace emerges, the British high command attempts to ease tensions with the Boers by punishing the actions of a few impulsive soldiers. Enter Harry Morant (Edward Woodward), Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown), and George Witton (Lewis Fitzgerald) -- three Australian soldiers under British command who face court martial and execution from the British military council for the alleged "murders" of a German missionary and seven South African prisoners of war. With their lives in the balance, the three soldiers must rely on Major J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson) to defend their honor. Unfortunately, the major has been assigned at the last moment, witnesses have been reassigned to other countries, and the military council is determined to convict the men in an effort to barter peace with the Boers.
'Breaker Morant' is not a typical courtroom drama, but a non-linear narrative that moves gracefully from a South African prison, back to the accused soldiers’ pre-war lives, and through to the tragic events that led to the their arrest. While their defense is compelling, the flashbacks reveal bits of information that complicate the innocence of the accused. Director Bruce Beresford ('Driving Miss Daisy,' 'Double Jeopardy') poses numerous thought-provoking questions, allowing every character and party (even the contemptible Boers) to be afflicted with injustice amidst the madness of the conflict. As such, the film becomes a sobering examination of wartime chaos and negligence that reveals the struggles soldiers from every era have endured in the service of their countries.
Beyond the storyline, 'Breaker Morant' earns its awards -- Woodward, Brown, and Thompson are fantastic, their passions and tempers bursting at the seams, revealing the frustrated victims beneath the tough exteriors. These compelling actors understand the implications of the story and embrace it wholeheartedly. This isn't just about the charges leveled at three soldiers, it's about the injustice of their prosecution and the manner in which unsubstantiated accusations can destroy lives while building a nation.
'Breaker Morant' is the latest newly-discovered gem in my collection of historical biopics. It not only features some of the best performances I've witnessed in a courtroom drama, but fits them into a story that asks some serious questions of its audience. If you can't stand cynicism in your cinema, you should probably stay away from this one -- but if you enjoy a gripping story with unpredictable developments, be sure to track down 'Breaker Morant' wherever you can find it.
Image Entertainment presents 'Breaker Morant' with a new 1080p/AVC high definition transfer that cleans up many of the problems that once plagued the title's home video releases. I'm particularly impressed with how clean the source actually is -- I didn't find any significant noise, artifacting, or banding. A few scattered speckles and nicks from the original source still appear here and there, but they're kept to a minimum. To my relief, the studio didn't use any DNR processing either, as a visible veneer of grain still lightly seasons the picture. Colors are vivid, black levels are incredible, and detail is clearly the best its ever looked. Some close-ups defy the film's age and highlight every pore, hair, and scar on the actors' faces.
Sadly, the source still suffers from some serious issues. Contrast has a slight waver at times, and consistent yellow overtones rob the image of depth for most of the presentation. Worse still, the increased resolution can't overcome soft shots, fluctuating focus, and other clarity issues inherent to the original print. Thankfully, the new transfer doesn't overindulge itself on edge enhancement -- edge halos still haunt faces set against bright skies, but its kept to a minimum.
In the end, 'Breaker Morant' fans should be very pleased with the results, while newcomers will likely shrug their shoulders and focus on the movie itself.
'Breaker Morant' features two audio options that present the film's original mono mix -- a DTS HD Master Audio 2.0 track (255kbps) and a Dolby Digital 2.0 track (224 kbps). To be honest, I didn't expect much of a difference between the two, but DTS once again proves its HD MA offerings are superior, with a crisp track that makes the Dolby mix sound as if it were produced underwater.
The DTS track has fairly clean dialogue, a nicely prioritized soundscape, and a decent series of dynamic moments. The film's low-end tones are quite good for a 2.0 track, giving the audio experience genuine heft. Of course the nature of the mix pulls all the sound forward, leaving the rear speakers incapacitated and the countryside ambiance flat. While I certainly prefer a faithful mono mix to an aimless 5.1 remix, I still wish the studio had at least given it a shot with this one. The original source also shows its age -- wind constantly disrupts exterior scenes, dull noise often pops up during quiet interior shots, and dialogue often pops clumsily into a dead soundfield.
Despite my average score, I found myself enjoying the DTS HD MA track on 'Breaker Morant.' There's something quaint about its adherence to its source and it definitely sounds better here than on previous releases. I just can't help thinking a proper remix could've made the audio even stronger.
The Blu-ray edition of 'Breaker Morant' arrives via Image Entertainment with the same duo of catalog supplements as its standard DVD counterpart (released earlier in 2008).
'Breaker Morant' is an exceptional Australian catalog film that will unfortunately be overlooked on store shelves by a majority of film fans. It's a shame too -- it has Oscar caliber acting, a brilliant script, and a challenging story. This Blu-ray release doesn't have much supplemental material and struggles with its aged source. Still, it ultimately benefits from an impressive video transfer of a problematic source, and a solid DTS HD MA mono track. Do yourself a favor and find a way to experience this fascinating courtroom drama, regardless of its technical issues.