At the turn of the twentieth century, three Australian army lieutenants are court-martialed for alleged war crimes committed while fighting in South Africa. With no time to prepare, an Australian major, appointed as defense attorney, must prove they were just following the rules of war and are being made into political pawns by the British imperial command. Director Bruce Beresford garnered international acclaim for this riveting drama set during a dark period in his country’s colonial history, and featuring passionate performances by Edward Woodward, Bryan Brown, and Jack Thompson; rugged cinematography by Donald McAlpine; and an Oscar-nominated script, based on true events.
"Well Peter, this is what comes of empire building."
Reflecting upon historical events can offer new insights into what has happened in our past. Sometimes the results can muddy the already murky waters or they can provide a bit of clarity. In the events of war, the water is always muddy - especially when one begins to question the ethics of orders given during battle. I like to believe that the biggest part of learning comes from a willingness to look back at your decisions, own up to responsibility, and face the consequences honorably. Films like 'Judgement at Nuremberg,' take a look at bad decisions during the worst moments of human experience where a group of men are under orders to do terrible deeds. 1980's 'Breaker Morant' follows the historical events of the Boer War in South Africa and the British military court martial of three Australian soldiers for atrocities they claim were committed under orders by their British superiors.
Volunteering for the British Armed Forces was supposed to be a means to an end for Lt. Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown), Lt. George Ramsdale Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) and their commanding officer Lt. Harry 'Breaker' Morant (Edward Woodward). Little did these three men know that by signing up to serve the British empire they would, in fact, be tossed into a war with Dutch farmers known as the Boers in a war for the wealth of South Africa. As the Boers were common men without formal warfare training, they engaged in an effective guerrilla war taking on small targets and disrupting the British regiments. In order to win engagements, the British forces and their Australian counterparts had to adjust - even going so far as to kill Boer POWS. But when Boer prisoners of war are executed and a German missionary murdered, the actions of three soldiers are called into question.
While they may have been under orders, Lt. Morant and his men were most certainly guilty of egregious atrocities. With there being little doubt of their guilt, the circumstances has put the British empire at odds with Germany - and that is a war they do not want to fight. In order to maintain peace between the two nations, the three Australian soldiers are to face a military court martial. In order to ensure these men are brought to justice in the eyes of the world swiftly, the court assigns an inexperienced litigator, Maj. J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson) to act in the defense. Without proper time to prepare, Thomas is faced with the Sisyphean task of defending these men and saving them from a firing squad.
Even without any time to prep or adequate accommodations to investigate the incidents in question, Thomas is actually able to mount a formidable defense. While the guilt of the men's actions is of little doubt, the circumstances are increasingly called into question. Every witness the prosecution calls to offer even more damning evidence against the accused, Thomas is able to puncture holes in their stories or even spin the evidence in the favor of the defense. Through all of the politics, Maj. Thomas does everything he can to defend his clients, but will it be enough to save their lives?
Directed by Bruce Beresford, 'Breaker Morant' is a dramatic political thriller in the guise of a courtroom drama. Rather than bother with extensive pieces of verbal exposition, the film is told largely through flashbacks as the evidence against the men is delivered to the court martial. While the situations are certainly damning in a court of law, on a battlefield, things are a little more grey. When the men's commanding officer is killed and his body mutilated, it becomes all the more understandable, if not reasonable for them to have acted in the way that they did. That's where this film brilliantly places the viewer, smack dab in the position of having to make a moral decision. Are the men following orders and innocent of any "crimes," or were their orders and subsequent actions so unjust and inhumane that any reasonable person would dismiss outright?
Through this morality play, we follow a determined and dedicated Jack Thompson as Maj. Thomas. His performance is fierce as he wears his frustrations on his sleeves and isn't afraid to show his disgust with the proceedings. While our sympathies towards his clients may wax and wane with each piece of testimony, our allegiances towards Maj. Thomas never falters. He was given the impossible task of defending men not only against their crimes but the wills of political leaders who pull the strings of the courts. Even right up to the film's fateful final moments we feel for his plight.
Like 'Judgement at Nuremberg' or 'Paths of Glory,' 'Breaker Morant' works as a film that questions morals and ethics and like those two films, we come to understand that there are no easy answers. In fact in the realms of right and wrong, this film and ultimately the real life historical actions of the men can only be judged from the position of personal experience. You may have one reaction while the person sitting next to you could have a completely different one. As a pragmatist by nature, I'm routinely stuck in the middle when it comes to stories of morality. On one side of the coin, I am absolutely disgusted with by the murders of innocent people, and then on the other I loathe the hypocritical nature of the trial these men faced.
There are no easy answers to these sorts of situations, and perhaps that's why films like 'Breaker Morant' are so important. In a sense, films like this one ask us to take a step outside ourselves for just one moment and look back within. We can Monday morning quarterback world events and scenarios all day long, but until we're faced with similar circumstances ourselves, we'll never truly know how we'll act. I like to position myself on the side of good, but then again, I'm sure the men on trial thought their actions were just. 'Breaker Morant' is an exceptional piece of cinema and one that everyone should see at least once in their life.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Breaker Morant' arrives on Blu-ray thanks to the Criterion Collection. Pressed on a region A locked BD50 disc and housed in a standard clear case, the disc comes with a booklet featuring an in-depth essay by Neil Sinyard. Absolutely worth the read.
"Breathtaking," and "beautiful," are words that instantly come to mind when I begin to attempt to describe the 1.85:1 1080p transfer that 'Breaker Morant' has been given on Blu-ray. Minted from a fresh 4k transfer supervised by Director Bruce Beresford, fine film grain has been retained providing spectacular detail levels. As indicated inside the booklet, this film underwent a massive restoration effort. Print damage in the form of scratches and debris have been painstakingly removed and the film has been color timed to the specifications of Beresford and the results are fantastic. Flesh tones are nice and accurate while primaries enjoy a luscious presence. To that effect, black levels are deep and inky and shadow separation offers some impressive depth levels - even when the scene takes place in the tight confines of the makeshift courtroom. Even during the film's darker moments, black levels are rich and solid and never dip into crush territories. Image clarity is such that it looks and feels like the characters are right there in the room. This is truly a demo worthy presentation, the last time I viewed this movie was on an old LaserDisc in school and this new transfer obliterates that release.
'Breaker Morant' arrives on Blu-ray with an absolutely impressive English LPCM 1.0 audio track. Given its nature as a mono track, there is a surprising level of audio element separation and imaging on display here. While the sound doesn't travel around the room exactly, there are plenty of moments where the sounds of voices, ambient background effects, and when the action picks up, the sound of gunshots feature a pleasing directional effect. To that end, dialogue is clean and crystal clear. Levels have been perfectly balanced ensuring that you shouldn't have to ride your volume button. The track keeps to the midranges and gives all of the audio elements plenty of space to breathe. In the stone bunker where the trial is being conducted, there is a nicely resonate echo effect that really brings home the sense of space - even in a tight claustrophobic room. Without any damage in the range of hiss, pops, or breaks, this track is virtually flawless.
Audio Commentary: Director Bruce Beresford flies solo providing an incredible amount of detail about the filming process. From the filming locations, writing the script, explaining the history, casting - he leaves no stone unturned. A truly fantastic commentary and is a must listen.
Setting A Moral Compass: Bruce Beresfort Interview: (HD 12:34) A fascinating interview with the Director as he discusses the story, the script, and what it took just to get the film in front of cameras as well as other anecdotal information.
A Beautiful Lie: Donald McAlpine Interview: (HD 8:34) A fascinating interview with the cinematographer. You could listen to this man talk about his craft for hours for all of the detail he has to offer from his visualization process to actually shooting.
Defying Authority: Bryan Brown Interview: (HD 10:17) A pretty interesting interview from the actor as he offers an interesting perspective as a then young actor and what it was like shooting the film in South Australia and the story.
Edward Woodward Archival Interview: (SD 16:12) It's a nice interview with the actor as he details how he became attached to the project and how the script developed and how the film holds as one of his favorite film experiences.
The South African War: (HD 16:01) A fascinating historical piece that touches on the various aspects of the war and how it was a messy situation all around.
The Breaker: (HD 54:53) This is an archival documentary feature from the 1970s that explores the history of the man known as "Breaker" Morant and the circumstances surrounding the trial.
The Myth Exploded: (HD 5:42) 'The Breaker' Director Frank Shields looks back at how his documentary lead the change of perspective of in Morant's complicity and guilt.
Trailer: (HD 2:31) The trailer is in pretty rough shape, but it does a solid job of selling the film. Also helps you appreciate the restoration work that went into the main film.
'Breaker Morant' is a difficult film. It is a film that asks you to empathize with men who by all accounts are guilty of terrible deeds, however, these deeds were done under extraneous circumstances. It's an amazing film that challenges you to think. The Criterion Collection has done an outstanding job pulling together this Blu-ray release. The audio and video presentation is absolutely first rate and the assortment of extras explores the film as well as the actual historical events that inspired it. When one stacks up all of the attributes of this amazing release, I have to call this one a must own disc.