Breaker Morant is a 1980 Australian war drama film directed by Bruce Beresford, who co-wrote the screenplay based on Kenneth G. Ross’s 1978 play of the same name.
The film concerns the 1902 court martial of lieutenants Harry Morant, Peter Handcock and George Witton – one of the first war crime prosecutions in British military history. Australians serving in the British Army during the Second Anglo-Boer War, Morant, Handcock, and Witton stood accused of murdering captured enemy combatants and an unarmed civilian in the Northern Transvaal. The film is notable for its exploration of the Nuremberg Defence, the politics of the death penalty and the human cost of total war. As the trial unfolds, the events in question are shown in flashbacks.
In Pretoria, South Africa, in 1902, Major Charles Bolton (Rod Mullinar) is summoned to a meeting with Lord Kitchener (Alan Cassell). He is told that three officers of the Bushveldt Carbineers – lieutenants Harry Morant (Edward Woodward), Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) and George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) – have been arrested and charged with the murder of captured Boers and a German missionary. Explaining ominously that the German Emperor – Wilhelm II – has protested diplomatically about the latter killing, Kitchener asks Major Bolton to appear for the prosecution. To the Major’s visible dismay, he is told that witnesses which would help the defence have been sent to India and that the defence counsel is expected to give him no trouble.
The defence counsel, Major James Francis Thomas (Jack Thompson) meets Morant, Handcock and Witton the day before he is to represent them in court. He tells them that he knows only the basic facts, which look bad. A small town solicitor from New South Wales in civilian life, Major Thomas explains that he has never handled anything except legal documents like wills. Handcock quips, “Might come in handy”.
As court martial proceedings begin the following morning, Major Thomas argues, because his clients are Australians, that only the Australian Army can court martial them. Unmoved, the president of the court martial, Lieutenant Colonel Denny, explains that the defendants may be tried for alleged crimes committed while serving under British command in the Bushveldt Carbineers. Without further ado, Denny reads the indictment. The three stand accused of the murder of a Boer prisoner named Denys Visser (Michael Procanin Bernosky) and the subsequent shooting of six other captured Boers whose names are unknown. Morant and Handcock are charged with the murder of the Reverend Daniel Heese.
Bolton begins by calling witnesses who describe a lack of discipline, drunkenness, widespread looting and corruption among the Carbineers at Fort Edward. Thomas manages to damage their credibility during cross examination. The testimony then turns to the shooting of Visser, which is shown in flashback.
On 5 April 1901, Morant’s friend, Captain Simon Hunt, had led a group of men to a farmhouse at Duiwelskloof intending to capture or kill Boer Commando Field Cornet Barend Viljoen. On arrival, the Carbineers found the farm swarming with far more armed men than expected. Captain Hunt was wounded, pinned down by enemy fire and left behind when he ordered his men to retreat. When the patrol returned to Fort Edward without Captain Hunt, Intelligence Corps Captain Alfred Taylor (John Waters) suggests Morant “avenge Captain Hunt”. After returning to the farm and finding Captain Hunt’s body mutilated with knives, Morant gave chase, ambushed Viljoen’s men, and forced them to retreat with many losses. After capturing a Boer named Visser who was wearing Captain Hunt’s jacket, an enraged Morant ordered his men to line up into a firing squad and shoot him. They obey his order.
Thomas argues that standing orders existed to shoot “all Boers captured wearing khaki”. To the shock of Thomas and his clients, Bolton explains that those orders only applied to Boers wearing British uniforms as a ruse of war. When Morant takes the witness stand and is grilled by Bolton, he defends the shooting of Visser by saying that he fought the Boers as they fought him. When asked which of the rules of engagement justifies shooting an unarmed prisoner, Morant shouts, in reference to his rifle’s calibre, “Rule 303”. That night, Thomas angrily tells Morant that he was the best witness the prosecution has yet had. The following day, testimony turns to the shooting of the six Boers.
Taylor testifies that Captain Hunt had paid a visit to Kitchener’s headquarters. Following Hunt’s return to Fort Edward, Morant had brought in a group of Boers who had surrendered, only to be told by Captain Hunt that new orders from Kitchener, relayed through Colonel Hubert Hamilton, decreed that no more prisoners were to be taken. Saying, “The gentlemen’s war is over”, Hunt had had the prisoners all shot while Morant watched. Captain Taylor testifies that Morant had continued to bring prisoners in until after Captain Hunt had been killed. Afterwards, he always ordered his men to shoot them. On cross examination, Bolton damages Taylor by forcing him to admit that he is also awaiting court martial for shooting prisoners. According to other witnesses, a group of six Boer guerrillas had approached Fort Edward after Captain Hunt’s death, bearing white flags. Morant ordered them disarmed, lined them up, and had them shot. One prisoner runs at Witton, who kills him.
Thomas demands that Kitchener be summoned as a witness. He argues that, as his clients only followed orders, all charges must be dropped. Denny recoils at the suggestion that Kitchener, a man revered throughout the British Empire, would be capable of giving such criminal orders. Equally contemptuous of the idea, Bolton privately tells Thomas that, if Kitchener testifies and denies giving the orders, the defendants’ lives will be doomed. He vainly urges Thomas not to insist. In private Kitchener tells Hamilton that, when he had issued orders to take no prisoners, he was trying to break the Boer guerrillas by waging total war. Now he is trying to win the hearts and minds of the Afrikaner people and arrange a peace conference. To this end, a few soldiers “have to be sacrificed” for the misdeeds of the British Army. He orders Hamilton to testify in his place and when asked for what to say, Kitchener comments, “I think you know what to do”.
The following day, Hamilton takes the stand and denies ever having spoken to Captain Hunt. An outraged Morant stands up and yells that the Colonel is a liar. Denny comments that there will be no more talk of orders to shoot prisoners. Thomas explains that Hamilton’s testimony is irrelevant. The fact is, his clients believed that such orders existed and thus cannot be held accountable for following them. The trial then turns to the murder of the Reverend Heese. A Corporal Sharp testifies that, shortly before the massacre of the six Boers, Heese had passed through Fort Edward in a buggy. Shortly after his departure, Handcock had ridden up to Morant, spoken briefly to him and then ridden off, looking “agitated”, in the same direction as Heese, with a rifle. Thomas damages Sharp on cross examination by revealing his hatred of the defendants.
On stand, Morant explains that Heese was under orders to never speak to prisoners while passing through Fort Edward and violated them. When Bolton asks why such orders existed, Morant explains, “It was for security reasons”. When Morant had confronted Heese, he had been told that the prisoners had begged Heese to pray with them and that he could not refuse. Heese then left the Fort and was later found, shot dead, along the road. Bolton suggests that Heese was going to inform their commanding officer of Morant’s plans to kill the prisoners and accuses Morant of ordering Handcock to silence him. Unmoved, Morant insists that his commanding officer already knew and suggests that he be recalled from India to testify. He adds, “I don’t mind waiting”.
After Morant stands down, Thomas requests and is granted a brief recess to confer with Handcock before putting him on the stand. Late into the night, Thomas pleads with Handcock to tell him the truth, calling the Heese murder “the most serious charge”. At last, Handcock opens up about his whereabouts. The following morning, Handcock testifies that, when he left Fort Edward, he had travelled to the homes of two married Afrikaner women to ‘entertain’ them. As Bolton eyes him, Thomas produces signed depositions from the women to confirm Handcock’s story. The court and the prosecution accept the depositions without summoning the women to give evidence.
Later, in the prison courtyard, Witton wonders aloud about who really did kill Heese. Handcock smiles and says, “Me”. To Witton’s horror, Handcock explains that his visits to his “two lady friends” happened afterwards. When Witton asks whether Thomas knows, Morant explains that there is no reason for him to know. Morant explains that the Bushveldt Carbineers represent a new kind of warfare “for a new century”. As the Boers do not wear uniforms, the enemy is everyone, including men, women, children, even missionaries. That is why, after Heese had left the Fort, Morant had told Handcock that he believed that the Reverend was a Boer spy and had said that he was going towards Leydsdorp. A seething Handcock replied that anything could happen on the way there, had ridden after Heese and shot him.
After a powerful summing up speech from Thomas, the defendants are acquitted of murdering Heese. They celebrate, believing they have escaped the death penalty but Taylor takes Morant aside and tells him that he and Handcock are almost certainly going to be shot. He offers to have a horse ready and says that many of the Highland Scots guards are sympathetic. He urges Morant to flee to Portuguese Mozambique, take ship from Lourenço Marques and “see the world”. Unmoved, Morant says, “I’ve seen it”. Next morning, the defendants are sentenced to death, with Witton’s commuted to “life in penal servitude”. Thomas rushes to Kitchener’s headquarters to demand a commutation and finds that Kitchener has already left. He is also told that London and the Australian Government support the verdict and sentences. There now will be a peace conference and every British and Colonial will be going home.
The next morning, as Witton is led away, Morant tells him “we are the scapegoats of Empire”. Morant’s poem Butchered to Make a Dutchmen’s Holiday is recited in voiceover while he and Handcock are led before a firing squad. As both men are seated for their execution, Morant shouts, “Shoot straight, you bastards! Don’t make a mess of it!” before being shot dead.
- Edward Woodward as Lieutenant Harry “Breaker” Morant.
- Bryan Brown as Lieutenant Peter Handcock.
- Lewis Fitz-Gerald as Lieutenant George Ramsdale Witton.
- Jack Thompson as Major James Francis Thomas.
- John Waters as Captain Alfred Taylor.
- Rod Mullinar as Major Charles Bolton.
- Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell as Lieutenant Colonel Denny.
- Terence Donovan as Captain Simon Hunt.
- Alan Cassell as Lord Kitchener.
- Vincent Ball as Colonel Hamilton.
- Ray Meagher as Sergeant Major Drummond.
- Chris Haywood as Corporal Sharp.
- Russell Kiefel as Christiaan Botha.
- Rob Steele as Captain Robertson.
- Chris Smith as Sergeant Cameron.
- Frank Wilson as Doctor Johnson.
- Bruno Knez as Reverend Hesse.
Funding came from the SAFC, the Australian Film Commission, the Seven Network and PACT Productions. The distributors, Roadshow, insisted that Jack Thompson be given a role. The movie was the second of two films Beresford intended to make for the South Australian Film Corporation. He wanted to make Breakout, about the Cowra Breakout but could not find a script he was happy with so he turned to the story of Breaker Morant.
Alleged German Pressure
In conversation with Bolton, Lord Kitchener states that Kaiser Wilhelm II has formally protested about the murder of Heese, whom he describes as a German citizen. He says that the German people support the Boer cause, that their elected representatives covet the gold and diamond mines of the Boer Republics, and that the British Government fears German entry into the war. This, Kitchener explains, is why Morant, Handcock, and Witton must be convicted at all costs.
According to the South African historian Charles Leach, the legend that the German Foreign Office protested about the case “cannot be proved through official channels”. “No personal or direct communication” between the Kaiser and his uncle, King Edward VII, “has been found despite widespread legend that this was definitely the case”. Questions raised in the House of Commons on 8 April 1902 were answered by an insistence that the War Office, the Foreign Office, or Lord Kitchener had not received “any such communication on this subject” “on behalf of the German government”.
Under international law, the German government had no grounds to protest. Despite being attached to the Berlin Missionary Society, Heese had been born in Cape Colony and “was, technically speaking, a British, and not a German citizen”. The scene contains a kernel of truth. Leach writes, “Several eminent South African historians, local enthusiasts and commentators share the opinion that had it not been for the murder of Heese, none of the other Bushveldt Carbineers murders would have gone to trial”.
Although only Morant, Handcock, and Witton are shown as being on trial, there were three other defendants:
- Lieutenant Henry Picton:
- A British-born Australian officer of the Bushveldt Carbineers, was charged with Morant, Handcock and Witton with “committing the offense of murder” for delivering a coup de grâce after the shooting of the wounded prisoner Floris Visser.
- Picton was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to be cashiered from the British Armed Forces.
- Captain Alfred James Taylor:
- The Irish-born commander of military intelligence at Fort Edward, stood accused of the murder of six unarmed Afrikaner men and boys, the theft of their money and livestock and the subsequent murder of a Bushveldt Carbineers Trooper.
- He was acquitted.
- Major Robert Lenehan:
- The Australian Field Commander of the Bushveldt Carbineers, stood accused of covering up the murder of a Bushveldt Carbineers Trooper who had disapproved of shooting prisoners.
- The official charge was “When on active service by culpable neglect failing to make a report which it was duty to make”.
- Lenehan was found guilty and sentenced to be reprimanded.
Role of Other Ranks and Colonel Hall
The soldiers from the Fort Edward garrison who testify against Morant, Handcock and Witton are depicted as motivated by grudges against their former officers. A prime example is Corporal Sharp, who expresses a willingness to walk across South Africa to serve in the defendants’ firing squad. Other prosecution witnesses have been thrown out of the Bushveldt Carbineers by the defendants for looting, drunkenness and other offences. All are portrayed with British accents.
Hall the officer commanding at Pietersburg is depicted as fully aware and even complicit in the total war tactics of the Fort Edward garrison. He is also described as having been sent to India to prevent him from giving testimony favourable to the defence. Surviving documents tell that the arrest of the six defendants was ordered by Hall after a letter from the other ranks at Fort Edward. The letter, dated 04 October 1901, was written by BVC Trooper Robert Mitchell Cochrane, a former Justice of the Peace from Western Australia and signed by 15 members of the Fort Edward garrison.
After listing numerous murders and attempted murders of unarmed Boer prisoners, local civilians and BVC personnel who disapproved, the letter concluded, “Sir, many of us are Australians who have fought throughout nearly the whole war while others are Afrikaners who have fought from Colenso till now. We cannot return home with the stigma of these crimes attached to our names. Therefore we humbly pray that a full and exhaustive inquiry be made by Imperial officers in order that the truth be elicited and justice done. Also we beg that all witnesses may be kept in camp at Pietersburg till the inquiry is finished. So deeply do we deplore the opprobrium which must be inseparably attached to these crimes that scarcely a man once his time is up can be prevailed to re-enlist in this corps. Trusting for the credit of thinking you will grant the inquiry we seek”.
Arrest at Fort Edward
During his conversation with Handcock and Witton in the prison courtyard, Morant alleges that the British Army has marked them for death “ever since they arrested us at Fort Edward” but their arrests took place elsewhere. After the letter Hall summoned all Fort Edward officers and non-commissioned officers to Pietersburg on 21 October 1901. All were met by a party of mounted infantry five miles outside Pietersburg on the morning of 23 October 1901 and “brought into town like criminals”. Morant was arrested after returning from leave in Pretoria, where he had gone to settle the affairs of his deceased friend Captain Hunt.
Rejection of Deals for Leniency
In the film, the British military is determined to kill the defendants. According to the Australian historians Margaret Carnegie and Frank Shields, Morant and Handcock rejected an offer of immunity from prosecution in return for turning king’s evidence. Military prosecutors allegedly hoped to use them as witnesses against BVC Major Robert Lenehan, who was believed to have issued orders to take no prisoners. Towards the end of the film, Taylor informs Morant that the British Army will never dare to prosecute him, as he really can implicate Kitchener in war crimes. According to the South African historian Andries Pretorius, the trial of Alfred Taylor was almost certainly saved for the last because “The prosecution must have been hoping”, in vain for the accused officers, “to implicate Taylor”. Their refusal to do so seems to have ensured that Taylor was not convicted at his trial.
In the film, Hunt is inaccurately depicted as having an Australian accent. According to the South African historian Charles Leach, Captain Hunt “was an Englishman, a former Lieutenant in Kitchener’s Fighting Scouts, and a fine horseman”. A surviving photograph of Hunt also reveals that he was far younger than the actor who plays him on screen.
Breaker Morant grossed $A4,735,000 at the box office in Australia, the equivalent of $19.7 million in 2017 dollars.
A DVD was released by REEL Corporation in 2001 with a running time of 104 minutes. Image Entertainment released a Blu-ray Disc version of the film in the US on 05 February 2008 (107 minutes), including the documentary “The Boer War”, a detailed account of the historical facts depicted in the film. In 2015 the film was released by The Criterion Collection on both DVD and Blu-ray.
- As a result of the trial of Morant, Handcock, and Witton, the Australian Army refused to ever again allow their troops to be tried by British court-martial.
- All future charges against Australian soldiers would be put before fellow Australians.
- Incredibly, despite this film’s anti-British establishment sentiments and anti-Colonialism theme, a Royal Charity Film Premiere was held on 23rd October 1980 in London, England.
- The event was attended by Prince Charles who after-wards arranged for a Buckingham Palace screening of the film for Queen Elizabeth II.
- First Australian film to win a major award at the Cannes Film Festival.
- “We shot them under Rule 303” is a reference to the.0.303 inch (7.7 millimetre) cartridge used in British Army rifles.
- Mostly set in the South Africa veldt, these scenes were actually filmed in Burra, South Australia.
- Producer Matt Carroll once said of this: “This is the first film produced in this country [Australia] that has its setting in another country”.
- One of the reasons cited that why Edward Woodward was cast in the role of Harry Morant was that Morant was English and as such it was decided to have a British actor play the part.
- The poem recited at the dinner party is ‘Mafeking’ by Sir Alfred Austen, the British Poet Laureate of the time.
- It consists of seven stanzas, of which only the last is heard in the film.
- In 1980, the film won ten Australian Film Institute Awards including: Best Film, Best Direction, Leading Actor, Supporting Actor, Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, and Editing.
- It was also nominated for the 1980 Academy Award for the Best Writing (Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium).
- Breaker Morant remains the movie with which Beresford is most identified and has “hoisted the images of the accused officers to the level of Australian icons and martyrs”.
- In a 1999 interview Beresford explained that Breaker Morant “never pretended for a moment” that the defendants were not guilty as charged. He had intended the film to explore how wartime atrocities can be “committed by people who appear to be quite normal”.
- Beresford concluded that he was “amazed” that so many people see his film as being about “poor Australians who were framed by the Brits”.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Bruce Beresford.
- Producer(s): Matthew Carroll.
- Jonathan Hardy … (screenplay by).
- David Stevens … (screenplay by).
- Bruce Beresford … (screenplay by).
- Harold Lander … (story editor).
- Kenneth G. Ross … (adapted from the play “‘Breaker’ Morant” by) (as Kenneth Ross).
- Kit Denton … (additional material from “The Breaker” by).
- Cinematography: Donald McAlpine.
- Editor(s): William M. Anderson.
- The South Australian Film Corporation (as South Australia Film Corporation).
- The Australian Film Commission.
- 7 Network (as The 7 Network).
- Pact Productions (as Pact Productions Pty. Ltd.).
- Ciné Paris Distribution (1980) (France) (theatrical).
- Concorde Film (1981) (Netherlands) (theatrical).
- Enterprise Pictures Limited (1980) (UK) (theatrical).
- Europa Film (1981) (Sweden) (theatrical).
- New World Pictures (1980) (USA) (theatrical).
- New World-Quartet Films (1980) (USA) (theatrical).
- Národní Filmový Archiv (NFA) (2000) (Czech Republic) (theatrical).
- Quartet Films Inc. (1980) (USA) (theatrical).
- Roadshow Films (1980) (Australia) (theatrical).
- Australian Video (1982) (Australia) (VHS).
- Australian Video (1982) (Australia) (video).
- Avid Home Entertainment (1991) (USA) (VHS).
- Belle & Blade Studios (video).
- British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (1984) (UK) (TV) (BBC 1).
- British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (1986) (UK) (TV) (BBC 2).
- British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (1988) (UK) (TV) (BBC 1).
- British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (1993) (UK) (TV) (BBC 1).
- British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (1995) (UK) (TV) (BBC 1).
- British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (1997) (UK) (TV) (BBC 1).
- Columbia Pictures Home Entertainment (1981) (USA) (VHS).
- Embassy Home Entertainment (USA) (video) (laserdisc).
- Fox Lorber Home Video (1996) (USA) (VHS).
- Fox Lorber (USA) (DVD).
- Hollydan Works (1999) (Yugoslavia) (DVD).
- Home Box Office (HBO) (1982) (USA) (TV).
- Image Entertainment (2008) (USA) (DVD).
- Live Home Video (USA) (all media) (laserdisc).
- Orion Home Video (1996) (USA) (VHS).
- RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video (1983) (USA) (VHS).
- Reel Corporation (2001) (Australia) (DVD).
- Reel Corporation (2006) (Australia) (DVD).
- Reel DVD (2006) (Australia) (DVD).
- Southern Star International (2006) (World-wide) (all media).
- Southern Star Sales (2006) (World-wide) (all media).
- The Criterion Collection (1997) (USA) (video) (laserdisc).
- The Criterion Collection (2015) (USA) (DVD).
- Umbrella Entertainment (2017) (Australia) (DVD).
- Umbrella Entertainment (2017) (Australia) (video).
- Viacom (1991) (USA) (TV) (syndication).
- Release Date: 12 May 1980 (Cannes International Film Festival).
- Running Time: 107 minutes.
- Rating: A.
- Country: Australia.
- Language: English.