“Shoot straight, you bastards, don’t make a mess of it!”: an appreciation of Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1980)

Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1979) is to Australian film what David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is to the British cinema and John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) is to the American. Like those two masterpieces, it has a larger-than-life, arguably tragic hero who is charismatic but controversial; an iconoclast and outsider who tends to follow his own rules and can be a thorn in the side of authority; a character of enormous courage who is also capable of a savagery that can test the boundaries of acceptable conduct; and a character whose progression raises important and uncomfortable issues about racism and about national identity.

In an interview in 2004, Edward Woodward was to call Breaker Morant “the greatest piece of work I’ve ever been involved with” and Bruce Beresford “the greatest director”. His performance of the English-born Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant (the nickname derived from his reputation as the best breaker of horses in Australia) catches all the character’s complexities, adding an impudent twinkle of irony to the man’s intelligence and hot temper. Reflecting on the film a good twenty-five years after its making, Bryan Brown, whose sardonic performance as Lt. Peter Handcock contributes invaluably to its variety of mood, said of Breaker Morant that “it doesn’t date”, a deserved tribute not only to the solidity of its craftmanship but to its still pertinent observations on the hypocrisies of high command and the facility with which those in power can serve up scapegoats to cover their own deficiencies and duplicities.

Researching the facts

The setting is Pietersburg, South Africa, and the year is 1901, towards the end of the Boer War. Lieutenants Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant, Peter Handcock and George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), members of a mainly Australian guerrilla unit known as the Bushveldt Carbineers who are fighting on the side of the British, are on trial for the murders of Boer prisoners and of a German missionary, the Reverend Hesse (Bruno Knez). They are facing the death penalty and it is soon made apparent to the court that a quick conviction is politically desirable, as it would discourage Germany from entering the war on the side of the Boers and facilitate negotiations for peace by showing the Boers an example of British fairness. However, Major Thomas puts up an unexpectedly strong case on the defendants’ behalf, not only disclosing their bravery and effectiveness in deterring insurgences from outlaw Boer commandos, but claiming the men were acting on unwritten orders not to take any prisoners issued by the head of the British armed forces, Lord Kitchener himself (Allan Cassell). Suddenly political expediency is being compromised by inconvenient revelations.

Although there were several sources behind the film’s screenplay (a play by Kenneth Ross, an unproduced television adaptation by Jonathan Hardy and David Stevens, a fictionalized biography of Morant called The Breaker by Kit Denton), the bulk of the writing was done by Beresford. He did extensive research on the Boer War at the National Army Museum in London and was given access to the library of the actor Kenneth Griffith who was an authority on the conflict. In the Mitchell library in Sydney, he came across a manuscript by George Witton, whose life sentence of penal servitude had been commuted, and who had written an account of the affair entitled Scapegoats of the Empire, whose publication in 1907 had been suppressed. (Its eventual publication in 1982 was presumably prompted by the success of the film.) A bizarre incident in the film, where the prisoners are temporarily released from their cells to help the compound to ward off a Boer attack (“Well, that relieved the monotony, didn’t it?” comments Handcock, as their foes retreat), only for them to be promptly put back on trial again the next day, was apparently based on fact. One particularly felicitous discovery in the Imperial War Museum in London was a letter home from a member of the firing squad, who said Morant and Handcock held hands on their way to their execution. It is an affecting detail that Beresford said would never have occurred to him in the ordinary way.

Making the film

The filming took place between May and June of 1979, with the external sequences of the Boer War being shot in Burra, South Australia. The film was brought in at a very modest budget of around $800,000. The fact that it looks so splendid owed much to the exceptional skills of the cinematographer Donald McAlpine, who worked on several films with Beresford, and the production designer David Copping. Beresford said that, cinematically, his main concern was whether he could bring sufficient visual variety into the trial scenes to avoid dullness. In fact, the film has all the ingredients that one looks for in a gripping courtroom drama: eloquent and heated exchanges between two evenly matched legal adversaries; a Capra-esque David and Goliath element in the case, as Major Thomas finds he is not only opposed by the prosecutor Major Bolton (Rod Mullinar) but up against the president of the court, Lt Colonel Denny (Charles Tingwell), who is clearly in favour of a conviction; outbursts of anger from Morant, which could harm his case for it shows how his temper on occasion might override his judgment; and even occasional moments of comedy, particularly when Handcock is defending his dalliance with the wives of two absent Boer soldiers (“Well, they say a slice off a cut loaf is never missed”) to the morally affronted Lt Colonel Denny. The witnesses are well contrasted and flawlessly acted, generally introduced in close-up when taking the oath, which tends to magnify an untruth when uttered. This is particularly the case when Lord Kitchener’s aide, Colonel Hamilton (Vincent Ball), is called to the stand to respond to Major Thomas’s claim that the accused had not been acting out of undisciplined sadism but out of obedience to unwritten orders authorized by Kitchener himself. The slightly distorted close-up of Hamilton as he takes the oath conveys the discomfort of a military man who is swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, whilst knowing that he has been sent to the court by Kitchener to conceal it.

The character of Major Thomas has sometimes been compared with Kirk Douglas’s Colonel Dax in Stanley Kubrick’s blazing indictment of military injustice, Paths of Glory (1957), in that both are underdogs making a similarly impassioned protest against a rigged court martial that has already reached a verdict that will save face more than serve justice. (Incidentally, Kirk Douglas was president of the jury when Breaker Morant was shown at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival and was known to be an admirer of the film.) There is an electrifying moment when Major Thomas rounds on the court for its air of moral superiority to inform them that he has witnessed at first-hand the appalling treatment by British forces of Boer civilians, with farmhouses being burnt, crops destroyed, and women and children being herded into what the British even then were calling “concentration camps”. Were the British, then, not guilty of the same barbarity as the men on trial? Yet, for all his passionate advocacy, it is striking that he is never in complete possession of all the facts, which means that the issues are not as cut-and-dried as he (and some of the film’s critics) might believe. For instance, he never becomes aware of the true circumstances behind the missionary’s death. In his investigation of the facts behind the trial (and contrary to the assertion in Ross’s play and in Witton’s memoir), Beresford had become convinced that, carrying out Morant’s orders, Handcock had indeed killed the missionary, as Morant suspected him of being a Boer spy. Although sympathetic to the predicament of the accused soldiers generally, Beresford felt it would be wrong not to reveal his conclusion about their complicity in this deadly deed. The killing is one of the most compelling, yet chilling, sequences in the film, and it certainly deepens the moral complexities of the trial since we are not dealing with innocent scapegoats but tarnished heroes with blood on their hands. It is one of the many ironies of the film that this is the one charge on which they will be found innocent. Thomas unwittingly also misrepresents Breaker Morant’s character when he says in mitigation that Morant only carried out the killing of prisoners after the murder by the Boers of his commanding officer, Captain Hunt (Terence Donovan), a close friend and brother of Morant’s fiancée, implying it was this incident alone that had motivated his subsequent savagery. Yet Beresford has shown in an earlier scene that Morant was aware of this policy – indeed, as carried out by Captain Hunt himself – and observed it without any sign of moral qualms.

Beresford supplied another original twist to events, which complicates the moral landscape still further. In his cross-examination of Morant, Major Bolton makes the point that Morant could not possibly know how Captain Hunt had met his death, for the men had been compelled to retreat, assuming that Captain Hunt was mortally wounded. In reply, Morant has said that, on recovering the body afterwards, they had seen that the bullet wounds were not fatal and that the injured man must therefore have been tortured and mutilated before death, an act of barbarism that has fuelled Morant’s thirst for revenge. However, the film shows that, after his men have gone, Hunt has got up and shot one of the Boer leaders as he emerges from the farmhouse, so the Boers’ subsequent treatment of Hunt could be interpreted as harsh retribution for the killing of one of their own. In other words, their motivation is not that dissimilar to Morant’s. It is not the only time in the film that one is made to sense that Morant might have more in common with his adversaries than he has with the British and that the Australians (whom the British refer to throughout as “you colonials”) in this conflict might be fighting on the wrong side. Not for nothing does Morant note that the date on which he joined the Carbineers was April Fool’s Day.

Away from the clashes in the courtroom, Beresford has intelligently opened out the drama in a way that enlarges the issues without impeding narrative momentum. He takes full advantage of the landscape where possible and cleverly exploits the occasional discrepancy between what we hear in the courtroom and what we are shown on the screen, such as the self-serving testimony of the regiment’s Boer translator, Botha (Russell Kiefel), who claims not to have supported the killing of the prisoners when we have seen the opposite. (It will not save him from the wrath of Boer sympathizers.) A telling visual contrast is made between the spartan conditions of the prison compound and the luxuriance of Kitchener’s living quarters, which is relevant because it matches a key theme of the film: the gulf between the decision makers and those who are compelled to enact those decisions and take the consequences. There is a brilliantly staged early scene of a dinner party hosted by Lt Colonel Denny, where, behind the civilities, the political priorities against which the trial is to be conducted are symbolically laid out. It will begin with a recitation of the Poet Laureate Alfred Austin’s celebratory poem about the relief of Mafeking (“Swelling the page/Of England’s story”) and it will end with a song from a young Boer singer who is representative of what Denny now calls “an ex-opponent of ours” (new political alliances are in the process of being drawn up). In between, British values dominate the conversation (even the discussion of Morant turns on his English background); the German and the Boer guests play along in harmony, whilst the latecomer, Major Thomas, looks physically stranded at the opposite end of the dinner table to Kenny and is pointedly addressed as a “colonial”, the outsider representing Australian soldiers whose fates, one deduces, have already been sealed.

Beresford was justly proud of the execution scene. A droll overhead shot frames both Morant and Handcock in the prison courtyard and the men outside the prison walls at work on their coffins. When Handcock grumbles that they could have had the decency to measure them first, Morant replies: “I don’t suppose they’ve had many complaints.” (Handcock’s misgivings prove to be well-founded, as, after the execution, they have some difficulty squeezing his body into his coffin: a misfit to the end.) Morant bids a dignified farewell to Major Thomas, rejects the padre’s offer of a final blessing – instead directing the padre’s attention to a particular passage in the Bible, Matthew 10:36 (“And a man’s foes shall be those of his own household”) – and then, under a beautiful dawn light, walks hand in hand with Handcock to the chairs in the distance (there is no convenient wall against which they can be lined up to be shot) where they seat themselves before the firing squad, refusing blindfolds. “Shoot straight, you bastards, don’t make a mess of it!” Morant shouts out in a call that combines defiance, black comedy, and military pride. The shots ring out; at a tactful distance and with a slight hint of slow motion, the bodies fall backwards off the chairs with the impact of the bullets. Over the end credits Morant’s voice is heard singing “Soldiers of the Queen”, a remembrance of how the film began (the brass band at the rotunda playing the same theme) and a song whose words are in praise of the very forces by which he has just been executed. One can sense the director’s outrage behind the irony.


One of the most controversial parts of the film proved to be Major Thomas’s concluding address on behalf of the prisoners. He stresses the circumstances that have driven the men to behave as they did: as Morant has put it, it is “a new kind of war for the new century”, in which the enemy are not only soldiers but civilians, even children. He does not deny the substance of the charges but argues that the responsibility for the men’s action lies with the people who put them in that situation in the first place and who are now complacently passing judgment. “The fact is that war changes men’s natures,” Thomas argues. “The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men. The tragedy of war is that the horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations… We cannot hope to judge such matters unless we ourselves have been submitted to the same pressures and the same provocations as these men whose actions are on trial.” Some critics, particularly in America, were troubled by this argument, saying it amounted to excusing a My Lai massacre situation. Nevertheless, George Witton had made the same point in his memoir:

“War is calculated to make men’s natures both callous and vengeful, and when civilised rules and customs are departed from one side, reprisals are sure to follow on the other, and the shocking side of warfare in the shape of guerrilla tactics is then seen. At such a time it is not fair to judge the participants by the hard-and-fast rules of citizen life or the strict moral codes of peace. It is necessary to imagine one’s self amidst the same surroundings – in an isolated place, with the passions of war aroused, men half-starved, dangers constantly threatened from all quarters, and responsibilities crowding one upon another – to enable a fair decision to be reached.”

In his response to the criticism, Beresford said that he was not in any way attempting to whitewash My Lai or similar such occurrences but simply reflecting an ugly truth about war, which deforms human nature. “It’s not just a case of a madman with a gun,” he said. “War puts normal people into circumstances where they have to cope with pressures that no one should ever have to confront.” In the end, and amidst all the other dimensions that this remarkable film explores and exposes, it is this anti-war statement that is at the heart of what Beresford wished to communicate.

The brief flashbacks are important, because behind them lies the question: how have these three men, from their quite different but essentially decent social backgrounds, wound up as alleged murderers and sacrificial pawns in a military and political chess-game of empire building? Morant was a published poet and adventurer before becoming a decorated soldier and Handcock had joined the army simply to provide for his family and escape poverty at home. As the film makes clear, Witton had been brought up to believe in the values of Empire. In his memoir, he wrote that he joined the British conflict against the Boers with unreserved excitement (“I could not rest content until I had offered the assistance one man could give to our beloved Queen and the great nation to which I belong”). His subsequent disenchantment was absolute. By the time of his return to Australia in 1904 after his three years in prison, he had concluded that the war he had joined so enthusiastically was “mercenary” and “inglorious”.

Reception and conclusion

Although Beresford was to migrate to Hollywood over the next decade and make Oscar-winning films such as Tender Mercies (1983) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989), it seems to me that Breaker Morant remains by far his finest achievement. The film has over the years attained classic status. At the time of its release, it was generally well received, but with one notable exception. It was to be nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay; Jack Thompson won the best supporting actor prize at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival; and it swept the board at the 1980 Australian Film Institute Awards, winning ten awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Yet it was totally ignored by the British Film Academy when the awards season came round and was given a poor commercial release. It had its distinguished British champions such as Dilys Powell, who wrote that “The quality of Breaker Morant is that it involves you in the basics of war. And war changes not the soldier only, but all of us. After all, one comes out sympathizing with a man who shoots his prisoners”, and Graham Greene, who called it “The film which I’ve liked more than anything else in recent years… I thought it a magnificent film, most moving.” However, Beresford was to characterize the film’s overall critical reception in the UK as “horrendous”. As a former Chairman of the British Film Institute Production Board in his younger days, he would no doubt have been particularly incensed by the fact that the BFI’s main critical journal, Sight and Sound, did not even review the film and that the review in the BFI’s sister journal, Monthly Film Bulletin (August 1980), was negative and even slightly patronizing, comparing it with the morally strident films of Stanley Kramer (a comparison Beresford would not have appreciated). On reflection, and if any consolation, the reception only served to mirror one of the film’s main themes: British injustice. Still, Beresford would surely have approved a comment attributed to George Witton when he heard an Australian politician declaring that Australians would fight alongside the British in World War One to the very last man. Witton’s response was terse and unequivocal: “That last man would be me.”

Neil Sinyard

Sources consulted

Peter Coleman, Bruce Beresford: Instincts of the Heart (Angus & Robertson, 1992).
Keith Connolly, ‘The Films of Bruce Beresford’, Cinema Papers Supplement, August-September, 1980.
Kit Denton, The Breaker (Angus & Robertson, 1973).
Graham Greene, Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Film Reader, edited by David Parkinson (Carcanet Press, 1994).
Brian McFarlane, Australian Cinema 1970-1985 (Secker & Warburg, 1987).
Dilys Powell, The Golden Screen (Pavilion Books, 1989).
Tim Pulleine, ‘Breaker Morant’, Monthly Film Bulletin, August 1980, p. 153.
Kenneth G. Ross, Breaker Morant (Edward Arnold, 1979).
David Stratton, The Last New Wave: the Australian Film Revival (Angus & Robertson, 1984).
George Witton, Scapegoats of the Empire: The True Story of Breaker Morant’s Bushveldt Carbineers (1907. Oxford City Press edition, 2010).

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