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Film / Breaker Morant

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A 1980 Australian film directed by Bruce Beresford, based on true events from the second Anglo-Boer War in South Africa.

The late Edward Woodward plays the title character, an English officer serving with the Bushveldt Carbineers, an Australian cavalry unit. The film depicts the military trial as Morant and two of his fellow officers - Peter Handcock and George Witton - are charged with war crimes for executing surrendering prisoners, though they maintain that they were acting under orders. A murkier issue involves the death of a German missionary, which causes diplomatic tensions with Imperial Germany. As the trial progresses, it becomes clear that the military intends to convict the officers to cover up the complicity of the military leadership in the executions. The film is based on "Scapegoats of the Empire", an account written by Witton, who, like Morant and Handcock, had been sentenced to death, but had his sentence quickly commuted to life in prison. Many protests by Witton led to his release just over two years later, though, he was never pardoned.

The film contains examples of:

  • Appeal to Force: One of the most (in)famous invocations in film history, often cited as the Signature Scene of the movie: Morant's "Rule 303" refers to the .303-caliber Lee-Enfield rifle the Cabineers used to execute their captors:
    "We didn't carry military manuals around with us; we were out on the veldt, fighting the Boer, the way he fought us! I'll tell you what rule we applied, sir: we applied 'Rule 303'. We caught them, and we shot them under Rule Three! Oh! Three!"
  • Best Friends-in-Law: Morant and Captain Hunt, who served together and made a good team, with Morant going on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge when Hunt was killed.
  • Big Bad: Lord Kitchener, who is indirectly responsible for the crimes the defendants stand accused of, and directly responsible for putting them on trial.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Thomas is introduced fumbling through his notes, and admits to not having any experience with criminal trials or court-martials, but proves to be an effective Crusading Lawyer who hammers most of the prosecution witnesses.
  • Confess to a Lesser Crime: When Handcock is accused of murdering a German missionary, he admits that he'd spent that day in the bed of a married woman. Turns out he had time to do both.
  • Cynicism Catalyst: Morant avoided killing prisoners until the brutal killing of his friend, commanding officer, and near brother-in-law Captain Hunt.
  • Crusading Lawyer: Thomas believes strongly in his clients deserving better and spares no effort in arguing their case.
  • Defiant to the End: Morant's famous real life last words to the firing squad: "Shoot straight, you bastards! Don't make a mess of it."
  • Downer Ending: Morant and Handcock are executed by firing squad.
  • Ensign Newbie: Wide-Eyed Idealist George comes across as this, and sadly reminisces about how he and his friends wagered about who'd be the first to win a medal on the boat ride over.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: While calling them evil may be a stretch, Morrant cared about his fiancé, and Handcock had a wife and son he writes a final letter to.
  • General Ripper: Lord Kitchener has ordered a brutal war of attrition and thinks little of sacrificing some of his men, although this is zig-zagged by the fact that he's sacrificing them to try and end the war and make amends with the South Africans.
  • Goodbye, Cruel World!: On the morning of their executions, Morant and Handcock write letters to home. Morant, a poet, also asks Major Thomas to make sure his final poem, also written that morning, is published.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: While Kitchener and his staff are obviously corrupt in their denying Morant and his men a fair trial for following a set of criminal orders they themselves issued (though with the somewhat nobler intention of trying to cool the conflict whilst also saving their own skin), Morant himself seems far too eager to order the deaths of the POWs and a German noncombatant that he merely suspected of spying for the Boers, making his ultimate fate rather ironic in its own right. In fact, most of the characters, protagonists and antagonists alike, would be considered unambiguous war criminals by modern standards. Kenneth Ross, author of the original play, once wrote an essay making this very point. His goal was to attack British military hypocrisy rather than to exonerate Morant and his men. Indeed, he seemed disgusted with modern-day Australians lobbying for Morant and Handcock to be pardoned, feeling they completely missed the point.
  • Hanging Judge: Lt. Colonel Denny, who does show some moments of fairness or humor, but is quite clearly predjudiced against the defendants and any evidence in their favor.
  • Hero Antagonist: When you get down to it, while he is an Imperialist who sometimes comes across as a Smug Snake, Major Bolton is indeed trying men who are guilty of war crimes, and he seems to have some genuine desire to find them guilty because of what they did and not just because of the Realpolitik involved.
  • Hypocritical Humor: When two British characters are talking about the danger of Germany entering the war.
    Lord Kitchener: Needless to say, the Germans couldn't give a damn about the Boers. It's the diamonds and gold of South Africa they're after.
    Major Bolton: (earnestly) They lack our altruism, sir.
    Lord Kitchener: (Beat) Quite.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: "We shot them under Rule .303!"
  • Improv: As Morant and Handcock walk to the chairs to be executed, they hold hands in a show of solidarity. This was improvised by Woodward and Bryan Brown, the actor who played Handcock. Years later, Woodward learned that this actually happened.
  • Just Following Orders: The defence counsel was Major J.F. Thomas, played by Jack Thompson. Thomas makes the following argument at one point during the trial:
    "Before I was asked to defend these men, I spent some months burning Boer farmhouses; destroying their crops; herding their women and children into stinking refugee camps, where thousands of them have died already from disease. Now, these orders were issued, sir; and soldiers, like myself, and these men here, have had to carry them out however damned reluctantly!"
  • Kangaroo Court: As the court martial points out, Morant's 'trial' and execution of a Boer prisoner falls under this category. At least Morant and the other defendants had an officer speaking in their defense, and the opportunity to call and cross-examine witnesses.
  • Karma Houdini: While presented as an ally and defender of the defendants, the fact is that Captain Taylor is arguably guiltier than they are, but he escapes punishment.
  • Land Down Under: While the film takes place in South Africa, Morant's contingent is Australian.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Whether deservedly or not, Morant ends up in front of a firing squad for sentencing Boer prisoners to death by firing squad.
  • The Neidermeyer: Captain Robertson, former commander of the carbineers who expresses prejudice against the Australian troops and their drinking, despite having apparently drank himself, committed plenty of war crimes himself and tries to demonize Lieutenant Handcock for Human Shield tactics which saved lives, and which Robertson made no effort to stop.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Thomas's cross-examination of Private Botha reveals that he'd volunteered for the firing squad of Visser and approved of killing him (something he'd tried to hide), which gets him murdered by his fellow Boers, although depending on how unsympathetic Botha may come across as, this could be viewed more as a case of Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves.
  • Omnidisciplinary Lawyer: Thomas, whose main speciality is writing wills, end up conducting the defense in a capital trial.
  • Pet the Dog: Lord Kitchener commuting George's sentence.
  • Rank Scales with Asskicking: All three defendants are shown to be skilled fighters, even being let out of their cells to help fight off a Boer attack on the fort, and playing a key role.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Many witnesses who may have testified in the three defendants favor are transferred to India and Lord Kitchener half-seriously wishes he could to the same to a pair of court-martial members who Thomas wins over. This comes back to bite the prosecution, when Morrant denies claims that he murdered Reverend Hesse because he could have exposed his killing of prisoners, claiming he'd filed a report about those killings to one of his superiors, and since the man was among those transferred to India, they can't prove that he's lying.
  • Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: A multi-level example. The Boer Scott who helps them hunt down his countrymen and volunteered for the firing squad to kill a prisoner. Then, he testifies against Morant and the others (lying a little bit) in order to try to cover up his volunteering for the firing squad and avoid being "rewarded" as a traitor by his countrymen. Partially due to Thomas's cross-examination it fails, and he is shot in the streets shortly afterwards.
  • Sergeant Rock: Handock is a lieutenant, but otherwise comes across as this.
  • Shot at Dawn: The film ends with Morant and Handcock being executed by firing squad.
  • Warrior Poet: Morant is a published poet, and one of his last acts is to write a final poem that he hands to Major Thomas, and asks him to see that it is published.
  • World of Ham: What else would you expect from a legal drama starring EDWARD WOODWARD? Special mention goes to the "Rule 303" scene, as well as Thomas's rant about the concentration camps.