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, whom, 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:
- 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.
- Downer Ending: Morant and Handcock are executed by firing squad.
- Famous Last Words: Shoot straight, you bastards, don't make a mess of it! Also a "Facing the Bullets" One-Liner.
- The title of Witton's book, "Scapegoats of the Empire", comes from the last words Morant ever said to Witton, as Witton was being led away from the prison they'd been held in, for the purposes of transferring him to England to serve his sentence.
- 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.
- The Greatest History Never Told: Averted, the film deals with the second Anglo-Boer war, not one of the best known wars.
- Grey and Gray Morality: While Kitchener and the British command staff were obviously corrupt and knowingly didn't grant the defendants a fair trial for following a set of criminal orders they themselves issued (though with the somewhat nobler intention of trying to end the war), Morant himself seemed way too eager (or at the very least, callous) to order the deaths of surrendered, unarmed POWs and a German missionary he merely suspected of spying for the Boers, making his ultimate fate rather ironic in its own right. In fact, most of the characters involved in the story could be considered remorseless 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.
- 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.
- Land Down Under: While the film takes place in South Africa, Morant's contingent is Australian.
- Screw the Rules, My Gun Makes Them!: 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!"
- 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..