Breaker Morant (1980)




Director:  Bruce Beresford.

Cast:  Edward Woodward (Lt. Harry 'Breaker' Morant), Jack Thompson (Maj. J.F. Thomas), John Waters (Capt. Alfred Taylor), Bryan Brown (Lt. Peter Handcock), Charles 'Bud' Tingwell (Lt. Col. Denny), Terence Donovan (Capt. Simon Hunt), Vincent Ball (Col. Ian 'Johnny' Hamilton), Ray Meagher (Sgt. Maj. Drummond), Chris Haywood (Cpl. Sharp), Russell Kiefel (Christiaan Botha), Lewis Fitz-Gerald (Lt. George Ramsdale Witton), Rod Mullinar (Maj. Charles Bolton), Alan Cassell (Lord Horatio Kitchener), Rob Steele (Capt. Robertson), Chris Smith (Sgt. Cameron).

Australian film.

Australian troopers in the Boer War in South Africa, doing the bidding of the British, engage in some activity that today would be considered war crimes.  To take the political pressure off the British, three of the troopers take the fall for all the acts of excess in South Africa.



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

1901.  British forces occupied most Boer territory, but had difficulty winning an outright victory because of mobile Boer guerilla forces.

1901.  November.  Petersburg, Transvaal, South Africa.  Court of Inquiry. 

Three Australian troopers Lt. Harry "Breaker" Morant (originally from England), Lt. Peter Handcock and Lt. George Witton are being investigated on the charge of killing Boer prisoners of war and the Rev. H.V.C. Hess. The three officers are all members of the Bushveldt Carbineers, a guerilla unit created by the commander of all the troops, Lord Kitchener, to fight the very successful guerilla forces of the Boers.  Lt. Morant was responsible for the capture of Boer commando leader Kelly.  At Petersburg, Morant says: "I was, however acting on orders."  The Lt. was very disturbed by the mutilation and death of his immediate superior Captain Hunt by the Boers.

There follows a scene in which the Carbineers, led by Capt. Hunt, are gathering to attack a Boer farm house.  Hunt decides to go despite the turncoat Boer guide's warning "It's not good Captain."  As the attackers get close to the house, a large body of Boer soldiers open fire on them.  Capt. Hunt is wounded.  He plays dead and then kills a Boer when he comes out the front door of the farm house.  In retaliation, Hunt is mutilated alive and then killed.  

The three lieutenants are informed by the Court of Inquiry that they must undergo a court martial.

Lord Kitchener's Headquarters. Pretoria, Transvaal.  Lord Kitchener and Col. Hamilton meet with Major Bolton who will be the prosecutor of the three men.  They want a really good prosecutor in order to convict the men and appease the Germans.  The dead missionary was a German citizen and Germany lodged a protest.  Whitehall figures that Germany is looking for some excuse to intervene in South Africa on the side of the Boers.  Behind this feeling is the German desire for the diamonds and gold of South Africa.

Major J. F. Thomas, another Australian, arrives to be the defense attorney for the three lieutenants.  The accused are shocked when they learn that their attorney has had only one day's notice before the beginning of the trial.  They are even more shocked when they find out that not only has he never done a court martial, this will be his first trial.  As Thomas proceeds, he finds out that Lt. Witton was not even aware that murder charges have been brought against the three and that the penalty for conviction is death. 

At court, Major Thomas asks for an adjournment because he has not had sufficient time to prepare the case.  The request is denied.  The case starts.  The prosecutor calls in a Mr. Robertson, the former head of the Bushveldt Carbineers.  He trashes the Australian troops in general and Lts. Morant and Handcock in particular as being unruly and not military enough.  On cross-examination, Major Thomas asks how many Boer prisoners of war he sent down to Petersburg.  The answer is 29.  But the Major knows that the number of prisoners taken was somewhere between 50 or 70.  The defense attorney then asks if there was a policy in the Bushveldt Carbineers to shoot Boer prisoners.  No, is the answer from the witness. 

Sergeant Major Drummond testifies that the Boer prisoner Visser was executed almost immediately upon being captured without benefit of hearing or trial.   He also said that Lt. Morant was like a mad man.  The turncoat Boer guide also testifies against the three officers.  The negative witnesses outnumber the almost non-existent positive witnesses.  Lt. Handcock comments that the reason for this is that "Everyone who could say a good word for us has been sent to India."  (Soon after giving his testimony, the guide is shot and killed by the Boers.)

Capt. Alfred Taylor testifies next.  He says that Lt. Morant is a little hot-headed, but a good soldier.  He also says that there was an "understanding" as to the prisoners of war.   (The next scene is a flashback showing Capt. Hunt telling Capt. Taylor to execute a group of prisoners of war.  The order is carried out.)  Taylor further testifies that Hunt received new verbal orders from Kitchener and these were confirmed by Hamilton.  Moreover, it was a common practice to kill prisoners of war in the Bushveldt Carbineers.  Upon cross-examination by the prosecutor, Taylor admits that he also will be tried for the murder of prisoners of war and that it might appear that positive testimony for the defense would in turn help his own defense. 

The Boers attack the fort catching the defenders off-guard.  The three lieutenants are released from their cells in order to fight the Boers.  They perform magnificently, but are denied pardons for their heroism. 

A flashback scene shows Boers carrying white flags coming into Ft. Edward as prisoners of war.  Taylor orders that the men be executed.  Lt. Witton tries to protest but finds no support for his stance.  Witton says to Morant that "You're probably just doing this to avenge Captain Hunt" and Morant basically agrees. 

Major Thompson asks that Lord Kitchener appear at the trial.  Lord Kitchener is upset about the progress of the trial and Hamilton suggests that the reason is that "Major Thompson is putting up an unexpectedly good defense."  Kitchener says that it is too late and if they have to sacrifice three Australians to bring about a peace conference, it is a small price to pay. 

Col. Hamilton testifies instead of Lord Kitchener.  He claims that he never spoke to Captain Hunt.   

The trial now switches to the case of the death of Reverend Hess.  Handcock on horseback was seen rushing after the Rev. upon Hess's departure from Ft. Edward.  The reverend was killed not far from the Fort.  Morant says that he sent a message to Petersburg via Handcock.  Handcock himself testifies that he was visiting two Boer women with whom he was intimate.  Major Thompson presents depositions from both ladies to that effect.  Outside of court, Handcock tells Witton that he actually did kill the reverend and afterwards went to see the women.  Handcock and Morant are acquitted on the Hess charge.  The three lieutenants celebrate.

The next day Witton learns that he has been found guilty, but that his sentence has been commuted by Lord Kitchener to penal servitude for life.   Morant will be executed by firing squad the next morning.  Handcock gets the same verdict as Morant.  Witton shouts to Morant and Handcock "Why are they doing this to us?"   Morant answers:  "They have to apologize for their damn war.  They are trying to end it now, so they need bloody scapegoats."

Morant and Handcock are executed.

George Witton only served 3 years in an English prison.  He returned to Australia and wrote a book, Scapegoats of the Empire.   He died in 1943.

Alfred Taylor remained in South Africa after the Boer War.  He was appointed to a senior administrative post in the Transvaal. 


Good movie.  The spirit of this movie is a lot like the movie Gallipoli for both at Gallipoli and in South Africa, many Australians believe that the British sacrificed Australian lives callously because of the prejudice against them as their inferiors. 

According to modern standards, the three lieutenants were clearly guilty of war crimes.  Soldiers committing war crimes cannot use as a defense that they were only following orders.  This does not mean that there were not political motivations for the trial.  There probably would never have been a trial if the Germans had not gotten involved in the death of Rev. Hess.  Everyone in the chain of command could have looked the other way.  But Germany's actions made it imperative that a court-martial be carried out and the offenders be put to death.  In that sense, the men were sacrificed for political reasons. 

The three men should have been able to get a new trial because of misconduct on the prosecutorial side.  The defense attorney was not given enough time to prepare for the case and possible witnesses for the defense were sent to India.  A new trial was prevented by carrying out the death penalty the day after it was announced.   Almost all the major players in the army in this case had dirty hands, so a black and white conclusion as to who the good guys and the bad guys were can not be given.  They were all gray.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



Historical Background:


1899-1902  --  Boer War.  A virtual civil war in South Africa between the British and the Boers (descendants of the original Dutch settlers).  The war had many similarities with the American civil war.  The extremely racist Boers had moved away from the British to north South Africa.  In Boer Land (the Orange Free State and Transvaal provinces) the farther north, the more racist the attitudes. 

The British thought the war would be a short one (just like the American perception).  But the Boers turned out to very tough to beat and gave a very good account of themselves. 

1899 (October 11)   -- war declared.

1899 (October) - 1900 (January)  --  the Boers attack the Cape Colony and Natal Colony. 

The Boers besiege the towns of Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley.

1899 (December 10-15)  --  Black Week; the British suffer devastating loses at Magersfontein, Stormberg, and Colenso.

1900 (January 19-24)  --  the British defeated at the Battle of Spion Kop. 

1900 (February 15)  --  Kimberley relieved.

1900 (February 18-27)  --  Boer army of 4,000 men forced to surrender. 

1900 (February 28)  --  Ladysmith relieved.

1900 (March 13)  --  British capture Bloemfonein, the capital of the Orange Free State.

1900 (March)  --  the Boers get renewed life after they start to switch to a guerrilla warfare style of fighting.

1900 (May 18)  --  Mafeking relieved.

1900 (June 5)  --  British capture Pretoria, capital of the Transvaal. 

1900 (June 11)  --  British push Boers out of striking distance from Pretoria.

1900  (July)  --  British capture 4,500 Boer soldiers at Brandwater Basin, Orange Free State.

1900 (August 26)  --  British defeat President Kruger of Transvaal at their last defensive position at Bergendal. Kruger sought asylum in Protuguese East Africa (modern Mozambique). 

1900 (by September)  --  British in charge of both Boer Republics except for northern Transvaal.  But the large land area made it impossible for the British to control the Republics effectively. 

1901 (September 30)  --  Boer defeat at Moedwil.

1901 (October 24)  --  Boer defeat at Driefontein.

1902 (February 25)  --  the Boers capture a great deal of ammunition from the British at Ysterspruit.

1902 (March 7)  --  Boer victory at the Battle of Tweebosch. British Lord Methuen wounded and captured.

1902 (April 11)  --  British victory at Rooiwal. This ended the war in western Transvaal and was the last major battle of the war.

1900 (March)  --  the Boers get renewed life after they start to switch to a guerrilla warfare style of fighting.

During the war there had been 45 tented camps (early concentration camps) where mostly Boer women and children were held. 

1902 (May)  --  the last of the Boers surrendered. 

The war cost the British 22,000 dead and a half a billion dollars.

Like the American South, the Boers lost the war, but won the peace.  The Boers actually emerged from the war stronger than before. 



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