Breaker Morant (film)

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Breaker Morant
Breaker morant.jpg
theatrical release poster
Directed by Bruce Beresford
Produced by Matt Carroll
Screenplay by Jonathan Hardy
David Stevens
Bruce Beresford
Based on Breaker Morant: A Play in Two Acts 
by Kenneth G. Ross
Starring Edward Woodward
Jack Thompson
Cinematography Donald McAlpine
Edited by William M. Anderson
Distributed by Roadshow Entertainment
New World Pictures
Release dates
  • 15 March 1980 (1980-03-15) (Australia)
Running time
107 minutes
Country Australia
Language English
Budget A$800,000[1]
Box office $4,735,000 (Australia)
$3.5 million[2]

Breaker Morant is a 1980 Australian war- and trial film directed by Bruce Beresford, who also co-wrote based on Kenneth G. Ross' 1978 play of the same name.[3][4][5]

The film centers around the 1902 court martial of Lieutenants Harry Morant, Peter Handcock, and George Witton - one of the first war crimes prosecutions in British military history. Australians serving in the British Army during the Second Anglo-Boer War, Lts. 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 Defense, 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 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).

Although Breaker Morant remains his most critically acclaimed, most enduring, [6][not in citation given] and most influential film, director Bruce Beresford said in a 1999 interview that Breaker Morant was meant to explore how unspeakable acts during wartime can be "committed by people who appear to be quite normal." Beresford also said that he was "amazed" that so many people see the film as being about "poor Australians who were framed by the Brits."[7]


Pretoria, South Africa, 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 murdering captured Boers and a German missionary. Explaining ominously that the Kaiser 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.

Meanwhile, Major J. F. Thomas (Jack Thomas) meets Lieuts. 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 don't look good. A small town solicitor from New South Wales, Major Thomas has never handled anything except legal documents like wills. Lieut. 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, Lt.-Col. Denny, explains that the defendants are officers in the British Army and may be tried for alleged crimes committed while in British uniforms. Without further ado, Denny reads the indictment. The three stand accused of the murder of a Boer prisoner named Visser and the subsequent shooting of six other captured Boers whose names are unknown. Furthermore, Lts. Morant and Handcock are also charged with the murder of the Reverend C.A.D. Heese.

Maj. Bolton begins by calling witnesses who describe a lack of discipline, drunkenness, widespread looting, and corruption among the Bushveldt Carbineers at Fort Edward. Maj. Thomas, however, 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, Lt. Morant's close friend, Captain Simon Hunt, had led a group of men to a farmhouse intending to capture or kill Boer guerilla leader Barend Viljoen. On arrival, the Carbineers found the farm swarming with far more armed men than expected. Captain Hunt was severely wounded, pinned down by enemy fire, and left behind when his men retreated.

When the unit returned to Fort Edward without the Captain, Intelligence Corps Captain Alfred Taylor (John Waters) ordered Morant to find Captain Hunt and, if he were dead, to avenge him. 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 heavy 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 reluctantly obeyed.

Back in the courtroom, Maj. Thomas argues that standing orders existed to shoot "all Boers captured wearing khaki". To the shock of Maj. Thomas and his clients, Maj. Bolton explains that 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 the caliber of his rifle, "Rule 303." That night, Maj. 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.

Captain Taylor testifies that, prior to his death, Captain Hunt had paid a visit to Kitchener's headquarters. Following Hunt's return to Fort Edward, Lt. 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 Col. 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 a hearbroken Morant watched. Captain Taylor testifies, however, 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, Maj. 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.

In response, Maj. Thomas demands that Kitchener be summoned as a witness. He argues that, as his clients only followed orders, all charges must be dropped. Lt.-Col. 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, Maj. Bolton privately tells Maj. Thomas that, if Kitchener testifies and denies giving the orders, the defendants' lives will be doomed. He vainly urges Maj. Thomas not to insist.

In a private conversation, Kitchener tells Col. Hamilton that, when he had issued orders to take no prisoners, he was trying to break the Boer guerrillas by waging total war. Now, however, 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 whole British Army. He orders Col. 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, Col. Hamilton takes the stand and denies ever having spoken to Captain Hunt. An outraged Morant stands up and screams that the Colonel is a liar. Lt.-Col. Denny, however, comments that there will be no more talk of orders to shoot prisoners. Maj. Thomas, however, explains that Col. 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, Rev. Heese had passed through Fort Edward in a buggy. Shortly after his departure, Lt. Handcock had ridden up to Morant, spoken briefly to him, and then ridden off, looking "agitated", in the same direction as Rev. Heese. Maj. Thomas damages Sharp on cross examination by revealing his hatred of the defendants.

Upon taking the stand, Morant explains that Heese was under orders to never speak to prisoners while passing through Fort Edward and violated them. When Maj. Bolton asks why such orders existed, Morant explains, "It was for security reasons." When Morant had confronted the Reverend, 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 to death, 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 smugly adds, "I don't mind waiting."

After Morant stands down, Maj. Thomas requests and is granted a brief recess to confer with Lt. Handcock before putting him on the stand. Late into the night, Maj. 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 and slept with them. As Maj. Bolton eyes him with enormous respect, Maj. 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, Lt. Witton wonders aloud about who really did kill Rev. Heese. Handcock smiles and says, "Me." To Witton's horror, Handock explains that his visits to his "two lady friends" happened afterwards. When Witton asks whether Maj. Thomas knows, Morant explains that there is no reason for him to know. Morant boasts 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, and even missionaries. That is why, after Rev. Heese had left the Fort, Morant had told Handcock that he believed that the Reverend was a Boer spy and had said which way he was going. Handcock had commented that anything could happen there, had ridden after Heese, and shot him in the back.

After a powerful summing up speech from Maj. Thomas, the defendants are found guilty of shooting the prisoners but acquitted of murdering Rev. Heese. As they celebrate their probable evasion of the death penalty, Captain 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."

The next morning, all three defendants are sentenced to death, with Witton's commuted to "life in penal servitude". Desperate to save his clients, Maj. Thomas rushes to Kitchener's headquarters to demand a commutation. Upon arrival, he learns that Kitchener has already left. He is also told that both Whitehall and the Australian Government have expressed support for the verdict and sentences. Furthermore, there now will be a peace conference and every British and Commonwealth soldier will soon be going home.

The next morning, as Lt. Morant's poem Butchered to Make a Dutchmen's Holiday is recited in voiceover, both he and Lt. Handcock are led before a firing squad. Moments before being gunned down, Morant shouts, "Shoot straight, you bastards! Don't make a mess of it!" The final shot shows the bodies of both men being loaded into coffins.


Major Thomas's speech on the "barbarities of war" provides the climax of the film:

Now, when the rules and customs of war are departed from by one side, one must expect the same sort of behaviour from the other. Accordingly, officers of the Carbineers should be, and up until now have been, given the widest possible discretion in their treatment of the enemy.

Now, I don't ask for proclamations condoning distasteful methods of war, but I do say that we must take for granted that it does happen. Let's not give our officers hazy, vague instructions about what they may or may not do. Let's not reprimand them, on the one hand for hampering the column with prisoners, and at another time, and another place, hold them up as murderers for obeying orders....

The fact of the matter is that war changes men's natures. The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men. The tragedy of war is that these horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations, situations in which the ebb and flow of everyday life have departed and have been replaced by a constant round of fear, and anger, blood, and death. Soldiers at war are not to be judged by civilian rules, as the prosecution is attempting to do, even though they commit acts which, calmly viewed afterwards, could only be seen as unchristian and brutal. And if, in every war, particularly guerrilla war, all the men who committed reprisals were to be charged and tried as murderers, court martials like this one would be in permanent session. Would they not?

I say that we cannot hope to judge such matters unless we ourselves have been submitted to the same pressures, the same provocations as these men, whose actions are on trial.



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 turned to the story of Breaker Morant.[1]

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.[1]

Production took place from May to June 1979. The film was shot almost entirely on location in and around the South Australian town of Burra, with the Pietersburg courtroom scenes filmed at the former Redruth Gaol. Other South Australian locations included Ayers House, Paringa Hall at Sacred Heart College, Adelaide, Rostrevor College, Woodforde and Loreto College, Marryatville.

Critical response[edit]

Rotten Tomatoes gave Breaker Morant an average rating of 8.3/10 based on 18 reviews and also comments "Superbly executed in every area, the film is a memorable evocation of the hypocrisy of empire."[8]

The film also acted to stir debate on the ongoing effect and legacy of the trial with its anti-war theme. In one analysis of the film, D. L. Kershen comments: "Breaker Morant tells the story of the court-martial of Harry Morant, Peter Handcock, and George Witton in South Africa in 1902. Yet, its overriding theme is war's evil. Breaker Morant is a beautiful anti-war statement—a plea for the end of the intrigues and crimes that war entails."[9]

Another comments: "The clear issue of the film is accountability of soldiers in war for acts condoned by their superiors. Another issue, which I find particularly fascinating, concerns the fairness of the hearing. We would ask whether due process was present, after accounting for the exigencies of the battlefield. Does Breaker Morant demonstrate what happens when due process is not observed?"[10]

Bruce Beresford claimed the film was often misunderstood as the story of men railroaded by the British:

But that's not what it's about at all. The film never pretended for a moment that they weren't guilty. It said they are guilty. But what was interesting about it was that it analysed why men in this situation would behave as they had never behaved before in their lives. It's the pressures that are put to bear on people in war time... Look at all the things that happen in these countries committed by people who appear to be quite normal. That was what I was interested in examining. I always get amazed when people say to me that this is a film about poor Australians who were framed by the Brits.[11]

After the success of Breaker Morant, Beresford was offered dozens of Hollywood scripts including Tender Mercies, which he later directed. The 1983 film earned him his only Academy Award nomination for Best Director to date, even though 1989's Driving Miss Daisy, which he directed, won Best Picture. Beresford said that Breaker Morant was not that successful commercially:

Critically, it was important, which is a key factor, and it has kept being shown over the years. Whenever I am in Los Angeles, it's always on TV. I get phone calls from people who say, 'I saw your movie, could you do something for us?' But, they're looking at a [then] twenty-year-old movie. At the time it never had an audience. Nobody went anywhere in the world. It opened and closed in America in less than a week. And in London, I remember it had four days in the West End. Commercially, a disaster, but... It's a film that people talk about to me all the time.[11]

Box office[edit]

Breaker Morant grossed $A4,735,000 at the box office in Australia,[12] the equivalent of $16,809,250 in 2009 dollars.[needs update]


Breaker Morant heavily influenced Australian New Wave war films such as Gallipoli (1981), The Lighthorsemen (1987), and the five-part TV series ANZACS (1985). Recurring themes of these films include the Australian identity, such as mateship and larrikinism, wartime loss of innocence, and the coming of age of the Australian nation.

Breaker Morant has also influenced scores of other films, especially those with themes involving war crimes trials, capital punishment, military prosecutions, and government cover-ups.

In the 1981 film Gallipoli, the character of Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson), an Irish-Australian drifter with an deep cynicism about the British Empire and a hatred for the "lofty bastards" of the British officer corps, is modeled on Lt. Peter Handcock.

The final moments of the 1984 Argentine film Camila show the two lead characters sitting in chairs as they are executed by firing squad and being thrown into the same coffin afterwards. This also is an homage to Breaker Morant.

The 1992 film A Few Good Men, centers on the court martial of two U.S. Marines accused of murdering a member of their unit at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Their defense counsel (Tom Cruise) attempts to prove that they acted under verbal orders from the base commander (Jack Nicholson).

The 2000 film, Rules of Engagement centers around the court martial of U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) who stands accused of massacring unarmed protesters outside the U.S. Embassy in Yemen. As in Breaker Morant, the Colonel's defense lawyer (Tommy Lee Jones) finds himself at odds with the highest levels of Government. U.S. National Security Advisor Bill Sokal (Bruce Greenwood) is determined to salvage U.S. prestige in the Islamic World by ensuring that Col. Childers is convicted. Unlike Kitchener, however, Sokal is not covering up that the massacre was committed under orders. Instead, evidence is being buried that proves that some of the protesters were in fact armed, had shot first, and that Colonel Childers had only ordered the Marines guarding the Embassy to return fire after three of their comrades had been killed.

The award-winning 2000 television movie Nuremberg, which focuses on the Nuremberg Trials, is also influenced by Breaker Morant. In a particular homage to Beresford's film, the last letter of Hermann Goering (Brian Cox) to his wife is read in voiceover as he writes it in his cell shortly before taking poison to avoid the gallows. This was inspired by a similar scene involving Lt. Peter Handcock.

The 2002, American thriller High Crimes centers around the court martial of ex-Marine Ronald Chapman (Jim Caviezel), who stands accused of torturing and murdering a village full of civilians in El Salvador in 1988. As in Breaker Morant, the highest levels of Government are covering up that the massacre was committed under orders.

The 2011 film The Conspirator, directed by Robert Redford, centers around the 1865 military tribunal which tried the surviving assassins of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. The film's protagonist, former Union Army Colonel Frank Aiken (James McAvoy), is called upon to defend the sole female defendant, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). Similar to Major Thomas, Aiken at first believes in his client's guilt, but slowly changes his mind. As a result of his fight for her life, Aiken is ostracized by his fellow Union veterans and repudiated by his fiancee (Alexis Bledel).


In 1989, the acclaimed British sitcom Blackadder Goes Forth, which is set in the British Army during World War I, aired an episode titled Corporal Punishment. In both an homage to and a parody of Breaker Morant[citation needed] , the serial's protagonist Captain Edmund Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson), is court martialed for murdering "a helpless, innocent pigeon" and disobeying "some orders as well."

Desperate to avoid going over the top, the Captain fakes a series of communications problems. This culminates in the shooting of a carrier pigeon carrying orders to advance ("With 50,000 men getting killed a week, who's going to miss a pigeon?").

Unfortunately, the pigeon is revealed to have been the beloved pet of the Kitcheneresque Division Commander, General Melchett (Stephen Fry). Upon learning what has happened, an outraged Melchett is told that Blackadder has "been disobeying orders with a breathtaking impertinence."

The General responds, "I don't care if he's been rogering the Duke of York with a prize-winning leek. He shot my pigeon! Ahh! Ahh! Ahh!"[13]

The day before his court martial Blackadder meets his defense counsel, the mini-brained upper class twit Lieutenant George (Hugh Laurie). Having even less legal experience than Maj. Thomas, the Lieutenant admits that hid uncle is a lawyer, but he isn't. Lieut. George's college actually voted him the least likely to complete a coherent sentence. Despite also commenting that the evidence says that Blackadder is "as guilty as a puppy sitting beside a pile of poo,"[14] Lieut. George sets out defend his client.

Certain than "any impartial judge" is bound to let him off, Blackadder is horrified to learn that the judge will be... General Melchett. During the reading of the indictment, Melchett repeatedly calls Captain Blackadder, "The Flanders Pigeon Murderer", and tells the clerk of court, "Clerk, hand me the black cap, shall you. I'll be needing that."

After humiliating himself and his client with a extremely moronic defense, Lieut. George sums up similarly to Maj. Thomas and argues that Captain Blackadder is "totally and utterly guilty... of nothing more than trying to do his duty under difficult circumstances."

Gen. Melchett snaps, "Nonsense. He's a hound and a rotter and he's going to be shot. However, before we proceed to the formality of sentencing the deceased -- I mean the defendant -- I think we'd all enjoy hearing the case for the prosecution."[15]

After the prosecution counsel calls General Melchett to the witness stand and reduces him to tears with questions about his beloved pigeon, the General gleefully sentences Captain Blackadder to "be taken from this place and suffer death by shooting tomorrow at dawn."

When asked whether he has anything to say, Blackadder quips, "Yes. Might I have an alarm call please?"

Like Captain Taylor, Blackadder's batman, Private Baldrick (Tony Robinson) visits him that night and offers to help him escape. Captain Blackadder is elated, until he learns that Baldrick's "cunning plan" is completely stupid. Instead of a saw, a chisel, a gun, a change of clothes, a Swiss passport, and a huge false moustache, Baldrick has brought a small wooden duck, a pencil, a miniature trumpet, and a Robin Hood costume.

Like Breaker Morant, the film climaxes with Captain Blackadder being led in front of a firing squad. Unlike Lieuts. Morant and Handcock, however, the Captain is saved by a telegram reversing the verdict from Lieut. George's uncle, the new Minister of War, who knew Blackadder to be his nephew's friend.

Upon returning to his dugout, Blackadder learns to his outrage that Lieut. George and Pvt. Baldrick "got whammed" on a case of Scotch whiskey and forgot to telegram his uncle. Instantly vowing revenge, the Captain retaliates by volunteering Lieut. George and Pvt. Baldrick for a mission into no man's land code-named "Operation Certain Death".

Awards and honours[edit]




A DVD is available by REEL Corporation (2001) with a running time of 104 minutes. Image Entertainment released a Blu-ray Disc version of the film in the US on 5 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Stratton, David. The Last New Wave: The Australian Film Revival, Angus & Robertson, 1980 p.55
  2. ^ Corman, Roger & Jerome, Jim. How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Muller, 1990. p.191
  3. ^ Subsequent to the film's release, Ross – who began writing under the name "Kenneth Ross" in order to set himself apart from other creative Australians known as "Ken Ross" – found that he must write under the name of "Kenneth G. Ross" in order to distinguish himself from that other, also famous, Kenneth Ross: the Scottish/American Kenneth Ross that was the scriptwriter for The Day of the Jackal.
  4. ^ Kit Denton's 1973 book The Breaker was not the source (see Ross' successful legal action for details).
  5. ^ Bennett, C., "Breaker Morant: a veldt Vietnam", The Age, (Friday, 4 July 1980), p.10.
  6. ^ "Kangaroo Court: On Bruce Beresford's Breaker Morant" Bright Lights Film Journal, April 30, 2013.
  7. ^ Phone interview with Bruce Beresford (15 May 1999) accessed 17 October 2012 [p wayback machine archive 9 September 2015]
  8. ^ "Breaker Morant (1980)" on Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 24 July 2009.
  9. ^ "Breaker Morant" Oklahoma City University Law Review Volume 22, Number 1 (1997). Retrieved 24 July 2009.
  10. ^ "Breaker Morant" on the University of Central Florida website Retrieved 24 July 2009
  11. ^ a b Malone. Phone interview with Bruce Beresford (15 May 1999) accessed 17 October 2012
  12. ^ "Film Victoria – Australian Films at the Australian Box Office" Archived 18 February 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ Blackadder: The Whole Damn Dynasty (1998), Penguin Books. Page 369.
  14. ^ "Blackadder (1998), page 371.
  15. ^ Blackadder (1998), page 374.
  16. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Breaker Morant". Retrieved 25 May 2009. 


  • Ross, K.G., Breaker Morant: A Play in Two Acts, Edward Arnold, (Melbourne), 1979. ISBN 0-7267-0997-2
  • Ross, Kenneth (26 February 2002). "The truth about Harry". The Age.  Written on the hundredth anniversary of Morant's execution and the twenty-fourth anniversary of the first performance of his play. Article was reprinted in The Sydney Morning Herald on the same date.

External links[edit]