Saturday, May 10, 2014

Australian Audient: Breaker Morant

This is my most recent in my monthly series Australian Audient, in which I watch one film per month made in the land of koala bears and dingos, and write about it here. 

Poor Garage Days.

The Alex Proyas film, which was supposed to come up to the plate in April, has now been bumped to June at the earliest. It was again a victim of circumstance -- the circumstance of me finding a different movie at the library that pushed it down in the queue.

But Breaker Morant shouldn't be blamed, as it has a rightful claim to getting watched at my earliest opportunity. Bruce Beresford's 1980 film had been the one I intended to launch the series with back in January. When I couldn't find it at the video store, I opted for Phar Lap instead.

Now that the bookkeeping is out of the way, let's get on to Breaker Morant.


"Are we shooting people or what?"

That line of dialogue is spoken by Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) in David O. Russell's 1999 film Three Kings, an attempt at clarifying the ambiguous rules of engagement with Iraqi soldiers in the first Gulf War. They've spotted enemy combatants within rifle range, some of them appearing to wave the white flag, others just moving around in a listless, non-threatening way. The only question is, do we shoot them down, or ... something else?

Twenty years earlier, in a film about a war that took place nearly a century earlier, Bruce Beresford was also wrestling with this timeless issue -- one that, in this case, became a symbol of Australia's relationship to the mother country from which it claimed independence. It's no surprise Breaker Morant reminds a person of the more modern movie, and the ensuing war on terror, because great movies are great at speaking to something universal about the big topics, like war and human behavior.

Breaker Morant concerns itself with the court martial of three Australian soldiers fighting alongside Brits in the Second Boer War, a conflict fought against Dutch Boers in South Africa in 1901. The most senior of the three is Harry Morant (Edward Woodward), a lieutenant with the Bushveldt Carbineers, who has earned the nickname "The Breaker" for his skills whipping horses into shape. Morant, Peter Hancock (Bryan Brown) and George Witten (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) have been implicated in the execution of seven Boer prisoners and a German missionary who witnessed the killings. They are tried for murder despite ample evidence that there were orders from senior leadership to kill all prisoners, due to there being no means to detain and feed them. It becomes clear that an example is being made of the three soldiers as part of an attempt at a peace process, and because their actions were thought to have been taken in direct retaliation for the killing of their senior officer in a surprise attack by the Boers. The supposed scapegoating of the soldiers appears to be a British initiative with the cooperation of the Australian government. Defending them in the court martial is Major J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson), who has been given only a single day to prepare his defense. The consequences for his failure may be the ultimate consequences, as the court has the right to levy a death sentence against the soldiers.

There's mention throughout Breaker Morant of this war against the Boers -- Dutch farmers who later became known as Afrikaaners -- being a "different kind of war," where the enemy did not wear uniforms or use conventional attack strategies. That kind of language has, of course, become a regular part of the discourse on the war on terror. But it also has deeper historical roots. The Revolutionary War was fought by Minutemen hiding out in the woods and wearing clothing that blended in, against British soldiers who were defeated by their regimented troop formations and bright red uniforms. (There's even a part of Breaker Morant where a Boer is treated harshly for wearing the uniform of a dead British soldier -- another tactic that was "new"). If I were a better student of history, I'd probably name you some ancient conflict involving the Romans where the same essential dynamics were in play.

And in every conflict where the rules of fair fighting are called into question, battlefield ethics seem to get somebody in trouble. Whether it's waterboarding prisoners or shooting them outright, what constitutes just behavior is always up for debate. That's what makes the core conflict of Breaker Morant so interesting. Unlike in a normal murder trial, Harry Morant and his comrades don't deny killing the people they are accused of killing -- it's their burden to make the case why killing them was the appropriate response. This is especially difficult when, as part of a conspiracy, no senior authority will admit to issuing the order, and the officer in their own outfit who verbally communicated the order had been killed.

The film has all the suspenseful momentum shifts and human drama of a good courtroom thriller, while also tackling these moral dilemmas. Breaker Morant puts us, as viewers, in an interesting position. We know from the Geneva Convention that killing prisoners is not only wrong, it's abhorrent. Since we've been raised with those basic tenets of how to treat the enemy in place, we can't help but be shocked when those scruffy Boer farmers are lined up and shot. However, we also know that these were different times, and that they may have been "just following orders" (there's another phrase from places like Abu Ghraib).

What's more, Beresford and the actors do a terrific job getting us to really care about the three condemned soldiers. Edward Woodward is a figure of strong will and determination, but he's no brute who devalues human life -- he's actually a working poet who makes for quite the Renaissance figure. He'd have a hundred intellectual reasons not to kill a man, and the fact that he's accused of murder only makes his loyalty to his senior officer and to the orders he was given all the more touching. Bryan Brown is the more hot-headed, rascally type who you might see as the "typical" Australian, a guy who can't help making snide remarks about other witnesses during the trial because they are deceitful cowards, and he's the one living by a defensible code. An unrepentant ladies man, he's kind of a riot, actually. Then there's Lewis Fitz-Gerald as the scared one, who seems so gentle and morally pure that it's impossible to believe he would be capable of what he's accused.

The most memorable performance, however, might be Jack Thompson's, as Thompson plays the role that lawyers often play in movies like this -- he's the viewer's surrogate. As he's coming to the facts of the case as recently as we are, in a sense, he's gaining his perspective on the events as the trial runs, and conjuring smart defenses in a way that clever minds can. He's also the best voice for the outrage that we increasingly feel as the movie smartly shows us more and more of the circumstances surrounding the "crimes" of which the soldiers are accused. Structured as a series of flashbacks proceeding in chronological order interspersed with the trial proceeding forward, the movie gives us an increasingly complete picture of the events. Ultimately, it's easy to see how Morant and his men have come to be seen as folk heroes in Australia, and in several key scenes of emptying his mind to the court, Thompson speaks for all future Australians who feel vicariously wronged by "the system."

In short, Breaker Morant is a true masterpiece.

Okay, looking ahead to June and the beginning of the real winter months here in Australia ... I'd like to tell you for sure that Garage Days will finally have its day in the (fading) sun, but I guess we'll just have to see.

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