Breaker Morant
Quibbling over imperialism

by Stephen Crafts

from Jump Cut, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 13-14
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1982, 2005

BREAKER MORANT stands as a fascinating example of how different cultures make different sense of the same film.(1) In Australia almost all critics hailed it in terms of a proud nationalism. In England they gave it a generally favorable, sometimes patronizing reception and occasionally took exception to its anti-Britishness. In the United States, most critics evoked comparisons with Vietnam, a connection made by very few Australian or British critics.

Having spent most of my life in England, some time in the United States and the last two years in Australia (and I aim to stay here), I was curious, not to say astonished, at the uncrica1 and passionate Australian responses to BREAKER MORANT. Ever since Jack Thompson won the 1980 Cannes Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Major Thomas, it has been almost treasonous to criticize the film.(2) European approval seemed to set up BREAKER MORANT as the Australian film of the 1980s (prior to GALLIPOLI) and certainly as the glory of the 1970s Australian film renaissance, celluloid proof of the industry's “maturity." After Cannes, the film proceeded to scoop nine out of thirteen of the Australian Film Awards, Australia's version of Oscars.

Even by the standards of mainstream film reviewing/ criticism, which accepts notions of art’s autonomy from the political, BREAKER MORANT should have had a rougher time than it did at the typewriters of Australian and other critics. The film is arguably an actors' tour de force, but cinematically dull. The courtroom segments betray their stodgy stageplay origins. Much of any emotional intensity generated by the use of close ups is dissipated by the predictability of the shot/ reverse shot patterns and of cuts invariably cued to changes of speaker. Occasional ellipses, as when Handcock is (not) told his sentence, slightly alleviate an otherwise ponderous exercise. The principal means of 'opening out' the courtroom drama comes from flashbacks, whose frequency produces a sufficiently fluid overlay on the central drama to allow for the incorporation of the regimental band as a kind of metaphor. Yet the film is never more formally adventurous than this trite metaphor. In the flashbacks themselves, the image constantly, servilely, illustrates the voice over. Epic pretensions emerge in a few too many slightly upward-angle, pseudo-monumental compositions. The plot itself is creakily predictable, and the characterization hardly complex enough to compensate.

Why such patriotic self-congratulation — especially since it seems largely to have been sparked off by Cannes imprimatur? First, in the words of director Bruce Beresford, “You have to realize that the Australians have never really seen their history on the screen before.”(3) BREAKER MORANT is virtually the first Australian feature film to broach questions of the country's double colonial heritage: European settlers established supremacy over a native people, and those colonizers in turn were dominated by Britain.

Second, the Australian critical adulation of the film bespeaks a still colonized mind, one which not only acknowledges its own work only when others have praised it but also accepts a stultifying and colonial version of its own history. "Cultural cringe" is the name given to this strange post-colonial disease. Whatever we can do, you — provided that you're white and preferably speak English — can do better. What began as genuflection directed at almost anything British and many things West European over the last two decades shifted somewhat towards the United States. The terms of U.S. cultural and economic imperialism in Australia are such that the average U.S. Citizen does not even know where Australia is; but the Average Australian Citizen knows more about U.S. Western heroes than about Ned Kelly, and is more accustomed to Kojak and Charlie's Angels than to their Australian counterparts.

Numerous Australian critics have claimed that BREAKER MORANT offers a serious reflection on Australian history. In fact the film rests content with trading political-historical analysis for dramatized moralities. And these are the basis of the film's much-vaunted "Australianness."

Embodied in its characters, the film's moralities are evident from a plot summary. The film centers on three Lieutenants — an expatriate Briton, "Breaker" Morant (Edward Woodward), and two Australians, Handcock (Bryan Brown) and Whitton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) — who have volunteered to fight for the British in 1901 against the Boers (Dutch settlers in South Africa fighting against British control). Members of a largely Australian anti-guerrilla unit, the Bushveld Carbineers, they face a court-martial for shooting Boer prisoners. This comes despite orders which had been actually issued — if only orally. They become colonial scapegoats in a political maneuver spelled out early in the film: British Commander-in-Chief, Lord Kitchener (Alan Cassell), moves to appease the German Kaiser. By pointing to three wild colonial boys who flout wartime codes of conduct and are duly court-martialed, he can deny the Germans a pretext for entering the war on the Boers' side. The show trial has a predictable outcome.

The film rests on twofold repression. It shares the most obvious repression with war films and recruiting ads: repression of women. The Australian Film Awards for Best Performances by Actresses in Leading and Supporting Roles went to other films. BREAKER MORANT offers almost nothing female beyond decorous figments of macho and poetaster fantasy: the consorts, respectively, of Handcock and Morant. The film's repression of women seems as natural as the sexual division of labor in conventional warfare. As the film shows it, while the Boer men fight, their wives lust after the odd handsome Australian. The sole exception is a Boer woman who distracts a British sentry to facilitate a surprise attack: woman, here, acts only to deceive. Anecdotally, the loudest laughs at both evening screenings I attended in central Sydney were raised by Handcock's line: “A slice off a cut loaf's never missed.” BREAKER MORANT's virtual exclusion of women in any terms other than sexist helps consolidate the film's Australian values of mateship and manliness.

BREAKER MORANT's other repression is historical. The film represents three groups engaged in fighting the Boer War: the Boers, the British, and their irregulars, the Bushveldt Carbineers. The historical, military, economic and political existence of Black Africans is totally erased. The Boers are physically present, but historically absent. They may be glimpsed, but any viewpoint they may have — political, economic, ideological or even moral — is simply never depicted. When shown, the Boers always appear bearded, scruffy and shifty-looking. Only once is a Boer fighter ever heard to speak, and then in Dutch, denying having shot Captain Hunt (Terence Donovan). By effectively overlooking the Boers, the film can more easily rewrite history in terms of a morality play.

Once the Boers are removed from history, BREAKER MORANT structures our sympathies along very clear lines. While aligning us against the scheming Kitcheners, the film has us side not with the Boers but with three members of a counter-terrorist and largely Australian fragment of the British Army. We are invited to hate Kitchener's lies, hypocrisy and political opportunism from the standpoint of the male scapegoats for those politics. Our heroes seem honest, forthright, courageous, manly, and stoic as they are betrayed by the British high command they have so loyally served. Especially when reinforced by Handcock's irreverence and non-conformity, these traits add up to something very close to the Australian self-image, to the "Australian character,” to the "manliness, comradeship and sardonic dignity” noted by Australian critic Bob Ellis.(4)

There are three problems with presenting such characteristics as heroic. First is the obvious sexism. Second, this creates a negatively defined identity, constituted not on its own terms but solely in terms of knuckling under to the British Imperials. Third, to promote the underdog, the Aussie battler, brings the "Australian character" perilously close to gallows humor. These traits enlist sympathy for our heroes, ensure a good laugh at corrupt authority, but do nothing to challenge that authority's real bases. To lionize the three lieutenants' doomed defiance is to make a jingoistic virtue out of characteristics that perpetuate the ruling order. Film heroism, after all, rests on identification with characters. When these characters are shot or imprisoned, the film offers nothing more than a pointlessly diffuse elegy. Identification then denies any consideration of alternatives and precludes analysis of situations in any terms other than those the narrative sets.

The film's squeezing the Boers out has political and cultural implications. These implications could argue a different conception of Australianness. BREAKER MORANT overlooks the political and cultural similarities between Boer in South Africa and Australian in Australia. Both cultures were colonized by the British; both live with the aftermath of that oppression. Both lie in the Southern hemisphere but both are Eurocentric. Both are — if differently — racist. To compare these two cultures, or just to represent Boers sympathetically for Australians, could have been highly instructive.

Instead of examining or even broaching such issues, however, BREAKER MORANT elicits viewing a representation of the Boer War from the imperialists' political and cultural standpoint. Even if the film does quibble over the imperialists' morality, it barely questions their right to be in South Africa. It mentions British concentration camps and their killing civilians, women, and children only in passing. And it never shows, let alone analyzes, what imperialism means for people's everyday life. We see this last issue dealt with only in the travesty of the Boer women who dutifully await the macho hero, Handcock. The three heroes may bitterly resent their treatment by the British. But insofar as they accept war as a job and do not criticize the imperialism they are fighting and dying for, they endorse British political/ cultural values. Some eighty years after Federation (Australia became a Federation of States, and thus an independent Commonwealth in 1901, the year in which the film is set) we are called upon to identify with the British imperialist culture. Yet it had oppressed the Boers and had its counterpart in Britain's colonizing Australia and still has its parallel in British imperialism in Australia. In the context of such cultural displacements, it is no mere irony that the film creates a paragon of the "Australian character" by means of an expatriate Briton, Morant, played by a British actor, Edward Woodward.

BREAKER MORANT denies the Boers any valid historical force; this is vital (or, more accurately, deadly) for the film's conception of justice. The shooting of Boer prisoners or civilians "suspected" of being Boer sympathizers becomes an issue in the film only insofar as it affects the drama between irregular soldiers and the British high command, not as it affects the Boers (or others) the soldiers may kill. The questions are then reduced to two: Were our heroes right to follow orders? Were the British wrong to deny having issued those orders? Given the film's simplicity — compared to PATHS OF GLORY or KING AND COUNTRY — the moral surface of these questions is barely touched and more than ample time is left for righteous indignation. Preempted is any serious consideration of the justice of shooting Boer prisoners or suspects, surely the major issue the film touches on. The film encourages the kind of thinking which produced My Lai. Such crucial issues of twentieth century warfare are safely tidied away as asides by the black-and-white moralizing of the courtroom drama.

Moreover, this genre guarantees precise narrative resolution and a strong narrative drive towards that end: How can we imagine alternative (hi)stories when the film glides so irresistibly towards its foregone conclusion? The justice theme becomes uprooted from any real (historical) context by means of two aspects of Morant's characterization. The first is his idealization. Compare the filmic version with Morant's biographer's account:

"A confidence man, a cheat, a bare-faced liar, possibly the greatest male chauvinist pig of all time, an exhibitionist, a racist and a sadist.”(5)

Second, the individualist's justification for shooting the Boer, Visser (Michael Procanin) moves along lines identical to the revenge moralities of many a Western: Visser is suspected of killing Morant's close friend Hunt, to whose sister Morant is engaged. Visser's execution epitomizes how story supplants history. Instead of shots of the dying Boer, Visser, we see Morant suffering his righteous fury in having that man killed. Similarly, the impact of Handcock's killing of the German missionary, Reverend Hesse (Bruno Knez), becomes cushioned by the elegant introductory long shots, the comfortably composed dead Hesse, and the narrative context placing of killing as a kind of sexual hors d'oeuvre. In the face of Morant's or Hancock's personalized urgency we have little room for logical argument or serious historical or political analysis. In the context of so heavily predestined a narrative, any alternative action to such killings remains unthinkable. With justice so manifestly on Morant's side, how could we ever interpret him as Lieutenant William Calley's prototype?

How, then, does BREAKER MORANT manage such votes for the warmongers, while appearing to be so pacifist and Australian? What, in other words, underpins the film's cultural displacements? The problem concerns Australian cultural identity. Bob Ellis provides us with a symptom when he writes:

"It's not the Poms [British] who should be kept out of our industry. They have a historical right to be there. They are a part of our society — as are the Greeks, the Italians and the Chinese. It's the Americans who are not us and never will be."(6)

But we might ask by what "historical right” Ellis can assimilate the British into his multicultural vision and exclude the United States? This amounts to saying that British colonialism is OK, but U.S. imperialism is not, when for Australia the latter is a recent counterpart of the former. In between — if we are to believe Ellis — must lie a history of institutionalized amnesia. BREAKER MORANT, like Ellis, contributes to that amnesia. The film tells us nothing of the history by which Australia, having been founded in European imperialism over other lands and people and subsequently left culturally underdeveloped by British colonialism, has failed to come to terms with that experience and now still suffers from cultural cringe. Squeezing the Boers out from the film makes it difficult to see the need even to construct that history. Australian feature films have yet to construct that history.

Such are the consequences of BREAKER MORANT's reducing the political to the simply moral. And the simply moral is grandly aestheticized: The film shows us how to die nobly, as Australian mates in front of an exquisite sunrise. Compositions, color and, indeed, acting offer such beautiful experiences — over and above the narrative dynamic and identificatory characterization — that we need hardly worry about the film's political implications. Art, as schools tell us, is quite separate from politics.

Lastly, two caveats. It might be objected that art (BREAKER MORANT does appear to be deemed art rather than entertainment) creates fiction, that the artist rightfully projects his or her own "vision" of the world. I don't, obviously, deny Bruce Beresford — if he be the lone artist concerned — the right to his views; I merely suggest that in Australia in the early 1980s more progressive comments could be made about the Boers, Australia, and war. It might equally be objected that art serves to relieve us of the drudgery of everyday reality, that we should not seek to know in art the unpleasantness of life. I suggest that such views deny the possibility that society might be improvable. To maintain that BREAKER MORANT does not affect people's ideas about war or Australia is like pretending that kids don't want to see more TV violence. What has to be asked is, Why does this the situation exist? How might it be changed?


1. This is a revised version of an article which originally appeared in Cinema Papers (Australia), No. 30 (December-January 1980-81).

2. Apart from me, I know of only one other reviewer in the whole country who took serious issue with the film: Kathe Boehringer in Australian Left Review, No. 76 (June 1981).

3. Quoted by David Robinson, "Beresford's New Australian Cinema," The Times (London), 23 October 1980.

4. Nation Review (Australia), October 1980.

5. Russel Ward, quoted by Jack Clancy in his review of the film in Cinema Papers, No. 28 (August-September 1980).

6. Ellis, op cit.

Editors’ Note: JUMP CUT also recommends the extended discussion of BREAKER MORANT to be found in Critical Arts Monograph, No. I, on BREAKER MORANT. The monograph is available for $2 from Peter Davis, Villon Films, Brophy Rd., Hurleyville NY 12747. Critical Arts is a radical South African media journal; overseas sub. $6. Write c/o Journalism/ Media Studies, Rhodes University, P0 Box 94, Grahamstown, 6140, South Africa.