1901, Pietersburg, Transvaal.

Lt. Harry 'Breaker' Morant (Edward Woodward) and two other officers of the Bushveldt Carbineers, Lt. Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown), and Lt. George Whitton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) are hauled before a court martial to face charges of shooting a Boer prisoner, along with a half dozen more Boers and a German missionary, the Reverend H.C. V. Heese.

Major Thomas (Jack Thompson) has only a day to prepare a defence, but gets stuck into the job with enthusiasm, while the suave Major Charles Bolton (Rod Mullinar) mounts the case for the prosecution, and the terribly English Lt. Colonel Denny (Charles 'Bud' Tingwell) presides over the trial.

Along the way, witnesses are called to provide evidence, including Corporal Sharp (Chris Haywood) and Captain Robertson (Rob Steele). Several officers are also on hand, caught up in the affair, including Captain Alfred Taylor (John Waters) and Captain Simon Hunt (Terence Donovan).

Deeper currents are at work, with Lord Kitchener (Alan Cassell) feeling pressure to keep the Germans happy, and deploying the martinet Colonel Hamilton (Vincent Ball) to ensure his wishes are followed.

The proceedings of the trial are interrupted with scenes of a military brass band entertaining the public, Boers performing a song at a social gathering, and even the Breaker himself singing a song to a group which includes the appreciative sister of Captain Hunt (Bridget Cornish), one of the token women in the film and allegedly Morant's fiancee when he was in England.

But there's also the dirty business of guerilla war, in which Morant is an enthusiastic and adept expert, which sees a number of Boers depart this world (as does the double-dealing Boer Christiaan Botha - Russell Kiefel).

Along the way, Handcock has time for a brief fling with a Mrs Vanderberg (Barbara West) but soon enough it becomes clear where the proceedings are heading, and the men indulge in a final bout of sentimental drinking in their gaol, as outside the coffin-makers go about their business within earshot.

Then as the closing titles inform viewers, Witton is given three years, while Morant and Handcock are found guilty, and led out, hand in hand, on to a dawn, sun-drenched veldt, to be sat on chairs and shot by a firing squad.

The final image is of the undertaker trying to force Morant's boots into his coffin ...

 

Exec producers:
DOPs:
Production Designers:
Art Directors:
Composers:
Editors:

Production Details

Production company: South Australian Film Corporation, with the assistance of the Australian Film Commission, the Seven network and Pact Productions Pty. Ltd.

Budget: c. A$800,000. Other published estimates list higher figures but they are unlikely - producers tended to inflate production budgets while seeking higher international sale prices. In his DVD commentary, director Bruce Beresford puts the budget at $700,000.

Locations: Burra, South Australia; Ayers House, North Terrace, Adelaide for Kitchener's HQ; the SAFC studio then on The Parade, Norwood, Adelaide in an old roughly converted picture theatre for the court room interiors, Rostrevor College Adelaide, etc. See "about the film" on this site for more details.

Filmed: the film was listed as being 'in production' in the May-June 1979 edition of Cinema Papers. Some databases suggest the main unit worked an eight week six day week shoot, but director Bruce Beresford in his DVD commentary says it was a freezing mid-winter shoot over 35 days. According to actor Edward Woodward, the court room scenes took ten days to film.

Australian distributor: Roadshow

Theatrical release: the film was first screened at Cannes in May 1980 - the official screening was the night of 13th May, followed by a midnight barbecue with Fosters and steak on the beach. The film's Australian premiere was in Adelaide on 15th May 1980, and it had a simultaenous opening in New York and Los Angeles on 22nd December 1980. The film premiered the night of the 2nd July and then opened in Sydney at the Village on 3rd July 1980.

Original video: Roadshow, Australian Video. 

Rating: NRC (February, 1980, 2,928.24m)

35 mm      Eastmancolor    Panaflex cameras and lenses 

Running time: 104 mins (Murray's Australian Film), 

DVD region 4 timing: 1'42"43

Criterion Blu-ray release: 1'47"04 (excluding animated Criterion logo)

Region 1 DVD: 1'47"01

Box office: 

According to the Film Victoria report on Australian box office, the film did A$4,735,000, equivalent to $7,757,178 in 2009 A$.

The film didn't do well at the box office internationally - it didn't run long either in the UK or the United States - director Bruce Beresford blames a Richard Corliss review in Time magazine for helping to kill it - but some quoted figures suggest the film might have done c.US$7 million in the US market.

While it might have had a disappointing, essentially art house theatrical release, this helped with ancilliaries - the November 1982 edition of Filmnews reported the film achieving advances of over $500,000 from US cable operators.

The film also sold widely in Europe, and it was soon into net profit, and it has proved to be an enduring source of revenue for the SAFC.

The film claimed to be the first Australian feature film sold to China. No figure for the deal was released, but it was said that the Chinese identified with a film about the British invading a country for no good reason.

Opinion

Awards

The film did exceptionally well at the 1980 AFI Awards, mounting an almost clean sweep on the major prizes. It didn't have much competition - Manganinnie, Stir, Harlequin and Maybe Next Time were also in the field - but it was still a considerable achievement:

Winner, Best Film of the Year, sponsored by the Australian Film Commission (Matt Carroll)

Winner, Best Achievement in Directing, sponsored by Village Theatres and the New South Wales Film Corporation (Bruce Beresford)

Winner, Best Screenplay, sponsored by the Greater Union Organisation and the New South Wales Film Corporation (Jonathan Hardy, David Stevens and Bruce Beresford)

Winner, Best Achievement in Cinematography, sponsored by Kodak (Australasia) (Donald M. McAlpine)

Winner, Best Achievement in Film Editing, sponsored by Atlab Film and Video Laboratory Services (William Anderson)

Winner, Best Sound, sponsored by Colorfilm (Gary Wilkins, William Anderson, Jeanine Chialvo, Phil Judd)

Winner, Best Achievement in Art Direction, sponsored by the South Australian Government (David Copping)

Winner, Best Achievement in Costume Design, sponsored by the South Australian Government (Anna Senior)

Winner, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, sponsored by the New South Wales Film Corporation (Jack Thompson)

Winner, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role, sponsored by the Queensland Film Corporation (Bryan Brown)

The film only missed out on three categories - composer, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress - but had no contenders to offer in these roles.

The film did however receive other nominations, with Edward Woodward missing out to Jack Thompson for his work in the film:

Nominated, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, sponsored by the New South Wales Film Corporation (Edward Woodward).

And two of the film's other actors missed out in the 'best supporting' category because Bryan Brown won for his work in the film:

Nominated, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role, sponsored by the Queensland Film Corporation (Charles 'Bud' Tingwell and Lewis Fitz-gerald)

The film was also noticed internationally:

Winner, Best Supporting Actor, Jack Thompson, 1980 Cannes Film Festival (International Critic's Prize by the F.I.P.R.E.S.C.I, shared with director Alain Resnais for Mon Oncle D'Amerique)

Nominated, Palme d'Or (Bruce Beresford), in competition, 33rd Cannes Film Festival in 1980.

Nominated, 1981 Golden Globe Awards, Best Foreign Language Film (because Australians speak kinda funny)

Nominated, at the 53rd 1980 Academy Awards for Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Jonathan Hardy, David Stevens, Bruce Beresford) (Alvin Sargent was the winner for Ordinary People) (this is often dated to 1981, when the ceremony was held, but as the Academy Awards site makes clear, it is for the films of 1980, here).

The film also picked up a number of other minor awards, and made many top ten lists for year, while associated material arising from the film also did well - a soundtrack album derived from the film score, for example, picked up a Gold Record in Australia.

Though the Sammys were mainly designed for Australian domestic television television, the film did well at the awards on 17th October 1980, picking up four Gold Sammys:

Best Film Actor: Jack Thompson for 'Breaker' Morant

Best Film: 'Breaker' Morant

Best Editing: Bill Anderson for 'Breaker' Morant

Best Direction (Film): Bruce Beresford for 'Breaker' Morant

Availability

Criterion has now released this film in what is probably the definitive digital edition, a director-approved 1.85:1 4K digital transfer, available on Blu-ray and DVD, though film buffs will want the Blu-ray version. It is listed at Criterion here, and there is a good appreciation of the film on the site by historian Neil Sinyard, which also turns up on the discs: Breaker Morant: Scapegoats of Empire.

This release reproduces in impressive detail Don McAlpine's beautiful photography of the Burra area of South Australia, and the sound is equally clear. About the only disadvantage to the clarity is that the grain of the source material can sometimes be seen. This review rated the result excellent, and excellent it is.

The release also had a generous selection of extras:

  • an audio commentary by director Bruce Beresford retrieved from a now hard to find 2004 DVD release - this is a major coup, as Beresford is an amiable and informative guide, only flagging a little towards the end;
  • an interview with Edward Woodward from the same 2004 release;
  • interviews with Beresford, DOP Donald McAlpine and actor Bryan Brown;
  • a piece about the Boer War with historian Stephen Miller;
  • Frank Shields' 1974 documentary The Breaker, and his later brief coda in which Shields walked back from his romanticisation of the 'Breaker' myth (an issue presented in a more calibrated way in the feature film);
  • The trailer.

This is as good as it gets for an early Australian revival film, and once again it suggests the best way for a film to survive in the world is for it to have developed a cult following in the United States.

It redeems a very mixed history of analogue and digital releases, the result of the SAFC's reluctance to spend money on its back catalogue.

The film was always in print in VHS days and even achieved the distinction of a widescreen VHS release. In the early days, it was so popular that it won the SAFC the 1983 Most Popular Video award at the AVA Convention in Sydney (sponsored by Video and Communications)

The first DVD release in region 4, by Reel, was a 4:3 shocker, to be avoided at all costs, but then Reel put out an accepable two disc region four special edition. 

On the extras disc, there's the 1974 Frank Shields documentary about The Breaker, which runs 52'36" and a shorter 5'39" called The Myth Exposed, in which Shields recants about Morant's culpability. There's also a photo gallery and trailer. These are both on the Criterion release, which trumps this edition, even though the Reel release was a major improvement on the original Reel single disc edition.

Shields' documentary isn't the greatest in the world - see Ozmovies here - but it is on topic, and in the latter segment Shields presents some significant evidence in relation to Morant's guilt, by way of a letter from Whitton which makes clear that Morant really was a killer.

As his DVD commentary makes clear, Beresford's understanding of what might be called the "Lt. Calley" factor is more sophisticated.

Purists might object to the turning of the original sound into surround available on this edition, though initially done at the SAFC studios by mixer Jim Currie, and so with local authenticity (the re-mastering of the sound was originally done for the region one DVD release). Significantly, Criterion has released the Blu-ray with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack.

There's a useful review for the Reel package here

The original Fox Lorber DVD release in region one, with "authentic mono" sound is seriously flawed and with only token extras.

The best release on DVD was probably the Fox Lorber Masterworks edition on DVD, which is now out of print and priced accordingly.

It has good technical specs (16:9 anamorphic 1.85:1, 5.1 Dolby surround) but most importantly for cultists, a rare commentary by director Bruce Beresford, recorded ironically at the time of the Iraq war, and with Beresford noting that the original play by Ken Ross was written while the Vietnam war was still reverberating.

Beresford reiterates his objection to conventional underscore, and explains the how and why of his use of music in the film.

There's also a 20 minute fireside interview with actor Edward Woodward, originally done for a UK VHS release, in which the actor explains his attitude to horseback riding, an interesting attitude given his casting as a horse soldier, and an unrestored trailer.

As noted above, both these extras have now been restored on the Criterion release, making a search for the old DVD redundant.

The previous United States Blue-ray release is reviewed here, and has a couple of comparatively inferior extras - a radio spot, and a forty minute general documentary about the Boer War.

The Australia Blu-ray release is a re-badging of the special edition DVD, and has attracted some complaints that the image is not much better than the standard definition offering. Again the Criterion release has made it redundant.

If out of perversity, you prefer to watch a few clips from the film rather than the film itself, the ASO has three clips online here.

(Note: With the exception of the main title taken from the Criterion release, for the moment this site uses images taken from the Reel "Premium" two disc DVD edition for its galleries, lately available at an economical price. The image quality is significantly inferior to that available in the Criterion release.) 

1. Source:

(Note: quotations from Bruce Beresford below, unless indicated otherwise, have been taken from his 2004 DVD commentary, now available in the Criterion DVD release).

(a) Published sources - Kit Denton/The Breaker:

While the film was based on real characters who had participated in a real war, considerable controversy erupted around the actual source of the material used for the screenplay.

Writer Kit Denton (father of TV performer and producer Andrew Denton) wrote a novel, The Breaker, based on material he had first used for a screenplay, and then abandoned (Denton later said the SAFC had told him the material was too expensive).

Denton explained how he came across the story this way:

"I happened to be in Adelaide making a TV special for Don Dunstan eight or nine years ago, Denton said.

"The crew stopped for a counter lunch in a pub. It was about a week before Anzac Day and we got talking to this marvellous old man wearing a TPI (Totally and Permanently Incapacitated) badge.

"Actually, he butted in to tell us we didn't know what we were talking about. He claimed the only civilised way to go to war was to get on a horse.

The man turned out to be a Boer War veteran who said he knew Harry Morant.

"His is still the best description I know of Harry Morant - he said he was the bravest bad bastard he'd ever met.

Denton didn't believe him at first, but then talking about it later, someone said the name rang a bell.

"So I went to the Mitchell Library and found such a bloody good story.

"It's intrinsically a good story - he was a runaway, a poet, a gambler, a brilliant horseman and a womaniser; and you've got adventure on three continents and a tragic ending. What do you want?" (Sun-Herald, June 28th 1982)

After feedback which suggested it was still a story worth telling, Denton thought about writing a history of the events, but changed his mind, as he explained in a preface to his novel:

Before you begin …

There was a Breaker Morant. He lives his life in the times and company of many of the people mentioned in this story, and he went through much of the action in these pages. I had hoped to write a true history of the events and the people concerned, but the obduracy of the British Government in refusing to release a number of essential documents has made this impossible. Nonetheless, this book has in it many of the historical facts and I've departed from history only when the facts weren't discoverable or when I felt it was necessary in the interest of a good story. Morant lived, wrote, fought and died pretty much the way I've pictured it.

The book was first published in 1973 by Angus & Robertson, and released as an Arkon edition by A and R in 1977. (Details of editions at Trove here).

(b) Published sources - Kenneth Ross's play:

In parallel, playwright  Kenneth Ross (also according to the Sun-Herald June 29th 1982) discovered the story in a similar way:

… on the other side of Adelaide, the other "Breaker" writer, Kenneth G. Ross said: "With Byron and Browning in his saddle bags, Breaker Morant had to be pretty extraordinary."

He said he had learnt about Morant about seven years ago from two old men who frequented a hotel owned by the Ross family in Portland, Victoria.

"The two oldtimers would come in and talk about The Breaker. One was a former publican who had a cane and a cravat and the other was a newspaper editor who wore a panama hat.

"They used to argue and one day - both of them in their eighties - they got into a fight.

"They didn't speak to each other again, which was a pity since they were men of the same generation in Portland."

Ross moved to Adelaide in 1975 and wrote the play Breaker Morant about a year before it was directed by John Sumner at the Melbourne Theatre Company in February, 1978, where it was immediately successful (it is still occasionally revived for the stage).

A Sydney movie producer, Robert Bruning, saw the play and bought the film rights to it.

The screenplay based on the play, by David Stevens and Jonathon Hardy, was then sold to the SA Film Corporation.

Legal troubles erupted when Angus and Robertson released an edition of Denton's novel with the teaser "Soon to be a major film" on the front cover, and playwright Ross took action in the Supreme Court of South Australia. 

Ken Ross last week said he had taken legal action to stop Denton's book being advertised as the foundation of the movie, but he hoped Denton hadn't taken it personally.

"After all, we both worked hard on the Morant story," he said.

Producers of the movie also bought rights to Denton's book, but used very little of it. (Sun-Herald, as above).

The reason for this is obvious - Ross's play was essentially a court room drama, and that fitted the budgetary requirements of a film, while Denton's novel roamed much further afield.

Ross won the legal battle, and as a result of the court's injunction, that version of Denton's novel was pulped and copies are now rare.

(Below: cover of the pulped version).

Denton later acknowledged that his book had not been the main source of the movie.

At the same time, Kenneth Ross has continued to claim that he was a part of the screenplay writing team, but the film's head credits, and all awards and nominations in relation to the screenplay feature three names, including director Beresford, and Ross's name is not amongst them.

It is therefore misleading to see the wikipedia on Kenneth Ross assert:

Denton's book was never used to create any part of the film script (a script for which Ross had been one of the writing team from start to finish). (here, at time of writing). 

While Ross might have worked on the screenplay of his play, the head credits propose that the play was adapted by Beresford, Stevens and Hardy.

Ross did not dispute this credit with the Australian Writers' Guild. This is important, if only because the one Academy Award nomination the film received was for the screenplay, and the film won the AFI award for best screenplay.

The Ross wikipedia entry compounded matters by asserting:

Ross worked on the film as an advisor to the scriptwiters (sic), and the film was entirely based on Ross's play.

And:

In the 1984 interview, Denton was most emphatic that (a) he himself, (b) his earlier draft screenplay, and (c) his later novel “[were] not involved with the film [of Beresford in any way]”.

It is therefore passing strange that the film in the tail credits actually cites Additional material from "The Breaker" by Kit DentonWhy bother with this credit if nothing was used in any way?

Some old battles never die and sometimes the war continues in Wikipedia.

While Ross won the initial legal battle, the confusion between the two versions continued, with some versions of Denton's book, still available and long in publication using images of the film. 

Even a reading a version of Denton's novel on cassette/CD by Terence Donovan, in some versions has the hero image from the film on it. (This version won the Best Unabridged Fiction award at the Audie Awards  in the USA).

Denton also read a version of his novel for ABC radio, which was released on cassette.

After its debut in 1978, Kenneth Ross's play was published in 1979, and the Monash New Play edition (Edward Arnold Publishing) was re-published in 1981 with a film-tie mention on the front page, but not a photo:

 

Details of editions of Ross's play at Trove here.

(c) The Real Events:

A publishing industry has long been a feature of the 'Breaker' Morant legend.

The first outing in the Morant publishing industry was Lieut. George Witton's memoir Scapegoats of the Empire, The True Story of Breaker Morant's Bushveldt Carbineers, first published in 1907 and the subject of many conspiracy theories about its suppression by government, though without any credible evidence.

This book can now be found on Project Gutenberg here and there is a commentary on the book in pdf format at the UQ educational site here:

(Below: the 1907 edition)

The best short summary of this book's history can be found on a site which, at time of writing, had a copy of the work for sale for a tidy price, here:

Prior to its reprint in 1982 by the Australian publishing house Angus & Robertson, it is claimed that only seven copies of the book survived in various Australian state libraries and in the possession of Witton's family. Although unsubstantiated, it has long been claimed that the book was suppressed by the Australian government and most copies were destroyed; another explanation is that most of the copies were destroyed by an accidental fire at the publisher's warehouse. The 1982 reprinting was inspired by the success of a film based on the book, entitled Breaker Morant.

Witton's main assertion, as indicated by the book's provocative title, is that he, Morant, and Handcock were made scapegoats by the British authorities in South Africa—that they were made to take the blame for widespread British war crimes against the Boers, and that the trial and executions were carried out by the British for political reasons, partly to cover up a controversial and secret "no prisoners" policy promulgated by Lord Kitchener, and partly to appease the Boer government over the killing of Boer prisoners, in order to facilitate a peace treaty; the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed on 31 May 1902.

Witton also claims that many of the accusations about them, which led to their arrest and trial, were made by disaffected members of their regiment whose rebellious behaviour had been suppressed by Morant and Handcock.

An embittered Witton did not rush to enlist in World War I. After former and future Prime Minister Andrew Fisher pledged during the 1914 general election that Australia would defend Britain "to the last man and last shilling," Witton intimated that he would be that last man. He lived in Gippsland, Victoria and in Queensland where he was a dairy farmer. He married twice, but did not have any children. He had a heart attack while cranking his car engine, and died in a hospital on 14 August 1942. He was buried in Brisbane's Lutwyche Cemetery which, coincidentally, is located on the corner of Lutwyche and Kitchener Roads.

No firm evidence has been produced to suggest Witton's book was suppressed by the British and Australian governments, either separately or acting in concert, as opposed to the clear evidence of obstruction offered by the British government to researchers seeking records of the trial and associated matters.

Ironically, a letter written by Witton and later discovered, accusing Handcock and Morant of concocting an alibi to conceal their murder of a German missionary, would do much to help discredit the notion of Morant's innocence.

In 1962, Ure Smith published F. M. Cutlack's Breaker Morant A Horseman Who Made History (details at Trove here).

After the feature film was released, the publishing industry really cranked into gear.

For example, painter Pro Hart did a book about Breaker Morant in 1981 featuring Morant's poems and Hart's paintings, while film-maker Frank Shields, who made a documentary about Morant still available on DVD and Blu-ray, put out a book with Margaret Carnegie.

Denton himself had a second bite of the cherry by putting out via Rigby, Adelaide, Closed File, a 160 page history in which Denton reversed his previous attitude and pronounced Morant guilty as charged, and advised that his original novel, its emphases and suggestions, were in many cases wide of the mark. (Details of this work at Trove here).

The jacket cover gave the pitch:

The true story behind the execution of Lieutenants Harry Harbord Morant and Peter Joseph Handcock at Pretoria Gaol on February 27, 1902, has never before been told. Were the two Australian officers, in fact, scapegoats for the British Empire? Did the British Government sacrifice their lives to appease the militaristic Germans? The author's search for true facts took him from the Public Records Office in London to South Africa, where the alleged crimes and executions took place. 

Six weeks of being told by the British authorities that the papers he was seeking were not available convinced him that, after eighty years, the British Government still had something to hide. In his fast-moving yet detailed narrative, the author describes the circumstances that led to the Boer War; recruiting in Australia; the political situation in Britain at the turn of the twentieth century; Kitchener's tactics; the birth of guerrilla warfare; and reconstructs the incidents for which Morant and Handcock were court martialled. 

The Bush Veldt Carbineers, of which Morant and Handcock were members, was an unorthodox corps; so too was the enemy it was formed to fight. Morant and Handcock may well have been guilty of war crimes but there is strong evidence that they were following both orders and precedent. Their execution, following their conviction by a Court of Inquiry, was swift and summary.The author analyses the consequences of the court martial and describes the lives of the rest of the men involved in the affair.  

This might sound ambivalent, but Denton, in press interviews selling the book, made clear he had changed his mind, calling Morant schizoid, a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, guilty as hell, and a murderer:

A search into Moran's past showed him to be a ruthless, violent man who could kill for excitement, Denton said in Sydney, Australia. "He was a man not capable of understanding conventional right from conventional wrong, he said in an interview.

Tearing down a hero, Denton said, can be more difficult than creating one. Many Australians have not been pleased at seeing Morant besmirched, especially by the writer who helped to exonerate him.

"You'd be astonished at the abuse I've received since 'Closed File,' he said. "I've been accused of diminishing the Australian character." (Barry Renfred, Associated Press)

But that was in the days when a black sheep English man exiled to the colony could become an heroic bushman representing all that was best about Australia and the bush mythologised by The Bulletin and its bush poets …

As for the writers who actually did the heavy lifting on the first version of the screenplay, David Stevens is well known for his early work on the popular miniseries A Town Like Alice, and for his play The Sum of Us, whch was later turned into a feature film, featuring Russell Crowe as the gay son of Jack Thompson. Stevens has a reasonably detailed wiki here.

Co-scripter Jonathan Hardy was an actor, writer and director, who at the time had a nice cameo in Mad Max, and who would much later retain the affection of the cultists by doing the voice of Domingar Rygel XVI in the US-financed, Australian shot TV series Farscape. He has a wiki here.

In the usual droit de seigneur way of directors, Bruce Beresford added his name to the screenplay credit, and in his DVD commentary makes it clear he did much of the writing of the screenplay. Beresford has a wiki here.

For photos of more examples of the 'Breaker' Morant publishing industry, see this site's photo gallery.

(d) Bruce Beresford on his use of the sources:

In his DVD commentary, director Bruce Beresford spends a considerable amount of time on his contribution to the screenplay and his use of sources:

The opening title: People didn’t know about the Boer War so when I was writing the script I found that I had to put this title on the front of the movie to let them know where it was fought, when it was fought and who was fighting, and even Australians didn’t know that Australian troops were involved. 

Ross's play: One of the problems in writing the script was that to do a war film was enormously elaborate and expensive and we really didn’t have a large budget, I think we made it for about um seven hundred thousand Australian dollars, which was a tiny amount of money, even in 1980, and I had a copy of a play, written by Kenneth Ross, who was a South Australian playwright, and I didn’t use much of the play in the screenplay, but Kenneth Ross had the very good idea of telling the story from the point of view of the court room, so I thought that’s the way to do the film economically, and probably more dramatically …which was to set it up in the courtroom where the issues could be clearly outlined and then to use flashbacks to the events they’re describing …and doing it that way, we were able to make the film for the money we had. 

The actual court transcript: A lot of scenes like this where they’re discussing what they’re going to do, how they’re going to handle the case are conjectural of course. We don’t know really know what they said in these situations… there’s still a lot of talk about the case in Australia, it’s a famous case, and I read in the paper the other day that the British authorities had never made a transcript of the actual trial available, er, but that’s not true. It seems to be a sort of myth that’s constantly perpetuated (laughing) … the transcripts are available and we read them… of course they’re enormously long but some of the dialogue in the court room is straight from the transcripts of the trial … 

Scenes like this one where the men are talking to one another (Brown’s character is shaving) of course (were) invented. They weren’t in the play, they’re invented by me because er you needed some background to the character. I was able to do a reasonable amount of research on all these characters because they were written about.

Witton's book Scapegoats of the Empire: Witton, the youngest of the three, actually wrote a book about his experiences, Scapegoats of the Empire, which was published in 1921, er, because he wasn’t executed, he was sent to jail, he went to jail at Lewes in England, and the book is, actually, a pretty terrible book. If he hadn’t been writing about a case of such interest, nobody would have published it, but of course it did give me information that was valuable.

And of course the defending officer Thomas played so extraordinarily brilliantly by Jack Thompson, one of my favourite actors in the world, er Thomas … there was a lot of information about Thomas, he was a well-known lawyer, it was known where he lived, he was interviewed after the war, I don’t think he died until the 1940s, so we were able to find out quite a lot about him, and everything about him being thrown into the case, without proper preparation or really knowing anything about it of course, is all true.

Morant's PoemsMorant was a well known poet in Australia at the time. There was a tradition in Australia of what they called ‘bush balladeers’. They wrote rather knockabout sort of verses rather in the style of the American or Canadian I think he was Robert Service and a lot of these poems were very, very popular. They had very simple rhyme schemes and they um extolled the virtues of bush life, country living and you know, breaking horses, chasing girls through the outback, all that kind of thing, and Morant was quite a well-known, published poet.. um, there are books of his still available, I got hold of all the ones I could find when I was doing the script and frankly I thought the poems were terrible … but with a lot of searching, I managed to find a couple that I did in fact put in the film. He does quote them and I found one that turns up at the end of the film that I thought was extremely moving, that he wrote on the night of his execution.

(When Morant reads out a poem talking of a ride which ends with the rider fording a stream and reaching the great beyond): …I think that poem that Morant quotes there is one of best he ever wrote. It’s actually quite refined and the sentiment is not banal. Of course Woodward could make almost any Morant poem sound good, he’s such a fine actor.

Jack Thompson's summing up speech to the court:  This big summing up speech from Jack Thompson, which was something I think he did particularly well, was filmed I think, all in one take, which I thought was better for the flow of it, and also partly because I simply didn’t have any more time (chuckling) I suppose actually that was the main reason, but everyone assumes that the summing up speech was in the play that was used as a basis for the film, but in fact it wasn’t in the play. This speech was written by me for the screenplay… the play was not used an awful lot, er there was just a few little bits here and there … the play wasn’t … er it was effective but it was not really a naturalistic play …er, it was sort of one of those ones where they talk to the audience and confront them. It was very much a theatre piece, and I really didn’t want to do the film in that style, so if you actually read a typescript of the play you wouldn’t see many similarities with the film script at all.  

I added this speech by Major Thomas quite late in the film script. I think I’d already done the script and I read it through and I thought ‘no, he needs a summing up speech, he needs to be able to … to put the arguments together, not just for the military judges but also for the audience watching the film’, so that it summed up which is something of course that he would have done in actuality …luckily Jack Thompson is one of those actors who has no trouble remembering lines. It’s funny when rehearsing them, he goes through rehearsal and seems to stumble over them and then the first time we rehearsed the speech, I thought ‘he’s never going to get this,’ because it’s about five and a half minutes straight through and then … he’s like a pianist trying out, the way they play phrases over and over … and the minute I call action on the actual scene, word perfect … and full of feeling…

In this speech and particularly in that last phrase … (“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”) … I was able to put into the script very much my own feelings about war …

It was interesting, when the screenplay was first written, it was sent off to a number of the Hollywood studios, I think the producers wanted to get some sort of comments on it. Most of them did reply and it had a very bad, what they call ‘coverage’, er we got some long analyses back saying how completely terrible it was, which I found rather depressing, but we went ahead and filmed it just the same and then it had an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay, though we’d filmed it unchanged from the screenplay they had all dismissed, so I can never quite work that out, though I suppose the same thing happened to me with um Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy, both of which had very bad reports from the studios and also both of which actually won Academy Awards for best screenplay, so I’ve always been very wary, and somewhat dubious about the people who read and assess screenplays ever since … it’s puzzled me, that a lot of those that I thought were the best were the most disliked.

The Pub as a source: There were lines like that I thought were good. “He’ll never get to heaven if he doesn’t die …” It wasn’t in the play, I must have heard somebody say it, when I was getting the script and I wanted it to have a vivid sort of phrasing, I used to spend a lot of time in pubs in Sydney, which is not something I’d normally do, and I’d just eavesdrop on conversations (laughs) I had a little notebook and I would write down lines that struck me … little quirks of speech and I couldn’t use all of them of course … but I put quite a few in the script. 

For more on the issues, the history, the film's version of the history, and director Beresford's views, see the bottom of this page.

2. Finance:

By 1979, the SAFC was already experiencing financial difficulties. It only posted one profit, in 1983-84 - and the state government, the Corporation's only shareholder, in 1984-85 would bail it out by capitalising $6 million in debt and providing it with a recurring administrative grant of $550,000 to cover operational and development costs.

As a result, the SAFC looked to Pact Productions and Bob Sanders to help raise finance for the film.

Sanders had formed the company with tax specialist and Rothbury winery board member Peter Fox, in November 1979, with listed company Adelaide Holdings owning 65% and Sanders' company Enton Investments holding the other 35%, and Sanders would later form Filmco to exploit the 10B/10BA federal government tax break scheme.

Sanders joined the SAFC on Blue Fin and Money Movers (as well as working with producer Antony Ginnane on shows such as Thirst and Harlequin), before arranging substantial private investment in Breaker Morant.

Other finance came from the federal government funding arm, the Australian Film Commission, and the Seven network.

3. Casting:

(a) Edward Woodward as Morant:

It's hard to remember these days, but the casting of Edward Woodward aroused considerable controversy at the time - what need of an English actor to play an Australian hero, or even an anti-hero?

This conveniently ignored the reality that Morant was in fact an English man who came out to Australia in cloudy circumstances and then spent time in assorted country towns being abused as a rogue, a thief, a drunk, a villain and a womaniser. So why not cast an English actor?

Cinema Papers became so concerned about the issue that it ran a special feature in its October/November1980 edition, on Equity's new 'imported artists policy', along with an interview with assistant general secretary of the union, Uri Windt,  a statement from the chair of the film producers' association Errol Sullivan, and a two page interview with the villain who'd help start the fuss, Edward Woodward.

Woodward took a firm internationalist view:

To start with, all Equity groups are only the sum total of us, the actors. And whatever Australian actors decide will be done.

I speak as this strange breed of thing called an actor or an Australian, and I don't give a damn if I offend anybody. I have been trying for years and years, along with a number of actors in Australia, the U.S. and Britain, to have the true internationality of actors recognized, documented and docketed and put into our rule books ... Don't forget, there are few places in the world that English-speaking actors can work. And gradually, it seems to me, we have been moving nearer to this internationality, nearer to a true exchange. If there is a hard-and-fast ban, then there is not a doubt in my mind that it will produce a total catastrophe.

In the process, Woodward revealed how he came to be offered the part:

Bruce had seen a lot of my television work and the film Wicker Man. He felt I was the one to play Breaker, and put the idea to Matt Carroll who agreed. They then found that I had this extraordinary resemblance to the man, which spurred them on even more. I was then sent the script ... the script wasn't finished  and I think there is a great danger in accepting until you have seen the final form ... Soon afterwards, Bruce sent me a draft which  was much closer to the final one. I thought it was great.

Woodward described himself as a 'reactor' as much as an actor, especially for the ten days he spent in the court room, mainly listening to the other actors argue about his character's fate. He also described what it was like to work with Beresford:

The keystone of his direction, as with all the good directors I think, is that he encourages you to contribute to the part, even to vary the way it is written. He is a very clever director and can achieve an almost unspoken rapport with his actors. He only has to move his finger before he says something, and you immediately know what he is talking about. His communication with actors is unbelievably  perceptive.

Concerns expressed by Actors' Equity and others were neutralised by the way the film turned into a roll call of the hottest Australian male talent then available for the screen - Jack Thompson, John Waters, Bryan Brown, Rod Mullinar - supported by veterans like Charles 'Bud' Tingwell and Vincent Ball, who ironically had cut their teeth in England on stage and screen, and with solid character actors such as Terence Donovan, Rob Steele, and Ray Meagher. The film also exposed a few relatively new faces, including Russell Kiefel and Lewis Fitz-Gerald.

However the fuss about the film did set in motion the Equity proposals in relation to foreign imports which would torment Australian film producers during the 10/10BA years and beyond. 

The film woud later be attacked by a few critics for oppressing women and Boers and celebrating killers, but Bryan Brown would have none of that when talking about his character in the March/April1981 edition of Cinema Papers:

I liked Handcock in Breaker Morant a lot, and I know the public does as well. I think he comes closest to defining the Australian we know today. I liked him for that.

As for working with Beresford:

Bruce is a very aware director, in that his first priority is his actors, and that's great. He moves towards his actors. He decides where an actor needs to be approached with a bit of flippancy, and where that person might need to be treated seriously. You get a lot of give from Bruce.

(b) Bruce Beresford on the film's cast:

In his DVD commentary, Beresford provides a running commentary on the film's key cast:

Edward Woodward:

Edward Woodward, the English actor who plays Morant, er I wanted to cast because Morant was in fact English, not Australian. He came to Australia when he was about nineteen years old and he was a famous horsebreaker, and er in fact he was nationally famous pretty well straight away, but he wasn’t born in Australia, he was a sort of black sheep of an English, and so I thought it was essential to get an English actor with a correct accent to play the part. Er, the unions weren’t too happy about it, er but we did it, and the main reason I got Woodward was  curiously enough because I found some photographs of the real Breaker Morant, I was looking at them and I thought ‘who’s he remind me of?’ and I realised he looked exactly like Edward Woodward, who I didn’t know but I’d seen him in a number of films and he was in a very famous television series called ‘Minder’ …no, not ‘Minder’, ‘Callan’! He was in the famous television series called ‘Callan’. And I flew to England and I called him up and saw him and I took him the script and I said ‘look, I know you’ve never heard of me, I’m an Australian director, I want to do this film, and I think you’d be great for the main role. And he was curiously sympathetic to all this. He liked the script very much, so the next thing we had him. 

Beresford notes that all the other actors were Australian.

Bryan Brown:

“…I called him when I was doing the script and said ‘you’ve got to agree to do this because I can write it for you, I can write it exactly for you so I know it’ll work’ and he said ‘yes, okay’, he was very easy-going about it …ah, he’s a very nice guy to work with ..."

(When Handcock in the courtroom jokes about being in serious trouble): There was something very Australian there I thought about Handcock’s behaviour. I loved writing lines for that character, I could base him on people I think I knew at school.

Jack Thompson:

Beresford notes that Jack Thompson had been in the army for some years and thought it was useful for the film “there was something very military about his bearing and he knew exactly how to stand, how to salute, how to deal with people, how to look at people, how to react to the court room officers … it was very, very er very lucky for me that we had someone of his background in the role ...

(When Jack Thompson is pleading with Bryan Brown to tell him the truth about the missionary): “I think this is the first thing we filmed with Jack Thompson. The movie, we started shooting and Jack was overseas working on something or other, and we shot for a couple of weeks without him, we shot scenes that he wasn’t in, and then he turned up one day, in fact I don’t think I’d ever met him before, I’d seen him in a lot of films, he turned up and we had to throw him straight into this rather difficult scene, complicated scene with Bryan Brown and er I thought ‘gosh, if this doesn’t work out well, the film’s never going to work, but er I must say his performance always delighted me and I think I’ve made four or five films with Jack Thompson since…including one in America and er he’s always astonished me by his versatility. 

Lewis Fitz-Gerald:

The youngest actor of the three was Lewis Fitz-Gerald, which was er again I thought he gave a wonderful performance, I think he was only nineteen when he did this. He was a student at the drama school in Sydney … it was very curious at the time that we couldn’t find anyone that wanted to play that role, I could never quite work out why, and I remember at that period Mel Gibson was completely unknown but er there was a buzz going around Sydney about what an interesting actor he was and I went and met Mel, who turned the role down because he had a role, a part in a soap opera! And he thought that was better for his career and didn’t want to risk going off on a film for a few weeks and losing the soap opera part. Oh that’s the way things happen …but after looking around for a long time for a very, very young actor, I went to the drama school, and spoke to them … they had a hundred boys there the right age and I thought ‘well one of these guys will be terrific. And in fact none of them were interested except Lewis! So he turned up to a casting session, he said ‘oh I hope I get the role, I’m really desperate to do this’. I said, ‘you don’t really need to worry Lewis, you have the role, nobody else wants it.’  

Oher roles, including Rob Steele, Ray Meagher, Rod Mullinar, John Waters and Chris Haywood:

This is another actor I admire enormously Rob Steele, who plays the Scotsman er he’s not a Scot, he’s of Scottish descent, he actually speaks with a broad Australian accent if you bump into him in the street, but um he’s extremely good at accents, like I think a lot of Australian actors are because they needed to be able to work. A lot of them could do very good American and English accents, so good in fact that er you’d think they were American or English.

This actor is Ray Meagher, who was again an actor I liked working with, he had a toughness, he was a professional rugby league football player    

Rod Mullinar who plays the prosecuting counsel there is a British actor who’s lived in Australia for many years, and is very well known in this country. 

(Waters giving evidence): John Waters, who plays this officer, a major role in the film, is also a very well known Australian actor … who was in a very celebrated Australian television series called Rush where he plays a police officer during the days of the gold rush in the 1850s … er he’s made I think very few, perhaps no films outside Australia, although he’s still a big name in Australia and he’s also a celebrated singer and he does a stage show of all things where he sings John Lennon songs in exactly the style of John Lennon… 

This actor giving evidence here, Chris Haywood, is another extremely celebrated Australian actor - been in a huge number of films, including films like Shine. I don’t think again that he’s worked outside Australia, but very, very gifted, both a stage and a screen actor. A lot of these actors like Haywood are playing British soldiers and their accents are pretty accurate. Haywood is in fact English, he came to Australia I think when he was very young, probably not so young as to er have forgotten the accent. He did it certainly spot on.

4. Production and Locations:

According to some databases, the film was shot in some eight weeks, six day weeks, though David Stratton in The Last New Wave put it at six weeks (36 days) and in his DVD commentary, Bruce Beresford says it was 35 days.

(a) Locations:

The film was shot on location in the old Cornish copper mining town of Burra in South Australia, and for the military court interiors at the SAFC studio, then in a made over picture theatre, the Star on the Parade in Norwood, an Adelaide suburb.

(i) Burra:

Beresford: The landscape looks very like South Africa. In fact, I’ve had letters from people in South Africa asking me exactly where it was filmed because they wanted me to settle an argument but it wasn’t filmed in South Africa at all. It was filmed in South Australia, er we couldn’t afford to go to South Africa, and there was really no need to because we found all the locations we needed. I got photographs of where all these events actually happened, er near Pietersburg (later Polokwane) in South Africa and er I put them on a big table in the production office and I said ‘where in Australia looks like this?’ And someone said, ‘oh it’s a place called Burra, about a hundred miles north of Adelaide, the landscape’s very similar.’ So we went there and shot the film there. It’s on the edge of the Australian desert …

(later) … we were able to find plenty of abandoned farm buildings because they’re on the edge of fertile lands and the farmers all went away ‘cause it’s so dry. So it looks tremendously like South Africa.     

For years afterwards the town of Burra tried to exploit its starring role in the film for tourist purposes, though it's a considerable drive from Adelaide.

Jay Clarke in Knight-Ridder Newspapers did a pitch for the town:

The old Boer jail where the film's Col. Breaker Morant was held stands on a hill on the outskirts of town. Heathmount, the home of Dr. and Mrs. Rob Oswald, was used for interior lounge, dining and veranda scenes, Market Square in town for street scenes. The Boer ambushes were filmed at "Cactus Farm," the executions and horse charges on property a few miles east of town.

For about two months in 1979, Burra was transformed into a bit of South Africa, and the townspeople of this isolated settlement 100 miles north of Adelaide in South Australia haven't forgotten. (The Day June 5th 1983)

(ii) Redruth Gaol:

Beresford: This location is something I was very pleased to find. It’s an abandoned prison… I don’t think they kept Morant and the other soldiers in a real prison in actual fact, I think they just kept them in a kind of corral but, er, I took a liberty with it, and used the old prison, I thought it was a much better look. There were in fact five men on trial, from point of historical fact in this case. Five was a bit too many to deal with and two of them were dismissed early on, and not executed, and so we just cut it down to three …

Redruth Gaol, which is heavily featured in the film, was the first gaol outside Adelaide in South Australia, and has now been restored as a heritage building.

It can be found on the National Trust register here, and also here, where there are also details of other historic Burra locations. There is also a good Flickr stream featuring photographs of the gaol, here.

(iii) Ayers' House:

By one of those coincidences, Henry Ayers, who went on to become state premier of South Australia five times, made his fortune in Burra, and used it to build Ayers House, now a National Heritage building, and used in the film as a location (Kitchener's HQ interiors).

Other locations in Adelaide included Sacred Heart College, Rostrevor College (Kitchener's HQ exteriors) and Loreto Convent.

For anyone who hasn't been to South Africa, the desolate Burra landscape passes well enough for the veldt, aided by some evocative art direction on a budget by designer David Copping.

But for anyone who has been to Burra, the locations and the buildings reek of South Australia, especially the stone work, as seen in the disused farm building where the Boers are shot - Burra was the cusp of the Goyder line, devised in 1865 by Surveyor General George Goyder to separate land suitable for all sorts of agriculture on a long term sustainable basis from land suitable only for grazing. (wiki here). This helps explain the landscape on view in the film.

Burra itself has attempted to supplement its farming base by turning to arts and crafts and tourism, and still retains the rotunda in the main road to Adelaide, which doubles as the town's main street.

(b) Director Bruce Beresford on the shoot:

Filming on location:

(When some Boers surrender): It looks hot there but it was actually very cold when we filmed this … we made it in the winter in South Australia and although in the summer the temperature would probably be around between 130 and 140 degrees every day,  the winters it’s cold, it’s out there in these open plains, and the wind howls across, it’s freezing. I quite like the look of that though, it was good…. it gave it a look that I think made it less Australian. Certainly when the film was shown in South Africa, the South Africans were totally and utterly convinced that it’d been filmed there. They never queried it for a moment.

All of these locations are real, they’re not sets and I usually prefer to film on real locations because the cameramen have to light them from outside the the windows which is where the light really comes from anyway …so to me they always have a more pleasing look. I mean McAlpine would have lit it brilliantly if we were in a set but there’s something about a real location too, and something about chance, things that can happen that you know will never happen in a set. There’s something about being in a real place that I think gives it a credibility and I also think that it helps the actors… with um … relate to the story, relate to the emotions involved and the tensions involved, it’s why I’m never very keen on doing films where the computer’s taken over completely and you can shoot the actors against a green screen and put the background in later. I think it must be very difficult for them to feel the realism, the truthfulness of the moment. It always seems to me they’re better when everything around them is convincing …

Storyboarding: 

(In the DVD commentary, when Lord Kitchener’s HQ, Pretoria appears): Again this colonial building was I think fairly typical of British colonial buildings throughout what was then the British Empire. This was filmed in Adelaide in South Australia. The film was quite elaborate for the budget and for the time we had available to shoot it, which was only 35 days, so we were going at it very, very hard. I had to er, I storyboarded the film in enormous detail before we started so that I could always walk in and say to the actors, ‘right, we’re doing it like this, you’re here, you’re here, you move here, you move there, the camera’s here, this lens is on the camera’. Otherwise we would never have got through it in the time. In fact I don’t think I could direct a film in 35 days these days, although the storyboarding, which is something I learnt through making low budget films in Australia, is something I still do in the films I’ve done in America. I did it on ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ and ‘Double Jeopardy’ and ‘Black Robe’ and all my other films as well. It’s a habit I now can’t shake, but I like it, it helps me to work out dramatically where I think the cuts should come and how the film will be effective. How to tell the story.

I don’t always follow the storyboards slavishly, I can vary them if I feel like it, or if an actor comes up with a suggestion that strikes me as being better than what I’d thought of, but ninety per cent of the time I think I do follow the storyboards.

...You can see from the cutting pattern of the film that the storyboarding was quite complicated because I had to make all of the dialogue interplay between the character, the tension … I had to make it vivid, and alive, and the cutting had to be complicated to reflect this, so the storyboards were enormously detailed, so we knew exactly when I’d be cutting in and out of the various shots …

Army Assistance:

The Australian Army let us have a platoon of men for all of these military scenes in the film, because I was very wary about having people presenting arms, saluting and marching around if they weren’t actually in the army, they never look right. And somehow or other the producer persuaded the Army to send up a batch of men and it was er great having them because not only did military stuff look right, but they’re absolutely wonderful to direct because you say to them ‘you fellas stand over there, and wait,’ and wherever you put them, you could look back six hours later, and they’d still be exactly in the same spot. They wouldn’t move. And most extras amble off and you can’t find them and they’re chatting girls up around the place or sneaking off to have something to eat, but the soldiers never did anything like that. The only thing they did do was a bit of a problem, was they’d go into town at night and get into an amazing number of fights, and turn up the next day with broken noses and blood all over them and you know we had to spend a lot of time cleaning them up …  

Camera:

I remember operating one of the cameras myself during this attack and the horsemaster said to me ‘well if you just lie on the ground there perfectly still, there that’s my camera (51’51” in the Criterion DVD) he said the horses will go over you and they won’t tread on you’, he said ‘they’re very sure footed’ and I lay down on the ground, I was absolutely terrified, but he was quite right, the horses charged all around me and not one of them touched me…

I was very proud of the cameraman on this film, Don McAlpine, who, it was one of his early films, I’d worked with him a couple of times before this on Don’s Party and The Getting of Wisdom, and er he went on to become a world-famous cameraman, and still is. He shot er films like Moulin Rouge and Peter Pan, a lot of big American films, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe he’s doing now, he was very gifted. He was very fast … as I said, we shot the film in 35 days and McAlpine is one of those cameramen who could vary his lighting style to the mood of the film. He didn’t just sort of have a lighting style that he thrust on you and insisted was done for the movie … you know, we talked about the way I wanted it to look, and he did it appropriately and very quickly and yet the style is totally different from the other movies I shot with him, that’s the sort of cameraman I like to work with. Also he’s extremely good-tempered (laughs) and er likes actors. Some cameramen don’t like actors and you get a lot of hostility and that makes it very difficult to direct them.

I think if I was doing this film today I’d be able to film it with two or three cameras which would be a great advantage in all of these sort of court room scenes, but we didn’t have the money for that and we filmed it with one camera and had to run pieces again and again. Of course the advantage of one camera is that you can watch the actors more closely; if you’re using two or three, your attention’s diverted and you tend to miss nuances in performances or not ask for them … because you’re attention is scattered. 

Action:

(When the Australians attack the Boers): I think these were the first action scenes I ever directed, I think I’d (never) done any action before …I’d always liked action movies, not really for their own sake but I really think they work if you are involved with the characters, and I found it great fun storyboarding fight scenes which I’d never done before. I’ve done a lot since…

(The Boer attack on the camp): We weren’t very used to doing action scenes at this time in Australia but I think we did quite well on this, it’s quite small scale, again it was storyboarded, a lot of the guys came in and we had some gun experts and they did quite a good job. A few years after this, the first Mad Max films were made and I think Australians shown … certainly George Miller did, that one of the greatest action directors ever, ‘cause that was much more of an action film, this was just a film with some action …

Schedule:

We filmed all the court room scenes in the studio at the end of the shoot and um by the time we got to the courtroom we were way behind schedule, everyone was panicking about the money, but I said ‘I don’t think you’ll need to worry, we’ll catch up’, because provided the actors are on the ball, which I thought they would be, we can shoot fairly quickly in the court room because this is where my storyboarding really comes in to play and makes it very simple… well relatively simple because everyone can just look at the storyboards and see exactly what’s going to be shot, and then they can … the cameraman can light it accordingly, and the actors will move accordingly and it can be done rapidly.

Moustaches:

(Following a sighting of Rod Mullinar’s generous moustache): The moustaches on all these actors by the way are all real. I’ve got a dread of the fake moustaches and beards, I think even the best make-up people in the world can’t really make them work, if they’re stuck on, they always look stuck on, it doesn’t matter what you do …so we said to the actors you’ve got to grow them, you can’t take on other jobs before this and not grow a moustache, so I was surprised but they all co-operated.

Horse-riding:

It wasn’t too hard in Australia to find plenty of horsemen to be extras, because you get out into the countryside and everybody rides horses, and they ride them very well. Bit more tricky with Edward Woodward and Bryan Brown, who had to take a lot of horse-riding lessons. Not easy to do. Edward was getting pretty good at impersonating a good rider …which I don’t think he was. He was a good actor though …

Editing:

The editor on this film, William Anderson, I thought, did an extremely good job. He was a young Irishman from Belfast who’d come to this country and then drifted into the film industry. He’s cut a lot of films for me, I think at least a dozen, in Australia and America, and he’s now a very celebrated editor in America …and has cut a lot of very famous films, er I think the last really big one he did was um Peter Weir’s Truman Show …but certainly a wonderful career and an extremely gifted editor … film editing’s often very under-rated, you think oh well they just stick the shots together,  but the cameraman does, the director does, a really great editor will maximise everything in the actors’ performances …if they’re aware of nuances, of what the actors are thinking, they’re aware of the moments, the gestures, the looks, the key moments for it to come in, it’s a great skill, it’s not just a matter of glueing shots together, and Bill Anderson was very, very sensitive to this, and I used to look at dialogue scenes when he’d cut them and I thought, I’d always think, it couldn’t be done better… he’s got everything out of it that you possibly could… anything that’s wrong now is my fault because it’s edited as well as it could be edited… 

5. Release:

'Breaker' Morant made a splash in Cannes. To promote the film, the SAFC hired a couple of Frech men to play Australian soldiers on horse, and handed out 200 Diggers' hats to the passing parade.

The cost of this effort was about $400, agains hundreds of thousands spent by some other promoters.

... briefly, 'Breaker Morant' attracted more attention than the multitude of topless bathers and near-naked starlets who litter the Promenade de la Croisette, the place where all of it happens and most of it hangs out.

It did not matter that the Diggers were long haired and spoke French. The gimmick, worked, and Cannes was suddenly made aware it was about to see the premiere of an Australian film.

It got a good reception with packed audiences applauding its three official screenings. (The Age, 15th May 1980)

The film did well in the domestic Australian market, no easy task, as explained by financier Bob Sanders in Cinema Papers March/April 1981

Without the tax benefits that are being offered by the Government, the industry would fall to its knees very quickly. We need a four-to-one return on the domestic market for the investors to see their money back. And most films in Australia are costing around $1 million, which means they must gross $4 million.

Now Breaker Morant, which is the breakaway success, has not quite managed yet to do that. So, not many films are going to break even in Australia.

But he also noted he had no cause for complaint:

As for Breaker Morant, we have just got our money back. Before Christmas it had grossed roughly $3.4 million.

Throw in the advances received from various territories - the film sold widely - and it was a nice little earner, including to China, the first time, it was claimed for an Australian feature film. Throw in the many re-licensing fees earned over the years, and it was a good stayer and earner for the SAFC.

The film did well critically on the international market, but it didn't perform well theatrically. 

The usual question was asked of director Bruce Beresford in relation to the United States - a request to revoice the cast with American accents, as detailed in this story:

Sound immediately got him into trouble. The world may have been ready for Australian films, but was it ready for Australian accents? Even in Australia, the voices of English actors were often used on television and Beresford faced pressure from overseas to dub "Breaker Morant."

"When we did 'Breaker Morant' and sold it in America, someone said to me over here, 'Well, of course you've got to revoice it with American accents,'" Beresford recalled.

'I said, 'Not in a million years.' I said if we revoice this film we're sunk because we'll have to revoice very film with American accents. I said they've got to get used to Australian accents. They don't revoice American films in Australia with Australian accents." (The Hour 4th April 1991)

Helped by being asked to act as backstop to the commercial disaster Heaven's Gate, the film opened wide in the United States:

It was called the break of all time, with Heaven's Gate pulled after a day in New York, and Breaker Morant given a simultaneous opening in New York and Los Angeles on 22nd December 1980. Originally Breaker Morant was supposed to follow some time in February, but instead Jack Thompson was hastily called to the United States to help with the publicity campaign. (Sydney Morning Herald, 22nd December 1980)

Unfortunately the disruption to Jack Thompson's Christmas holiday plans didn't help overcome the cold start-up from scratch, and perhaps the Heaven's Gate curse also helped give the film the wobbles.

Generally it tended to get yanked after a week or so - further proof, if any was needed that awards and critical praise don't guarantee box office success. 

Bruce Beresford singles out a review in Time in his DVD commetary:

The film created quite a stir in Australia when it was released and er it was much written about … it was never a huge popular success, it was … it was greatly respected and ah it’s funny twenty years later I still get calls from people who say ‘oh we saw ‘Breaker’ Morant, perhaps you’d like to direct a film for us, so I guess it’s been quite good for my career … but overseas, outside Australia, the reviews were mostly very favourable, but by no means all of them, I remember an extremely hostile review in Time magazine, more or less sank the film commercially in America (wry chuckle) but I’m very proud of it, er, I thought it was a good story, I’m very proud of the actors and all of my associates who worked on the film, many of whom I’ve worked with on many other films, many of whom are still amongst my best friends ...

All the same, Beresford in later years frequently took a gloomy view of the film's fate:

... it was a film that nobody went to see. But it was an important film. In terms of actual audiences, nobody saw it. 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 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 ... (interviewed on Peter Malone's excellent site here)

But because the film broke wide, it did do some business - some estimates put the US box office gross at US$7 million - and it still has a niche in the US market, perhaps helped by the anti-British sentiment some can see in the film.

In a land where conspiracy theories flourish, this sort of court case - which will always have unresolvable ambiguities and which saw the British Government conceal evidence - was always likely to have a life as an ongoing talking point. 

This was noted at the film's Cannes screening:

It is … in its damning of British attitudes to colonials that Cannes critics see the film's marketing possibilities. Americans, Canadians and Indians believe it will appeal to their domestic audiences with its strong portrayal of British arrogance….

Beresford sees the film as countering and hitting back at the traditional British version of colonial history. Certainly it savages both the British Government and the Barton Government of Australia, which was in power at the time of Morant's execution.

Jack Thompson says 'Breaker Morant' presents 'the other side of the coin' in the way it shows how Britain used colonial armies to fight the dirtier parts of colonial wars. Both Thompson and Beresford draw parallels with Australian involvement in Vietnam … (The Age, 15th May 1980)

And so the film keeps on playing a significant ongoing role in the never-ending controversy about the Breaker.

6. Music and Poetry:

(a) Bruce Beresford on the use of the music:

Bruce Beresford back in the day waged a war against conventional underscore (and Wagner).

For 'Breaker' Morant, SAFC favourite Michael Carlos (Blue Fin, Storm Boy) was originally listed as musical director, but Beresford decided to go with a brass band score and a couple of period songs.

Beresford took a stand on underscore in relation to many of his films, as he explained to The Hour on April 4th 1991:

"I always hate those films where the score overwhelms the movie," the Australian director insisted in a recent interview.

"I'm very aware of when I watch old movies on TV of how terrible the music is. It's the thing that dates them the worst.

"Once I even refused to work with a producer who put in the contract that the music had to start with the front title and end with the end title. He said, 'I like wall-to-wall music. And I said, 'I'm not going to do it unless you take the clause out,' and I didn't do the film."

In his DVD commentary track, Beresford expanded on these ideas:

I had the idea in the pre-production of um not using the film score in the movie. There is no score at all. There’s only a brass band, which of course was symbolic of the military and symbolic of the British power in the region and I’ve used the brass band dramatically throughout the film at various points, rather than a score that was written. 

(When Woodward is singing accompanied by piano): Put this scene in the flashback to put this girl in that Morant was in love with er, I think she’s the only woman in the entire film. er Woodward sings the song himself, Woodward was actually a well-known singer with a superb tenor voice and a number of albums of his are available recording … he usually sings what strike me as being rather corny Victorian songs but it’s certainly a very fine voice. In England I think he was as well known for his singing as his acting.

I like the fact that there’s no music on the film except for the occasional brass band. I think that music’s greatly over-used in films, it drowns them out and to me it frequently creates completely false, spurious emotions that I don’t like - in fact er, I never used music on any film, I made 11 films in Australia before I went to America to direct Tender Mercies, and I never used a score in any of them. But er it’s impossible to get away with now, I’m afraid. The producers insist on it so hey, you know, try to make the best of it, and I must say I’ve had some very good scores and I’ve been quite proud of a lot of them, but er I quite liked all these Australian films with no music. I was able to use sound effects very effectively. 

(About 76 minutes in, with the brass band in the Burra rotunda): I used the band music here to … in a sense to be like sort of like background score going over this scene with Handcock, with his having an affair with the wife of the Boer soldier (laughs) which is actually also something that really happened… and I only did this once or twice in the film, but again I thought it was better to use the military music than to go to a conventional score. I remember Bryan Brown thinking that lady (Barbara West) was extremely nice. And this one, he liked this one too …

(After Witton has been found guilty and his sentence commuted from hanging to penal servitude for life and brass band music plays over Witton’s return to his cell): Once again I was able to use the brass band in a dramatic sense, playing The Minstrel Boy. It was quite fun researching all the band music of the period and selecting what I was going to use in the film.

One of the songs uses a Morant poem for lyrics and the other uses a patriotic British song in a mournful and ironic way.

(b) Lyrics for the Harry Morant song he sings, in the flashback to England, as they appear in the film:

When I have lived

Long years in vain

And found life’s garlands rue

May be that I’ll

Come back, 

Dear girl,

At last, at last, to you

May be that I’ll come back

Dear girl, 

At last, at last, to you ….

These lyrics come from Harry "Breaker" Morant's poem At Last, which was first published in The Bulletin on the 5th April, 1902. Edward Woodward mangles only the second half of the first verse, with repeats and the addition of "dear girl":

When I am tired, and old and worn,
   And harass'd by regret;
When blame, reproach, and worldlings' scorn
   On every side are met;
When I have lived long years in vain
   And found Life's garlands rue,
Maybe I'll come back again -
   At last - at last - to you!
When all the joys and all the zest
   Of youthful years have fled,
Maybe that I shall leave the rest
   And turn to you instead;
For you, Dear Heart, would never spurn
   (With condemnation due!)
If, at the close of all, I turn
   Homeward - at last - to you!
 When other faces turn away,   
  And lighter loves have passed;
When life is weary, cold, and gray -
   I may come back - at last!
When cares, remorse, regrets are rife -
    Too late to live anew -
In the sad twilight of my life    
   I will come back - to you!

(c) Soldiers of the Queen:

Beresford: ‘Course this is Edward Woodward’s voice singing the very famous song at the end Soldiers of the Queen … not very often you get a leading man who’s also a great singer … 

The lyrics for "Soldiers of the Queen" used in the film vary from the usual version - for the original version see the song's wiki hereIn the film, the lyrics go as follows:

Britons always loyally declaim
About the way we rule the waves.
Every Briton's song was just the same
When singing of her soldiers brave.
All the world that's heard it--
Wonders why we sing,
Some have learned the reason why--
We're not forgetting it,
We're not letting it
Fade away or gradually die,
Fade away or gradually die.
So when we say that England's master
Remember who has made her so
It's the soldiers of the Queen, my lads
Who've been, my lads, who've seen, my lads
In the fight for England's glory lads
Of its world wide glory let us sing
And when we say we've always won
And when they ask us how it's done
We'll proudly point to every one
Of England's soldiers of the Queen...

(d) Boer Folk Song:

Beresford: I put this scene in of the Boer prisoner singing a well-known Boer folk song because it gave the sort of atmosphere and gave you some sense of the people on the other side and their basic humanity.

The Dutch folk song, credited as Sari Marais in the film, has a wiki here as Sarie Marais ….

The lyrics as they appear in the film, in what the wiki says is the Afrikaans version:

My Sarie Marais is so ver van mij af


Ek hoop haar weer te sien


Sy het in die wijk van Mooirivier gewoon


Nog voor die oorlog het begin

Chorus:

O bring my terug na die ou Transvaal

Daar waar my Sarie woon

Daar onder in die mielies by die groen doring boom

Daar woon my Sarie Marais

Daar onder in die mielies by die groen doring boom

Daar woon my Sarie Marais

For English translations, see the wiki.

(e) Scottish folk song:

Another song that appears during the film shortly after Woodward talks of applying Rule .303 is a Scottish folksong, Donald’s Farewell to Lochaber, which the Criterion subtitles misrepresent. The full song’s lyrics are available here

Farewell to Lochaber

And farewell my Jean

Where heartsome with thee

I have many days been

(faintly off) For Lochaber no more, Lochaber no more

We’ll maybe return to Lochaber no more

(The remaining lines are obscured under dialogue).

(f) Poems - Mafeking: 

 The poem that is recited early in the film is Mafeking by Alfred Austin. The lines that appear in the film (the full poem can be found here):

Long as the waves shall roll

Long as fame guards her scroll (the Criterion subtitles get this wrong and say “us whole”)

And men through heart and soul

Thrill to true glory

Their deeds from age to age

Shall voice and verse engage

Swelling the splendid page

Of England’s story …

(g) Morant's other Poems:

Morant’s final poem, as in the dawn light, sitting on a chair, he and Handcock await execution by firing squad:

It really ain’t the place nor time to reel off rhyming diction

But yet we’ll write a final rhyme while waiting crucifixion

For we bequeath a parting tip of sound advice for such men

Who come across in transport ships to polish off the Dutch men

If you encounter any Boers, you really must not loot ‘em

And if you wish to leave these shores, for pity’s sake, don’t shoot ‘em.

Let’s toss a bumper down our throat before we pass to heaven,

And toast the trim-set petticoat we leave behind in Devon...

The poem Morant reads about a third of the way into the film, as it appears in the film:

Oh, those rides across the river

Where the shallow stream runs wide

When the sunset’s beams were glossing

Strips of sand on either side

We would cross the sparkling river

On the brown horse and the bay

Watch the willows sway and shiver

And their trembling shadows  play

’Tis a memory to be hoarded

Oh the foolish tale and fond

‘Till another stream be forded

And we reach the great beyond…

(h) Byron:

While waiting the verdict, Morant makes a joke of Byron being a minor poet and recites a poem by Byron - it was published in 1820 as When a Man Hath No Freedom to Fight for at Home:

When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home,

Let him combat for that of his neighbours;

Let him think of the glories of Greece and of Rome,

And get knocked on the head for his labours.

To do good to Mankind is the chivalrous plan,

And is always is nobly requited; (published versions have “and is always as”)

Then battle for Freedom wherever you can,

And, if not shot or hanged, you'll get knighted.

(i) The Limerick:

Beresford: I found this limerick of Bryan Brown’s in some book of the period:

There once was a man from Australia,

Who painted his arse like a dahlia,

The colour was fine, likewise the design,

But the aroma, ooh that was a failure). 

(j) Religious references:

Beresford: It’s true that Morant said that remark and picked out that phrase from the bible at the end, a man’s foes shall be those of his own household, er that moment was something I found in the research. 

Morant's epitaph - And a man's foes shall be they of his own household - comes from Matthew 10:36 (the King James version).

Just before the 1’07” mark of the Criterion edition, the preacher prays:

Let us pray

O Lord of hosts

We entreat thy blessing for the soldiers of our race

Called to do battle in South Africa

Be thou a strong tower for them against the enemy

O thou who doth accomplish thy will

By war as well as by peace

Order the minds of statesmen and generals

That they may ever love righteousness and equity ...

(The preacher drones on, but the rest is obscured by Witton and Morant in prison talking and then Morant recites a few lines which he identifies as coming from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress):

How glorious it was to see the open region

… filled with horses …and trumpeters and horses

… the singers and players …

 Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera

The preacher’s prayer seems to have been written for the film, but the quote from Bunyan can be found in part two, section X, available here

For more information on the music in the film, see this site's pdf for music credits.

7. Date:

Most databases persist in dating the film to 1980, yet the end titles of the film indicate it was copyrighted in 1979, and that is the way this site dates films.

While it was released in 1980 in most territories and also scored many of its awards in 1980, the better guide to the date of production is the copyright notice on a film, where available.

In the same way, the inverted commas in the film's main title, 'Breaker' Morant, are routinely ignored when referencing the film.

8. History:

(a) The Morant Controversy:

The controversy over 'Breaker' Morant has never gone away, and it's still possible to pick a fight regarding his guilt or innocence, though the film makes it clear enough he and Handcock were responsible for the murder of the German missionary and Boer prisoners.

Most people who have looked at the evidence have come away thinking that Morant was guilty and some - such as author Kit Denton and film-maker Frank Shields, started out pro-Morant before re-canting. Bits and pieces of evidence began to crop up as the story was critically re-examined (a letter from George Witton, a letter from Morant's fellow soldiers complaining of his behaviour and so on).

But there's also no doubt that his trial was poorly organised and conducted, and Morant's execution hastily contrived, with evidence suggesting that head office might well have played a part in the verdict, and more particularly, the death sentence.

The official version is now represented by the ADB in its biography here:

Probably the charge of which Morant was acquitted was the impetus for his execution. The acquittal, while certainly open on the evidence, is with hindsight and in the light of additional evidence best supported by the defence of condonation, based on the call to service during the attack on Pietersburg. That defence would not have had to deny what is now virtually undoubted, namely Morant's reprehensible incitement of the homicide of an innocent civilian. The defences put in the other cases were rightly rejected. Even if an order to take no prisoners had been lawfully given, the deaths of the Boers, who had ceased to resist and been taken prisoner, did not occur in pursuance of such an order. As folk hero he should be rejected, but he may be accepted as a man of many talents who, under the influence of weak or sadistic peers, was corrupted by the brutality of war.

This was endorsed by the Australian War Memorial, when it compiled its list of fifty significant military men here:

Found guilty at their court martial, Morant and Handcock were executed in February 1902. Defenders of the two men still claim they acted on orders, that they were made scapegoats by the British Army, and that they did not receive a fair trial.

Morant has sometimes been depicted as an Australian hero. But while he may have been brave, he was guilty of a war crime and so offers a poor model for a hero; shooting prisoners is not heroic.

However director Bruce Beresford had a canny understanding that he was presenting a kind of Lt. Calley defence in his film, and if taken in conjunction with opposition to capital punishment, the notion that a prison sentence would have been more just is very arguable (in the same way as the extensive shooting of deserters in the field in the subsequent first world war became an abiding disgrace for the French and the British governments).

To conflate film with history, the arguments in defence of Morant, Whitton and Handcock haven't much changed since Jack Thompson was given an award at Cannes for his speech in summation, as the film heads towards its climax:

The main fact of this case, that Boer prisoners were executed, has never been denied by the defence.

However, I feel that there is no evidence at all for bringing charges against Lieutenant Witton, a junior officer who had no reason to question the instructions of his superiors, and whose only crime was that he shot a Boer … in self-defence… And further no one denies the admirable fighting qualities of the Boers, nor in general their sense of honour. However, those Boers fighting in the northern Transvaal in commando groups are outlaws, renegades, often without any recognised form of control, addicted to the wrecking of trains, the looting of farms. Lord Kitchener himself recognised the unorthodox nature of this warfare when he formed a special squad to deal with it, the Bushveldt Carbineers     

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 and 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…

Lieutenant Morant shot no prisoners before the death of Captain Hunt. He then changed a good deal, and adopted the sternest possible measures against the enemy. Yet there is no evidence to suggest that Lieutenant Morant has an intrinsically barbarous nature. On the contrary...  

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 un-Christian 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...

Which is to say, fair cop, they did it, but war is hell, and headquarters stiffed them, the Boers were rough trade, and there should be no judgment.

This might be construed as a retrospective modern judgement of Morant, but the treatment of prisoners of war had theoretically been long established before the Boer war (wiki it here).

While Morant might have claimed a nod and a wink from headquarters, as a soldier he also must have been aware that he was crossing a line in revenge for the death of his friend Captain Hunt, and the disfigurement and abuse of Hunt's body.

Yet the quest for recognition of Morant's military service (statues and honours as befits an Australian hero) - or better still a pardon - has long continued, and in 2012 and 2013 the search for a pardon went to the Queen, the British parliament, the British High Court, and anyone else who would listen.

While it's outside the scope of this site, the controversy - largely led by military lawyer Jim Unkles - is easy to google.

Emboldened by a decision by the Victorian Supreme Court in a non-binding mock "trial" that the original trial of Morant was unfair, Unkles attracted the ear of the British media, in stories such as High Court 'pardon bid' for Boer war soldier 'Breaker' Morant.

Unkle's quest produced dissent, led by historian Craig Wilcox writing pieces such as Pardon me, but Breaker Morant was guilty

In the end, the British government proved recalcitrant, see here, and the then Labour government resolved not to support Unkles' campaign, see ABC Radio here.

While there might have been mitigating circumstances, the quest for a pardon seems a peculiar folly.

If anything, all that happened is that Morant seems to have received, in an institutional British way, the same sort of unfair, shoddy, 'fix is in' rough justice Morant doled out to some Boers in the field. 

Some might raise the issue of the unfairness of the death penalty, but if that's a problem, what's to be done about the hapless 306 men shot during the Great War for cowardice, one only 17 years old, and another, who lied about his age, only 16 and not officially entitled to be in the army? (see the BBC here)

The military death penalty was outlawed in 1930 and none of these men would have been executed today. In terms of a pardon, it would seem that there are others who deserve priority ahead of Morant. 

It might also be possible to wonder about the greater scandal - by what right the Boer Dutch and the British, and wandering soldiers from the British Empire thought they had to fight over the spoils in Africa, the chief aim being to ensure that the indigenous population were subject to ongoing 'civilised' barbarity until Nelson Mandela came along.

There is, as always, injustice and then there's even more injustice, and in that context, Morant's plight might be construed as just desserts, or it might be construed as another example of the unfair ways of the British empire.

Peter Robinson, a teacher, made this point about the saga in The Age on 13th July 1982 while pointing out the many errors in F. M. Cutlack's version of the Morant legend:

Morant's guilt does not render the other people involved innocent. The odious Captain Taylor, who apparently encouraged Morant's murders for his own reasons, escaped free and became a rich man after the war. Kitchener's telegram (Cutlack, p. 103) is not just inaccurate, but deceitful, and no doubt Kitchener was happy enough to see Morant shot if it provided a diversion from the widespread criticism of his own policies.

Morant was shot for the murder of a dozen or so Boers. No one was ever prosecuted for the deaths of more than 20,000 South African men, women and children in the "concentration camps, set up as part of Kitchener's strategy to deprive the Boers of their support by interning the whole population.

In a world of injustice, who is the just man?

In due course director Bruce Beresford was careful to walk back any notion that his film was a defence of Morant:

I think it's the moral conflict. It's a good story. I read an article about it recently in the LA Times and the writer said it's the story of these guys who were 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 the atrocities in Yugoslavia. 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. That was not what the film was about for me. And I never said that. (Peter Malone's useful site, here)

The fuss about Morant's guilt or innocence has allowed director Bruce Beresford to get away with some minor historical misrepresentations for years.

The final, emotionally moving shooting of Morant and Handcock by a firing squad is perhaps the best example of a skilled director triumphing over reality.

In the real world, the soldiers in a firing squad would be staged twenty five feet (7.6 metres) or so away from their targets - far enough away to ensure some emotional distance, yet close enough to make sure that the shooting didn't turn into a rifle range test of accuracy.

For emotional and visually effective impact, Beresford separates soldiers and targets by a risible distance, and yet few have quibbled about it.

Beresford mounted a different defence for another, similar scene which attracted some attention - the shooting from a rocky outcrop of the German missionary at a great distance on a plain below by Handcock:

“Someone said to me once he must have been a dead shot to have been able to have shot that missionary from that distance and got him, but these people were dead shots. Shooting was all they did. The reason the British wanted the Australians in the Boer war was because um they were known to be very good shots, I mean they got a lot of Australians from the country who largely lived on game, you know they shot rabbits and kangaroos, er they all had guns, they all knew how to fire, they were extremely accurate …and the Boers too, were famous for being … they were all country people, were extremely famous for being very, very good shots. The British knew this, which is why they tried to get so many Australians out there from country parts of Australia …in fact, Handcock didn’t have any trouble putting a bullet through that guy’s heart, even from that distance."   

For anyone interested in pursuing the Morant saga as history or as an argument, there is a wealth of information online.

In particular, Trove's invaluable collection of indexed newspapers provides access to all kinds of material, with Morant memorabilia available here and hereand with a general search providing thousands of references, here.

(b) Director Beresford on the issues in the film:

I was fascinated when I first came across the story of Morant and the trial of the Australians, with the complexities of the issues. People have said to me ‘oh it’s a bit like the story in the Stanley Kubrick film Paths of Glory’, and there are similarities but I think they’re fairly superficial.

In Paths of Glory they were putting French soldiers on trial for cowardice, picked almost at random because of the horrors of the First World War and all that sort of thing, and they pick these three men as an example and execute them, and it’s certainly a powerful and extremely brilliantly directed film.

But the issues I think in Breaker Morant are quite different. We never … I never tried to make it seem that the Australian soldiers on trial were innocent of the charges … they’re not innocent of the charges, it never says that, what the film is doing is examining the pressures that the men are put under in the time of war, especially in this kind of a war, because they’re not fighting against soldiers in uniform.  

They’re fighting against people who are essentially farmers, they’re just …every day they can’t pick out the enemy, and it was a situation for them that they really didn’t know how to cope with …they didn’t know when to shoot, when not to shoot, they didn’t know what people who they saw in the fields were going to do to them … there were sudden attacks, um, it was difficult for them, it was a bit like Vietnam in that situation, it’s a thing that’s cropped up in wars, certainly in the twentieth century...

At one point I wrote a little piece for Morant where he says um ‘we’re fighting a new war for a new century’ … so the issues really are how the men are trying to cope, I mean I’m not trying to excuse them, but it’s just showing that they’re being put under pressures that are pretty unfair, that it’s a shame that if the war happens at all, these things are going to happen because they’re dealing with an enemy that can’t really see, so they’re just firing all the time; they think if we don’t shoot them, they’re going to do something to us because we don’t trust them..

… I don’t think Morant was by instinct a maniacal killer as you know people have tried to make out, and you still see articles along those lines, I mean his background before the Boer war, before he was there fighting was fairly well documented … there was nothing to suggest that he was any kind of a maniac. He was a horse-breaker as I said, he was a poet, he was well-known, he was respected, there was nothing psychotic in his background. It was the pressures that he was put under, the decisions he was forced to make that brought these things out, as they have to so many men who otherwise behave normally. Put them in the war situation, it all goes wrong, it’s er a tragedy, it’s ghastly …

(On discovering a Boer hiding in a covered wagon):

Incidents like this one where they shot this Boer are true. They were well-documented. In fact, the film is historically pretty accurate. This actor playing the Boer prisoner was a young American who was touring Australia and suddenly turned up at an audition when we were looking for someone for the part and gave such a good reading that we said okay, you’ve got it.

The key issues for the military was whether Lord Kitchener did or did not issue orders to shoot prisoners, and it seems to have been generally admitted that the orders were tacit, that they were never written down but they were told, told to shoot prisoners, or to shoot at least some of the prisoners, and it was certainly widely done and when Morant and the others were put on trial, they had shot prisoners, but of course a lot of other people had as well. I think they probably thought that if they shot a few Australians it would quieten down the criticism that was starting to happen, and certainly a lot back in England where the war was not popular at all because the British press very much took the attitude that they were attacking a mob of harmless farmers, which was true … and the war was getting very bad press, and they wanted to shoot some as an example, I think they thought if they shot a few Australians … it would do the job, that they wouldn’t actually have the problems they’d have with shooting some British soldiers. That’s an interpretation that’s widely been put forward, and it’s er ...inclined to believe it … 

The issue of dealing with prisoners is certainly an extraordinarily contentious one. It was in the Boer War, where there was an enormous amount of criticism of the fact that the British put a lot of the prisoners in what they called concentration camps, although it certainly wouldn’t be fair to compare them with the ones of the Second World War that the Germans had, but they did put them, they rounded them up and put them in, there was a lot of interrogations, that was er hotly debated in England about the treatment of the prisoners. In fact, the issues were really much the same as one reads in the press now with the prisoners in Iraq… you know I can imagine that … the British troops and the American troops now or the Allied troops now often get very hot under the collar with people that they think have done all sorts of ghastly things … and I’m sure that they make all sorts of mistakes in this area, and the British made them at this time, but it’s very hard to work out exactly who you’re dealing with, exactly what they did, and it’s very hard to prove a lot of your suspicions. I think it’s going to go on, the issue’s going to go on for as long as wars go on. Not that it excuses people being treated horribly, badly or tortured, it’s completely unforgivable…  

The issue of shooting prisoners is alway such a contentious, such a difficult thing in wartime. I remember an uncle who fought in New Guinea in the Second World War told me one night that they never took Japanese prisoners, they always shot them. I remember I was terribly shocked, and I couldn’t sleep the night he told me that, I think I was only about ten or eleven, I thought that was a horrible thing to do. Of course I still think it’s a horrible thing to do …but he said that they had no way they could keep prisoners …he said there was nothing they could do with them, they had nowhere to send them, they had nothing to feed them with, they had nothing to eat themselves, he said they had to shoot them, it’s er a dreadful situation …

Kitchener:

His (Thomas's) request to ask Lord Kitchener to appear in the trial was really something that could never happen, but it was a good tactical move, er it would certainly have an effect on the committee who were deciding what’s going to happen, I mean Kitchener was such a celebrated figure, and in fact is still really I suppose a household name in England …er he conducted this war, he was in the first world war, he was the British commander and if I remember rightly, he died on a ship that was going to St Petersburg, around 1917, the ship sank and it was a national tragedy and there were days of mourning in England …but the Boer War went very badly despite his command, it was, as I said before it was never a popular war in England, it was never felt to be justified, it was somewhat like the situation today in Iraq I think where the feeling amongst a vast section of the population was that it should never have been fought, the reasons for fighting it were wrong, that the people they were fighting were being very unfairly attacked, that there was not enough justification for it, that they were in fact taking on a mob of farmers who were pretty harmless … 

That was one of my favourite scenes, that one between Kitchener and the officer (Vincent Ball) …who has to go to the court martial, very unwillingly to discuss the issue of whether they er actually gave orders to shoot the prisoners. It er … who knows what Kitchener really said, but I thought … it was quite credible, I remember writing the scene and trying to put myself in the situation of Kitchener and thinking well, if the court martial is going a bit in the Australians’ favour, and they feel that you know they’re trying to bring about a peace conference, which they were desperately trying to do, they were trying to do everything they could, that er they probably would have had that conversation …

(c) Director Bruce Beresford on assorted historical details and lines in the film:

  • That’s a good line too, “I’m not sure if I like you blokes enough to help you”, that’s very Australian (laughs);

  • Dum dums: “The point of the bullets was an issue that really infuriated the Australians, these bullets used to explode once they hit the body, so even a small wound would kill you. I think they thought it wasn’t really fair (laughs), although if you’re fighting a war, I suppose it’s hard to argue against that when you think of the things that people do …;

  • This Boer attack on the camp which Morant and his friends then had to help defend is historically true. They thought at the time it would help their case but it turned out not to …;

  • (Bryan Brown trimming his moustache and remembering chasing tarts while others were in church): That was a line I felt strongly: “The worst thing about dying, no more girls.” I think I made that up. Probably is the worst thing …;

  • This incident of the killing of the Reverend Hesse was one of the key factors that er resulted in the conviction of the Australians because Hesse was a minister and er it certainly did not go down well, though Morant’s allegation that he was carrying messages back and forth toward the Boers was probably true; 

  • The issue of a lot of the witnesses being sent to off to India so they wouldn’t have to testify in favour of the Australians is also true, well certainly something … it’s true in the sense that Australians believe they were sent away only to prevent them coming and giving evidence…; 

  • (When Morant expounds on a new war for a new century and the enemy being out of uniform farmers and the missionary being involved in the fighting): I thought that was an important and rather interesting scene, to bring up the issue of the shooting of the missionary among the soldiers themselves who were on trial, because it further adds to the complexity of it, the younger soldier is struck by it, it seems to him to be completely wrong, which I suppose it is, and then you have Morant’s justification for it, ah, which I don’t suppose does justify it, but I mean you can see how he’s thinking and why he feels the way he does…;

  • In the scene where Taylor notes that a wild simple fellow like Handcock and a black sheep - “we won’t be missed” - offers a chance for Morant to escape by horse, and says he can take a boat and see the world, and a resigned Morant says he’s seen it: That scene had some of my favourite lines. I remember I liked writing that, I got the idea of it when I read in one of the reports that some of the officers had got together and suggested that they would help Morant escape, and he turned them down. I think he wouldn’t leave the others, er, there was no offer to the others to escape ...;

  • That high angle of the coffins being built outside the jail was again something that I got from reading some articles about the execution that were written for Time where they said that Handcock and the others could see and hear the coffins being built (wry chuckle)… which would be rather … unpleasant ...;  

  • The quotes from the letters, the letter of Handcock’s, is true, it is the letter that he wrote to his last wife … it’s the last letter he wrote to his wife, it’s not made up …it’s also true that he wrote “Australia forever” on the outside of the letter when he folded it …;

  • And the poem that Morant is saying at the end (“May you rest your bones ’til morning, and if you chance to wake, give me a call about the time that daylight starts to break”) is in fact the poem that he wrote on the night of the executions, it’s one of the best things he ever wrote …; 

  • When I was researching, I found some descriptions of the executions of the men, written by a member of the firing squad whose mother … I went to England and researched this whole thing in the Imperial War Museum archives and found out quite a bit …;

  • (Morant’s farewell to Major Thomas): “We poets do crave immortality.” A wonderful line I think at this moment in the film, is from the play written by Kenneth Ross; 

  • That famous line of Morant’s that he called out “shoot straight you bastards, don’t make a mess of it” was commented on by a number of people. It’s accurate, he did say that … and there are a number of reports of it, all exactly the same …McAlpine’s such a good cameraman he could shoot straight into the sun like that, but I’ve worked with cameramen who would never have been able to do that shot, but I said to Don it would look fantastic if we could do it and it’s so atmospheric, it’s so realistic, it so much emphasises the cold early morning …;

  • When the film was shown in Russia I had a letter from someone asking me what rule 303 was exactly, ‘cause they didn’t realise and they didn’t look on that gun very clearly. The rule 303 of course is the .303 rifle and all Morant is saying is that we were living by the law of the gun, we were protecting ourselves and rule 303 wasn’t a written law, it was a law that they had to live by to survive ... 

  • It’s also true that the two men held hands as they marched towards the chairs that they were to be executed on …I found that in the letter written by a member of one of the firing squad. I know when I did it the producer nearly had a fit and said ‘oh you can’t have them hold hand, everyone’ll think they’re gay,’ (chuckles) and I said ‘I don’t think they’ll think that at this point in the film.’ I said, ‘if the audience isn’t drawn in by now and taken by the emotion of the moment, I think we’ve lost them.’ It’s true of course also that they were executed sitting on chairs like this because out there in the veldt in South Africa there weren’t any trees and they used to sit them down, and in fact I was looking at some old newsreel film of some Italian resistance fighters and I saw that the Germans executed some of them sitting on chairs, so it wasn’t just here  …This was shot at an actual … we shot this over two dawns er, and it was organised like a military operation by Don McAlpine because the light was only proper, it was really only a dawn light for about fifteen minutes, so we filmed two mornings at tremendous speed. Again my storyboards helped …and again I think we only had one camera …and we just rushed from spot to spot getting the dawn light and it was so well organised by McAlpine that we did it. Luckily the two dawns were identical, er, so the matching was perfect.