773-774 Breaker Morant & Mister Johnson

Discuss DVDs and Blu-rays released by Criterion and the films on them. If it's got a spine number, it's in here. Threads may contain spoilers.
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Re: Breaker Morant (Bruce Beresford, 1980)

#26 Post by Sloper » Thu Feb 01, 2018 6:28 pm

I enjoyed this, especially when it had the courage to portray the three central characters in an ambiguous light: the execution of Visser is a chilling sequence, and while the killing of Hess is portrayed in a more distanced, elliptical fashion, this helps to underline Handcock's essential coldness (offsetting the apparent warmth of his visits to the two women, which we now realise occurred after he'd killed the missionary). I like how the film keeps us on edge for a long time, unsure how we ought to feel about these soldiers and what they've done.

Towards the end, everything is spelled out a little too clearly, and while the final execution is a powerful scene (the hand-holding, their eyes as they watch the sun rise), the patriotic song that plays over the final shots and the end credits really lays the irony on with a trowel. It's a shame because none of this on-the-nose stuff is necessary. Like Paths of Glory, it's an incisive film about the trickle-down of political hypocrisy in wartime, and we see the workings of this hypocrisy very clearly during the trial scenes.

In the more action-oriented scenes, I thought the editing was very effective in conveying the brutalised, traumatised mindsets of these soldiers, which Major Thomas refers to in his final big speech. Then there are the quieter long shots of beautiful but bleak vistas, as when Hess is killed, that suggest a kind of 'out of body experience', as if we're seeing things from a great distance to avoid the trauma of engaging with them. The jarring transition from the violence of the Boer attack to the ongoing court martial later the same day, with the judges refusing to acknowledge or consider the three soldiers' recent bravery, is a good example of how the film illustrates its central 'problem'.

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Re: Breaker Morant (Bruce Beresford, 1980)

#27 Post by DarkImbecile » Thu Feb 08, 2018 11:28 pm

I agree with Sloper's approving thoughts on the aesthetics of Beresford's film, especially the editing and the vivid landscape shots.

On the other hand, I'm not sure the comparison with Paths of Glory holds up entirely. While the Kubrick film focuses on actually innocent soldiers taking the blame for the failures of their craven leaders, Breaker Morant seems to want to argue that its protagonists are innocent because of the failures of their leaders, which I'm not sure I can get behind. The three accused Australians have actually murdered Boer fighters and non-combatant civilians in violation of the laws of war; that they were ordered to do so indicts their leaders and modifies the context of - but does not excuse - their own actions. Where the soldiers Kirk Douglas defends in Paths truly are innocent of the accusations against them, the defendants in Morant actually are fundamentally guilty (really only Morant and Handcock, as Witton seems to be mostly a bystander to the extrajudicial killings), and the film seems to argue that their orders, the realities of guerrilla warfare, and their bravery in action should outweigh the fact that they murdered people.

To get extra-textual for a moment, I'm ignorant of the motivations behind the film and the play from which it is adapted, but it's hard not to notice that the film was made and released less than a decade after the end of both American and Australian involvement in the Vietnam War, and it was hard for me not to read in that light the characters' protestations against those who don't understand what it's like to fight an enemy that, for example, uses hit-and-run guerrilla tactics and doesn't wear uniforms. I'm curious if anyone else landed here, but I couldn't help feeling like Breaker Morant drifted too far into being something that someone like Lt. William Calley might have pointed to as an apologia for his atrocities.

If the film's goal is to argue that the men who ordered the protagonists to win a colonial war at all costs - to say nothing of the system of imperialist capitalism that drove the war in the first place - are equally or even more culpable than the defendants were, I'd be on board, but it seems to go a step farther and make the claim that these men (especially the renaissance man and poet Morant) should not have been held accountable for what they did because of those other factors.

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Re: Breaker Morant (Bruce Beresford, 1980)

#28 Post by Sloper » Sat Feb 10, 2018 9:17 am

I'd agree with most of that - although just to nit-pick, the soldiers in Paths of Glory are guilty of failing to advance on, or of retreating from, the enemy, as everyone else was. But yes, morally they're innocent and that's a crucial distinction here.

It’s interesting to compare this film with Zulu, which on one level can be read as a searing anti-war film about how imperialist battles are often fought, on the ground, by people with no ideological stake in the cause they’re fighting for, but which on another level can be enjoyed by a certain kind of viewer because it’s about heroic British soldiers gunning down hundreds of Zulus
and being ‘saluted as fellow braves’ by the remaining Zulus at the end, which of course never happened.
That latter aspect isn’t just in the eye of the beholder, it’s something the film allows for and even encourages.

Breaker Morant, of course, isn’t just about soldiers standing their ground because they’ve received an absurd order to do so, it’s about soldiers committing murder because they’ve received an unofficial but nonetheless binding order to do so. But I think it has a similar problem. It wants to indict the generals, but it also wants to pay tribute to the ordinary soldiers; to do the former it has to show that these men have done something horrifying, but then, as you say, it wants to soften their characters, making Handcock a happy-go-lucky ‘ladies’ man’ and Morant a sensitive poet. Edward Woodward, in an interview, said that the real Morant was much more of a ‘bastard’ than he appears to be in the film, and I think that’s a problem. As I said above, the film is at its best when it really confronts the darker aspects of these men’s characters. As an actor, Woodward does a good job of making Morant seem kind of ugly and sinister, even (or perhaps especially) when he’s reading out one of his poems, but he needs a bit more help from the script.

Are we kind of saying that Breaker Morant should have been more like Apocalypse Now? As Willard says in that film, it’s dishonest to ‘cut someone in half with a machine-gun and then give them a band-aid’, but the film never humanises him or asks us to feel sorry for him, and he never feels sorry for himself or for anyone else. We find ourselves immersed in the hell that he’s sunk into, where there are no longer any clear distinctions between a Wagner-playing psychopath like Kilgore, a T.S. Eliot-spouting psychopath like Kurtz, an officious, civilised psychopath like General Corman, or Willard himself, who has long ago turned into a mindless, hollow, killing machine. Breaker Morant does go some way to showing how brutalised, and how inured to brutality, these soldiers have become, but you’re right that its ambivalent attitude to the characters ultimately seems a bit morally confused.

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