Home Video Hovel: Breaker Morant, by Tyler Smith
It’s hard to watch Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant and not think of Stanley Kubrick’s wonderful Paths of Glory. Both are films about soldiers railroaded by military bureaucracy, meant to boil our blood with rage. However, while Kubrick’s film features soldiers innocent of their crime, Breaker Morant is about something much more complicated: a case in which the accused are unquestionably guilty of their crimes. The question isn’t about their guilt or innocence, but of whether their actions are pardonable in wartime. Hardly an easy question, and one that Beresford explores with patience and understanding.
Based on the true story of Harry “Breaker” Morant, an Australian soldier swept up in a colonial war and eventual court martial, the film starts at the end and tells us the rest of the story through flashbacks. This is the first of many instances in which the writers subvert audience expectations to further get at the emotional truth of the film. While flashbacks often shed more light on the action, giving us a fuller picture, Breaker Morant‘s flashbacks only serve to complicate matters. Just as we start to think we understand the situation and form our opinions, along comes a flashback to illustrate that, no, we’re nowhere close to a satisfactory conclusion.
This is especially complex, because the film is told in such a seemingly straightforward way. It’s far from experimental, but, like many of Beresford’s other films, is quiet and naturalistic. I’d even go so far as to say the film feels simple. At first, anyway. But as things go along, we come to realize that the film isn’t telling an easy story about corrupt military officials and their innocent victims. As the story unfolds, we start asking questions about following extreme orders. From there, we start to wonder if those orders were necessarily wrong. Soon, we arrive at the very essence of war itself. It can take good people and make them do horrible things that few would have a problem with, given the context. It is a corrupting event, even changing our standards of good and evil.
By the end of the film, we start to see the accused and their superiors in the same light. Both are responsible for unthinkable actions performed in the name of winning the war. Soldiers, prisoners, civilians; all casualties on the way to eventual victory.
These are uncomfortable, complex realities put forth in what would at first appear to be a straightforward courtroom drama. It’s hard to know whose side to take. But, ultimately, it’s not about any one character or his possible innocence. Instead, we take the side of innocence itself; of civility and peace, as these crimes and accusations could only be possible during wartime. In telling the very specific story of three men standing accused of merely following orders, Bruce Beresford goes beyond those important questions and does something much bigger. He manages to make Breaker Morant one of the most impactful and effective anti-war movies of all time.