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Breaker Morant  

Many anti-war films work on the feeling that war is fundamentally absurd; that both the rules and the actions of war are beyond the rational scope of civilized humanity. Such a belief is powerfully stated in the 1979 Australian film Breaker Morant.

The story, based on fact, is about the court-martialling of three Aussie soldiers during the Boer War. The soldiers are accused of killing a Boer solider and a German missionary, in both cases, in a fashion which apparently breaks the rules of warfare as set out by the British (who the Australians were fighting for at the time). The Boer solider was apparently killed as revenge for a Boer attack which killed a general, while the missionary, a German, whose country sympathized with the Boers, was simply killed for no good reason at all. The entire film focuses on the case and the events surrounding it, and does not include any extraneous or useless sub-plots. And you will also discover that, no matter what happens, there will be no winners and losers, good guys and bad.

The defense appears to have a rough road ahead right from the start. Their lawyer is a small-time attorney, inexperienced in court-martial cases case of any kind, who is given only one day to prepare his case. The first trial day has him ruffling papers in an attempt at organization. As the trial moves on, however, the lawyer's inexperience is the least of the problems, as you will see that the case is not simply about punishment for wrongdoing, but a showcase of the true intentions of every side of this dispute, as well as the nature of warfare.

The British seem quite prepared to punish these soldiers, as a show to the Boers that the British can indeed accommodate an impartial system of justice, even as the crime is the killing of the enemy. The Brits' prejudice of the Aussies also plays a major part. The British put on this show because they want to hide the fact that some of the groups on the battlefield were given strict orders to kill all Boer prisoners, at all times. This barbarious order is not something the British want released into the public.

As well, the motives of the soldiers are not so innocent either. The highest ranking of the three is a very hot-tempered sort, and therefore, the presentation of his actions requires some thought. Yes, he is following orders, but is he really behaving impartially, or is revenge his motive?

The final argument of the defense, and the movie, seems to be that it is absurd to punish in a situation which by its very nature is removed from society, both legally and morally. War changes people, and so it is only logical to assume that people will behave differently in the warfield, either by force or their own will.

I didn't expect this film to be as good and as interesting as it was. I expected it to be more along the lines of The Caine Mutiny, another movie about a possible crime from the inside. While that movie was pretty good, it wasn't nearly as complex about the nature of war. While that movie had a fairly clear definition between the villain (Humphrey Bogart's mad captain), and the good guys (most of the men who orchestrated the mutiny), and also had justice properly served during its court-martial, Breaker Morant does not have such a clear-cut depiction. The movie does not allow you to take sides against the other, but forces you to face the selfish and primitive truths behind what many countries like to present as noble and necessary wars. The storytelling and direction itself are brilliantly presented, with great editing of the court-martial scenes and the incriminating events of the battlefield, leading up to the tragic and terrifically presented final shots.

David Macdonald

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