This Australian war drama film concerns the 1902 court martial of lieutenants Harry Morant, Peter Handcock and George Witton—one of the first war crime prosecutions in British military history. Anyone who has seen this film won’t forget the closing lines and level of final defiance while facing death: ‘Shoot straight, you bastards – don’t make a mess of it‘. This quote is iconic in Australian film folklore. The film won ten Australian Film Institute awards and was nominated for the 1980 Academy Awards although it wan’t that successful commercially.
The movie in ‘feel’ and context is similar to another one of Australia’s most cherished movies Gallipoli released just after Breaker Morant, which was compared here with the recent effort – 1917.
During the Boer War, three Australian lieutenants are on trial for shooting Boer prisoners. Though they acted under orders, they are being used as scapegoats by the General Staff, who hopes to distance themselves from the irregular practices of the war. The trial does not progress as smoothly as expected by the General Staff, as the defence puts up a strong fight in the courtroom.
It is seemingly an overtly patriotic Australian film which denounces British tyranny and rule over Australia, but the director had words to say about that. In a 1999 interview Beresford explained that Breaker Morant “never pretended for a moment” that the defendants were not guilty as charged. He had intended the film to explore how wartime atrocities can be “committed by people who appear to be quite normal“.
In the film the British military is determined to kill the defendants. According to the Australian historians Margaret Carnegie and Frank Shields, Morant and Handcock rejected an offer of immunity from prosecution in return for turning king’s evidence. Military prosecutors allegedly hoped to use them as witnesses against BVC Major Robert Lenehan, who was believed to have issued orders to take no prisoners. But in my meagre estimation, that’s a harsh penalty when you have good reasons to know they were just following orders and not going to inform on a senior figure.
1. Breaker Morant (film) – Wikipedia
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