'Breaker' Morant by Kenneth Ross
When they speak of heroes - of villains - of men who look for action, who choose between honor and revenge - they tell the story of
HERO OR VILLAIN ...his exploits shook an empire...and made him a legend.
"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." "THE BREAKER"
They were ordered to "take no prisoners"
A powerful true story of bitter revenge...
A true story of injustice and the horror of war
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.
Background to the Boer War
The year is 1899. Queen Victoria has recently celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. The British Empire is at its zenith in power and prestige. But the High Commissioner of Cape Colony in South Africa, Alfred Milner, wants more.
By October 1899 Britain considers the war over. But the Boers have a long and proud tradition in South Africa and are not about to give up so easily.
The British Army, unable to defeat the Boers using conventional tactics, adopt many of the Boer methods, and the war degenerates into a Weiproductions.com.au 2002-2007. Dr Lynne Vey Cel IT? a Registered Trademark. Page 1 of 10
devastating and cruel struggle between British righteous might and Boer nationalist desperation.
The Boer War is a watershed event for the British Army in particular and for the British Empire as a whole.
The British generals had a difficult time adjusting to the different tactics of a different war.
The Boers were a fast and highly mobile guerilla force, using the new smokeless cartridges in their German Mauser rifles which greatly concealed their positions; and they employed hit-and-run tactics that not only caused losses the British couldn't afford, but thoroughly frustrated the Empire's view of a 'fair fight'.
As costs and casualties mounted, with the generals continually professing that the end was near, and the war taking a bitter and brutal twist in the last two years, British public opinion soured. Thus began the long slow decline of support for the Imperial idea.
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MURDER OR JUSTICE?
February 27th 2002 marked the 100-year anniversary of the court martial and execution of Bushveldt Carbineers, Lieutenant Harry “Breaker” Morant and Lieutenant Peter Handcock. Found guilty by court martial of murdering Boer prisoners, both men claimed that they were acting under orders.
Morant was sent to fight a bloody war that ended with himself
centre stage in one of Australia’s greatest and most enduring
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There was a Breaker Morant - he was executed at Pietersburg
on February 27, 1901. His crime? Wilful murder of civilians. yet
to this day his guilt remains in doubt.
Harry 'Breaker' Morant was born in the United Kingdom - in 1865 by his own account but in 1864 according to later research, possibly under the name Edwin Henry Murrant.
He left England in April 1883 bound for Queensland where he married Daisy May O'Dwyer (later known more famously as Daisy Bates) - and quickly divorced - and took to droving and horse-breaking; hence the nickname.
In the late 1890s he enlisted with the South Australian Mounted Rifles to fight in the Boer War in South Africa. Along with P.J. Handcock, Morant was court-martialled for executing several Boer prisoners and a German missionary.
He was found guilty and executed by firing squad on February 27th 1902.
The story of his trial and execution was told in the 1979 film "Breaker Morant" with Edward Woodward as Morant, Bryan Brown as Handcock, along with Jack Thompson as the defending council, - the film was directed by Bruce Beresford. Morant was one of the 'back-block' bards of the 1890s and published the bulk of his work in The Bulletin magazine.
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A Poem by Harry Harbord "Breaker" Morant, Lieutenant, Bushveldt Carbineers
In prison cell I sadly sit -
A d-d crestfallen chappy!
And own to you I feel a bit-
A little bit - unhappy!
It really ain't the place nor time
To reel off rhyming diction- But yet we'll write a final rhyme
While waiting cru-ci-fixion!
No matteer what 'end' they decide- Quicklime? or 'b'iling ile? sir! We'll do our best when crucified
To finish off in style, sir!
But we bequeath a parting tip For sound advice as such men As come across in transport ship To polish off the Dutchmen!
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!
And if you'd earn a D.S.O.-
Why every British sinner
Should know the proper way to go
Is: 'Ask the Boer to dinner'!
Let's toss a bumper down our throat
Before we pass to Heaven,
And toast: 'the trim-set petticoat
We leave behind in Devon.'
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Breaker Morant – the film
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.
In Breaker Morant viewers are challenged not only by the violence of the war but also by the lack of fairness in the court martial. How does the film-maker achieve this?
Edward Woodward Lt. Harry "Breaker" Morant
Jack Thompson Maj. J.F. Thomas (defense attorney)
John Waters Cpt. Alfred Taylor
Bryan Brown Lt. Peter Handcock
Rod Mullinar Maj. Charles Bolton
Lewis FitzGerald Lt. George Witton
Based on a true story of an Englishman, Harry Harbord Morant (1864-1902), who falsely claimed descent from an aristocratic family and was forced to flee England to escape debts and being discharged from Royal Naval College. He left England in 1883 to start new life in Australia and made a name for himself as a “breaker” of horses and as a poet for the nationalist magazine The Bulletin. He
volunteered to fight in South Africa and joins other skilled Australian horseman in South Australian Mounted Rifles in January 1900.
Set at the time of the Boer War (1899-1902). Boers were Dutch settlers who went to South Africa in 16th century and who refused to submit to British imperial control. They sought to establish an independent Boer Republic. British and colonial troops (including Australian volunteers) were sent to crush the rebellion.
The Boers did not have a regular army but used armed farmers who fought in an "irregular" i.e. "guerrilla" manner. Like the Americans in Vietnam 65 years later, the British often could not tell the difference between combatant and non-combatant (no uniform, part-time fighters). Again like the Americans in Vietnam, the British attempted to separate the civilian Boers from the fighters by herding civilians into "concentration camps".
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1. What are the reasons that Morant, Handcock and Whitton give for
them enlisting to fight?
2. The film raises the question about how one fights a guerrilla war.
How do the British forces choose to fight this type of war? What
happens to the practice of this strategy when the German missionary
3. What was Morant’s job as a leader of the Bushveldt Carbineers? In
what ways was he effective at this position?
4. What is rule 303? What was its purpose for Morant and his men?
5. The story deals with the duties and responsibilities of the lower
officers and men to carry out immoral or questionable orders. How
does the court martial deal with this problem?
6. What did the Australians claim was Lord Kitchener’s order about the
Boers wearing British khaki? Why was this order denied?
7. What is a show trial? How could this trial be labeled as a “show
8. Should atrocities that are committed by civilised men who are caught
in an abnormal (uncivilised) situation be judged by normal civilian
laws and moral codes?
Breaker Morant follows the true story of three Australian soldiers in the Boer War put on trial for the killing of civilians. Were they guilty, or were they merely scapegoats for the actions of their superiors?
On trial for their lives, Harry 'The Breaker' Morant and his fellow defendants face being put to death to „protect the honour of the British Empire.‟ Their defence is summarised by the words above. Their jailers -
the representatives of Empire - dismayed at the conditions of war forced upon Woodward and his men by the tactics of Boer guerrillas in this new kind of war, are nonetheless unwilling to accept the necessity of opposing the guerrillas as they must.
As Morant says 'It's a new kind of war .... It's a new war for a new century.' A new century in which one's enemies 'shall be of thine own household.'
For an American audience, 'Breaker Morant' is Vietnam, the Prequel. In a Weiproductions.com.au 2002-2007. Dr Lynne Vey Cel IT? a Registered Trademark. Page 7 of 10
theme many American directors would later explore, all without Beresford's sure-footedness, it is the story of honourable men adjusting themselves to confront and defend themselves against the twentieth-century's collapse of values, only to find themselves buried - literally - by the values of those for whom they are supposed to be fighting.
Woodward‟s character shines, resolute in his certainty that he has done the right thing; that his Boer prisoners - shot 'under rule .303!' - deserved
everything they got; yet still disturbed at what this decision has done to his own humanity. As he walks to his death, he finds time to comfort his fellow prisoners: 'Live each day as though it were your last,' he says. 'One day
you're sure to be right.'
War is always a confused and brutal business, but when you pack soldiers off thousands of miles from home and tell them to prop up an obviously unstable government (otherwise the soldiers wouldn't be needed) and to shoot some of the foreigners, but not all of them, you virtually guarantee that atrocities (defined here as the willful killing of potential noncombatants) will follow.
And when it is a democracy that is sending the soldiers abroad, and when the war goes poorly, you virtually guarantee that someone, usually the grunts, will pay the price for these crimes.
Breaker Morant alludes to this fact himself when he quotes Lord Byron's poem written early in the 19th Century:
When a Man Hath No Freedom to Fight for at Home
George Gordon Byron (1788-1824)
When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home,
Let him combat for that of his neighbors;
Let him think of the glories of Greece and of Rome,
And get knocked on his head for his labors.
To do good to mankind is the chivalrous plan,
And is always as nobly requited;
Then battle for freedom wherever you can,
And, if not shot or hanged, you'll get knighted.
From Byron to Breaker Morant it has ever been the same. It is then the mark of an immature people to hold the soldiers solely responsible for these actions when they do occur, rather than to blame the society at large for putting them in the situation to begin with and for not being prepared to cope with such incidents when they do occur.
In the actual case upon which Breaker Morant is based, seven Bushveld
Carbineers were charged with shooting Boer prisoners and a German
missionary during the British-South African War.
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The film deals with the January 1902 trial of Lieutenant Harry "Breaker" Morant, a British ne'er do well who had emigrated to Australia and become a breaker of horses, and two native Australians, Peter Handcock and George Ramsdale Witton, all of whom were defended by Major Thomas, an inexperienced attorney from New South Wales.
It was a true kangaroo court, its verdict foreordained, and both Morant and Handcock were shot by a firing squad on February 27, 1902 (Witton's death sentence was reduced to life in prison and he was later freed by the House of Commons).
Bruce Beresford's terrific film version of these events avoids the staginess that typically afflicts courtroom dramas by the extensive use of flashbacks. The contrast of the wide open veld to the confines of court and prison in itself conveys the drastic difference between "civilization" and frontier. He gets excellent performances all around but especially from Edward Woodward (The
Equalizer), Bryan Brown, and Jack Thompson.
Woodward eats up the scenery as the boozy, intellectual, black sheep, Morant. Brown plays off him nicely as Handcock, all temper and appetite. And Thompson, as their attorney, starts out a bumbler but builds confidence as he scores unexpected points in court and finishes with a summation that, for my money, is one of the most powerful pieces of writing in film:
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... Even
though they commit acts which calmly viewed afterwards could
only be seen as unchristian and brutal...[W]e can not 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.
The thing that most stands out about that speech is that it could have been given by the defense attorney during any of a dozen wars that Britain and America have fought. But it is the conceit of civilized nations that we do indeed judge soldiers by peacetime standards, not by the circumstances that prevails in the situations in which we place them. And so Morant chooses as his epitaph Matthew 10:36:
And a man's foes shall be they of his own household.
And says of the whole patently unjust episode: This is what comes of
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up to. Breaker Morant forces us to confront them directly and, because of this, is an extraordinarily powerful and important film.
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