Still lap­ping up yarns of im­pe­rial be­trayal

Breaker Mo­rant 8.30pm, ABC2

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

AS a film Breaker Mo­rant is not show­ing its age. Al­though it is push­ing 30, di­rec­tor Bruce Beres­ford has ev­ery right to re­main proud of this ex­cel­lently as­sem­bled work. It looks fab­u­lous, with the stark South Aus­tralian land­scapes stand­ing in for the veldt across the In­dian Ocean.

Bryan Brown as lar­rikin lieu­tenant Peter Han­cock is ev­ery­body’s ideal of the cyn­i­cal work­ing- class Aus­tralian. Ed­ward Wood­ward as the Breaker reprises his role as television’s cyn­i­cal spy David Cal­lan: tough and tal­ented but not quite a gen­tle­man. And Lewis Fitz- Ger­ald com­pletes the trio of Aus­tralians be­ing court- mar­tialled.

It is, de­spite the oc­ca­sion­ally clunky di­a­logue, well writ­ten. And, a few com­bat scenes aside, Beres­ford holds au­di­ence in­ter­est with what is es­sen­tially a court­room drama.

Given that Aus­tralians were mak­ing com­mer­cial films of this qual­ity so far back, it makes you won­der what has gone wrong since then.

As a po­lit­i­cal state­ment Breaker Mo­rant is also from an­other age, one when the Bri­tish, not the Amer­i­cans, were the de­spised im­pe­ri­al­ists du jour, ( un­less the for­mer were in­tended as metaphor for the lat­ter). With apolo­gies to read­ers who al­ready know the story ( which must in­clude ev­ery­body over 30) the plot fo­cuses on the fate of Aus­tralian mounted in­fantry lieu­tenants in the Boer War who were tried for killing un­armed en­e­mies.

Ac­cord­ing to the film, the Bri­tish high com­mand had put the word out to shoot pris­on­ers. But when a Ger­man mis­sion­ary was killed the Brits de­cided scape­goats were re­quired to deny the Kaiser a chance to in­ter­vene in the war.

And when the Brits need hu­man sac­ri­fices who bet­ter to use than Aus­tralians, fit­ted up in a kan­ga­roo court? ( Al­though the way we are sup­posed to feel sym­pa­thy for men who shot pris­on­ers and in­voked the ‘‘ fol­low­ing or­ders’’ defence rather takes the gloss off the yarn.)

Beres­ford seized on the idea that the in­com­pe­tent, in­ef­fec­tual Brits abused the trust and took the lives of Aus­tralians to serve the in­ter­ests of the em­pire. Strike ‘‘ seized’’ and re­place with ‘‘ laid on with a trowel’’. Ac­cents apart, you can tell the Brits; they are the ones with the waxed mous­taches and ef­fete con­tempt for true blue sol­diers who ride and fight bet­ter than them.

And back then we lapped it up, with The Week­end Aus­tralian ’ s Geral­dine Pas­call de­scrib­ing it ‘‘ as a sig­nal that Aus­tralia is ca­pa­ble of po­lit­i­cal in­de­pen­dence and doesn’t have to bend the knee cul­tur­ally ei­ther’’.

Some are lap­ping still. The ar­gu­ment that Mo­rant was scape­goated still has its sup­port­ers and back in 2002, Kevin Rudd in­voked the Breaker’s treat­ment by the bad Brits to jus­tify Aus­tralia sign­ing on to the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court.

It’s a film worth watch­ing, not least for what it tells us about the way we see our­selves as hostages to great and pow­er­ful, but false, friends.

Stephen Matchett

Hop­ping mad: Ed­ward Wood­ward, Lewis Fitz- Ger­ald and Bryan Brown

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