Still lapping up yarns of imperial betrayal
Breaker Morant 8.30pm, ABC2
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.
Hopping mad: Edward Woodward, Lewis Fitz- Gerald and Bryan Brown