Midway through Breaker Morant, the titular character, a lieutenant for the Bushveldt Carbineers, springs to his feet inside of a courtroom, marches toward the prosecutors, and proclaims, with scorn, that “we shot them under rule 303!” Morant, played by Edward Woodward, is on trial to be court-martialed for the execution of several Boer prisoners during the Second Boer War in South Africa circa 1902, but director Bruce Beresford lets the historical details consistently drift to the edges of the frame in favor of striking, dynamic moments that amplify the decisions of the three Australian men under investigation. The “303” line is a perfect example of this, as a cutaway to a close-up of a rifle being fired, with the numbers quickly coming into view, stands in for further explication of exactly what Morant means. The moment, and others like it throughout the film, is akin to a kind of intellectual montage, where the rapid juxtapositioning of images remains fully in service of narrative, but economical and distended in its evocations. In effect, Beresford employs a “way of the gun” visual metaphor that’s simultaneously literal and metonymic, a part standing in for the whole, but also the very part that enables the trial’s circumstances in the first place.
A time-jumping narrative that’s rooted inside the linear temporal unfoldings of a pre-determined trial, Breaker Morant is like a conventional bloke in art—house clothing—but oh, what garb he has. Beresford takes the lore of Morant, a real-life figure whose nickname “Breaker” comes from his reputed ability to train and “break” horses, and lends it a balance that at once enshrines Morant’s martyrdom, but refuses an outright act of hagiography by insisting that the gory details of his deeds, including the killing of a German missionary, be included—details that were omitted in Kenneth Ross’s play, from which the film is adapted. As such, Morant, along with Lt. Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) and Lt. George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), sit accused of allegedly unorthodox slayings following the death of their own Capt. Simon Hunt (Terence Donovan), and are defended by Maj. J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson), a fish-out-of-water type given one day to prepare for the trial—his first as a defense lawyer. They’re under persecution from Lord Horatio Kitchener (Alan Cassell), who insists that these men—his own men—be brought to justice for their deeds, as a peace offering to the Boers at the war’s conclusion.
Beresford keenly stages courtroom scenes, both for their exposition and spatial dynamics. When the men are charged with placing carriages in front of trains to prevent further Boer insurrection, Thomas reveals that the tactics were both effective and continue to be used, which forces the witness into a fumbling response. The men aren’t innocent, the film says, but they’re clearly being railroaded to service other ends. Beresford arrives at these moments not through simple shot/reverse-shot exchanges, but varied, even noirish lighting and camera setups that reveal the film’s seams, especially when a high-angle view of the entire courtroom cuts into a brief, fourth-wall-breaking address from Handcock.
Likewise, moments from the past intrude on the trial’s progression, at times providing full details, as in Capt. Hunt’s death, or merely flashes, as when Morant remembers his wife’s face. Furthermore, even concurrent events happening just outside of the courtroom, like the assassination of a witness, aren’t given a concrete unfolding, especially considering the film’s consistent leaps into the past. The effect, then, is a comprehensive imbalance between truth and fiction, reality and artifice. The only aural unification comes by way of a brass band that appears throughout the film, more as a spatial marker than a dramatic supplement. Beresford forgoes a film score, amplifying gunshots and voices in an often silent film, techniques that recall film scholar Peter Bondanella’s assessment of Italian neorealism, where “realism…must be created through artifice.” That seeming contradiction informs Breaker Morant, especially in the second half, as the narrative threads converge, much like with neorealism, into inevitable tragedy.
The film’s only glaring mistake is a lengthy monologue by Thomas near the trial’s end, where already apparent thematic through lines regarding injustice receive on-the-nose lines like “war changes men’s natures” and “if this continued, court martials would be a permanent session.” Such a talky staginess mistrusts the film’s previously collage-like aplomb, rendering the penultimate moment, before an eerie dissolve that removes all human figures from the courtroom, a prolonged and needlessly soapboxed capper. Yet the passage can hardly dull the final precision of Breaker Morant, especially once Morant delivers the backbreaker of a line, “this is what comes of empire building,” a far more piercing sentiment that effectively captures the spirit of a man whose only response when facing death via institutional forces is a characteristically defiant sarcasm, with the implicit recognition that he, too, cannot escape rule 303.
Previous North American DVD releases of the film, like those from Fox Lorber and Image Entertainment, were serviceable presentations, but nowhere near as vibrant and essential as this Bruce Beresford-approved transfer. From the opening few minutes, which cut from a scene set in stark daylight to a blue-dominant night location, the level of detail is remarkably evident, especially in wide shots, where depth of field remains constant throughout. That is, in effect, what makes this transfer such an improvement, as Beresford’s careful attention to color timing and staging comes to the fore of nearly every scene. Likewise, sound is boisterous for the monaural mix and one further realizes how silent the film often is, with the lack of a typical score or anything by way of music, aside from a recurring brass band within the film. Edward Woodward’s performance benefits most from this sound mix, as his forceful line deliveries and gentle recitation of a poem, before the character is shuffled to the gallows, gain even more presence and fatalistic certitude than ever before.
With a commentary track by Bruce Beresford, interviews with almost half a dozen cast and crew members, a new video essay, and a feature-length documentary, Criterion has checked all boxes when it comes to comprehension for this standout Blu-ray release. The commentary, recorded in 2004, nicely complements the Beresford interview, done in 2015, as all phases of the film’s production and significance are touched on. Beresford is a great companion for the commentary, though he’s prone to dropping out for significant periods in its second half. He explains the film’s meager budget, how he storyboards nearly every shot, and even offers useful tidbits for aspiring filmmakers, like how he would frequent pubs and glean bits of exchanges for dialogue in the film. A 2004 interview with actor Edward Woodward details his initial interest in making the film; likewise, cinematographer Donald McAlpine and actor Bryan Brown recount their experiences during the shoot. More imperative, however, is a video essay on the Boer War by historian Stephen Miller and "The Breaker," a 1973 documentary on the real Harry "Breaker" Morant. These are the kinds of supplements Criterion should seek to include on nearly every release, especially those with any basis in historical events. Finally, the film’s theatrical trailer and an essay by film scholar Neil Sinyard complete this diverse menu of extras.
Criterion reaches the Great Beyond with their miraculous 4K Blu-ray of Breaker Morant.