Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


V036-02_BreakerMorantPosterJust up the road a ways from where I am writing this there is a military courts martial in progress.   Three Marines might be convicted of murdering an Iraqi man they kidnapped from his house, executed, and then staged the scene with an AK47 to make it look as though he had attacked them.    Other marines might be tried as well, but the three in the dock at present, and the crime for which they are there, took on a particular resonance to the film that I watched again in preparation for my trip to South Africa.


Breaker Morant is based ion a true story from the South African Boer War at the turn of the 19 th Century, when the British battled the erstwhile Dutch settlers who had wrested much of tip of the continent from the indigenous Black Africans.   Hegemony eventually went to the more numerous and stronger British forces, but the Boers, mostly farmers who considered this their homeland, were a formidable foe that fought with mobile “commando” units that the British considered “ungentlemanly” (probably how they felt about the American “Minutemen” as well).


Like Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the Boers were not uniformed and, although the term probably did not exist at the time, they fit the definition of “enemy noncombatants,” a convenience used to justify—along with the tactics of terrorists—deviations from the Geneva Conventions and other “rules” of war and the treatment of prisoners.   The Boers frustrated the British with their commando tactics and the British high command created cavalry units of Australians to counter them—the Bushveldt Carboniers.   Their encounters often took place out in the vastness of the African veldt, where they could be conveniently dispatched.


Breaker Morant (Edward Woodward), a consummate horseman, and a poet, and two other Aussies were Bushveldt Carboniers horsemen who were “carrying out orders” from the highest command, Kitchener himself. But were scapegoated for a political expediency [1] they could never have seen coming and, after a kangaroo courts martial, all three were convicted of murder, and Lt. Morant and Lt. Handcock (Bryan Brown) were executed by firing squad.   The third officer served three years on a life sentence and eventually wrote a book about the affair.


But none of this does the script, the acting, or the direction by Bruce Beresford, or even the location (shot in Australia) any justice, because they are permuted seamlessly into as gripping, poignant, and memorable an anti-war film as was Paths of Glory.   One feels the same sort of Aussie resentment for the treatment their British overlords and military officers gave them a few years later at Gallipoli [2] .   The fine speech by defense lawyer Lt. Thomas (Jack Thompson) about what a dirty business war is would make a good closing statement a century later.


There are other parallels between the history behind Breaker Morant and the sordid business behind the American war on Iraq.   The Boers were not so much invaders as colonizers, although when the local Bushmen and Hottentots got in their way they all but exterminated them. [3]   But South Africa had become their homeland, which made the British the invaders, just as the Americans are in Iraq.   The Brits were after diamonds and gold, just as we are after the crude.   As usual, the   “locals” end up as being characterized as “inferior” and “heathens” or infidels.   So guys (and now, gals) are dispatched to do the dirty work for the pols and the brass. The grunts often being “colonials” themselves from ghettos and across the Mexican border.   And when the politics intrude sometimes a nice show trial is the fix.


This is not to excuse the guys who took an innocent Iraqi out of his house, executed him and tossed his body in a ditch, or even Morant, who was a sensitive man, but may have lost his earlier restraint when a friend was mutilated by the Boers.     Are the Americans “under orders” as well?   Well, not likely, but they have a Commander-in-Chief who condones and promotes torture of prisoners.   Like the Boers their enemy are not uniformed, hence the ambiguity of “enemy noncombatants” that leads to “shoot them all and let God sort it out,” the way Rusty Calley reasoned about the Viet Cong in the My Lai massacre in 1968.  


The swirl of politics, religion and warfare can make culpability difficult to sort out, but usually it’s the guys as the bottom, not up where the “buck” supposedly stops, that get screwed and scapegoated [4] —you know, the current Bushian logic that there are “a few bad apples.”   The current scapegoats will not be executed, that would be bad politics; but the show will go on because the prevailing cover of this administration is the charade of the application of the “full extent of the law.”   It gets the problem off the radar.


So Breaker Morant has a classic, timeless, quality about it of a morality play (it was a play before it was filmed), that is sealed by superb performances, and a masterful employment of the visual grammar and temporal syntax of the motion picture.   It has a resonance today with the crimes of the privileged classes who send their ”colonials” out to do their dirty work, and praise them and punish them as the politics dictate.   It should be viewed with regularity, in every barrack.   Anti-war films have not ended wars, but films like Breaker Morant keep truth, the first casualty of war, from being the forgotten casualty.   “Shoot straight, you bastards,” Morant was recorded to have shouted just before the bullets tore into his chest.   He was speaking to his firing squad, who would do their best as “straight shooters,” not the upper echelons of the British Army.   By then he knew better.

©2006, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 10.7.2006)

[1] It seems that the Germans, who had colonial designs on S.E. Africa, were considering coming in on the side of the Boers, who were of Dutch ancestry and hence more like them than like the English, although Germany’s king was the nephew of the late Queen Elizabeth, who was like the queen termite for much of the royalty of Europe and bred offspring with the assistance of His Royal Gonads, Prince Albert, who was, Ja, ein Deutschlander himself.   The Germans were thinking of using the merciless slaughter of Boer prisoners—and we know what an aversion the Germans had of merciless slaughter—as a pretext to come to Africa (like the reason they invaded Poland was because they needed Polish sausage).   So, if the British could just convict and execute a few of their own “colonials” as a show of “good faith” they might be able to wait until 1914 to fight the Germans.   And you thought Iraq was complicated.

[2] That film (1981), directed by Australian Peter Weir, chronicles another case of the Brits sending their colonials off to their deaths, and launched the career of Mel Gibson.

[3] The Boers were Calvinists, who believed they were ”predestined” to rule the “descendants of Ham” (Blacks) described in the Old Testament.   So extermination was OK.   Some Boers were also French Huguenots, and equally self-exalted , racist and metaphysically ill.

[4] That master of cowardice, G.W. Bush, made sure that he would not be liable for war crimes when he has prisoners tortured by having it written into the bill being considered by the Senate.