Monday, January 31, 2011

Breaker Morant: The Empire's Stroked Back

During the Boer War three Australian officers are put on trial for murder. They are members of a counter terror unit formed against the new commando tactics the Boers are using.  So, when they summarily execute a number of enemy combatants in the field they do so knowing that nothing would come of it. When they are implicated in the killing of a local pastor it's murder and now so are the other cases.

So this can be proved or not according to evidence, yes? Well, yes and no. Witnesses can clear up events but the issue of whether the actions of Morant and crew can be justified is more difficult.Wartime communications had become quite breezy by the early 20th century and the delivery of accurate orders was a given. Morant's unit, however, was formed for Edwardian black ops and their orders were carefully left unrecorded.

And there's something else. This would be a minor trial if it weren't for the moves toward peace talks and the need for Britain to whiff rosily at them.Australia, just out of home and federated, is quietly crossing its fingers for a conviction, as you never know when you'll need mum do do your laundry. The accusations of ethical violation are being made at a time when Lord Kitchener in the top job has directly ordered Boer women and children bound to the engines of freight trains to prevent them being blown up by the commandos. Two of the three defendants have done what all alphas do well:make enemies.

The film delivers all of the above without ever feeling tiresome. Courtroom dramas allow for this kind of exposition with ease but the emotive power of the writing and performances ensure that these facts only add to the mounting stress of the situation. There is a palpable nervous energy in the courtroom that makes the recalled action, however violent, seem free and natural. Everyone in the room apart from the prosecutor whose unfazeable crystal-eyed aristocracy seems both proper and psychopathic (excellent field officer material, in fact). As for the rest, everybody seems to understand that they have either done wrong or will be required to. The light in the room is adequate for proceedings but the blaze through the windows is white, like liberty or death or anything that isn't this scene of corruption and stress. It presses in through the glass.

The sound in the courtroom is plagued by a big dull reverberation that can obscure lines. This feels intentional. It means that any point has to be made with clipped hard emphasis and anything ambiguous can be uttered and remain obscure. This also serves as a kind of cultural class divide as the colonials with their nasal accents need to speak with extra care if they want to be listened to as well as merely heard.

Jack Thompson was at the time the closest thing we had to a movie star. He was both the image of the golden-topped bronzed Aussie but also carried enough clear intelligence in his playing to offer an open of the door for the cliche. In Sunday Too Far Away he played an alpha dog ageing beyond his power. It remains a complex and centred perfomance. His bush lawyer in Breaker Morant builds on this figure (minus the sexuality of the earlier part). His earnestness shines here.

Edward Woodward emotes through his Roman bust handsomeness with an expert spareness. He is playing a character whose stoicism can break with force. There is a creepy vanity to his self control which expresses itself in a quiet contempt of any who do not share his experience. Woodward played a Le Carre like anti-hero spy in the 70s tv series Callan with a similar icy complexity and barely controlled sadness.

But if Morant is played as a kind of fossiled flaw in amber, Peter Handcock is an explosively violent reproduction engine, only effective as a soldier if kept in tight check. Bryan Brown's 80s yobbo persona has crawled into this role and it fits him like an undersized condom. His outbursts of anger or joy are unselfconscious and unstoppable. People who are aware of the person Brown presented at this time (in interviews etc) might complain that he's not doing that much acting but they would be underestimating an accomplished performance: a wild colonial boy in khaki.

And then there is Lewis Fitzgerald as Witton, the least culpable of the trio. His role serves thanklessly to add breathing space between the two more forceful men and the universe. Appropriately, the performance is muted, a young man who never considered himself capable of the brutality of his charge, whose ideals of family, country, commonwealth are articles of faith. Morant and Handcock both have the rogue male about them, taming their obstacles pragmatically, devil may care. Witton is more like the audience contemporary to the film's release, assured of the honest goodness of his life and puzzled to tears and anger at finding the opposite.

So far I think I've described a compelling drama well met with the big screen. But there is a major problem with this film. It stems from a single scene which would dismantle all the sturdy craft of the rest if that weren't so firm.

The British fort of its setting is attacked during the trial. The defendants are temporarily released and armed to help repel the invaders. They do so. Now, the film needs this action sequence. We need to witness these men act selflessly and we need to see them as regular soldiers. It allows their tragedy to resurface without plea.

It doesn't happen that way in the film, though. The soldier who frees them appears like a delivery boy, unlocking the cell doors and handing each prisoner a weapon. The trio then fall into action like wind-up toys and hit everything they aim at. They are a trio, aloof from the main soldiery who are falling about them in splayed agony, voicing variations on the Willhelm scream. Unironically, I’ve seen more affecting and profound depictions of heroism in war comics. 

The film is almost destroyed by this naiveté. A few shots of the characters simply fulfilling their training and instincts would have served the film better for in every war film the question of how much is the person and how much the uniform is ever present and correct. We need to see that these men who have already been shown performing brutal acts can also perform selfless ones. But the tone pursued is that of heroism and it almost reads as self centred pride as the accused stoop to help these tootsy Britishers (they do seem to be the only ones who can shoot straight and never seem to be in any danger). Later, when a plea to the redeeming power of this action is made it is rejected by the judges as mere duty. I'm meant to find this response angering but I just can't help agreeing with it.

Why couldn't this one sequence have been sobered up before it had to go on? It's the kind of thing a military prisoner might fantasise.If the film weren't playing so straight (and effectively so) I'd expect a scene reversing this and showing something more harrowing or mundane, something far removed from the boyish idealism of the original.

The film survives this and progresses toward a decorous if grim finale and leaves a heavy veil on the viewer. And this is what court martial drama should do. War itself is on trial in these stories; the uniform-deep ethics of humanity, their breaches and the correction of them, are under examination. Be the stages of these dramas ever so small and makeshift, they are the stages of giants and Breaker Morant features an interesting cast of them and they come from this country's history of parent figures.

Bruce Beresford  had spent the 70s making films that contributed to the notion of Australian identity, particularly the male. From Barry Mackenzie to Don's Party, he showed a readiness to plunge into depictions that left a lot of questions at the feet of the bronzed Aussie. While it might have been acceptable to ridicule the stodgey bloke in a middle class urban cage the idea of targeting the Australian soldier even before he had the chance to be an ANZAC was still too touchy a place. Calling an old forebear to account for brutal hypocrisy was safer but this time it served as a thin veil for the more recent adoptive parent that had helped keep us from invasion but drew us into a war as dodgy and unpopular as the one in on the veldt: Vietnam. The My Lai massacre was still present in public memory when this film was new. The losers in Breaker Morant were those who followed orders too well. They who lie down with empires.....

SHADOWS resumes screening in March (see program here)

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