Australian Screen

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Breaker Morant (1979)

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clip 'This is what comes of Empire building' education content clip 2, 3

This clip chosen to be PG

Clip description

Morant (Edward Woodward) and Handcock (Bryan Brown) march to their executions. Their lawyer, Major Thomas (Jack Thompson) lingers in their makeshift cell – which looks to be a stable – to consider the epitaph that Morant has requested: 'And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household’, taken from Matthew 10:36.

Curator’s notes

The execution scene puts the final polish on the confusion of ironies that the film offers. We have seen these two men murder in cold blood, including a missionary, yet the ending swings sympathy their way, with a profoundly melancholy and beautifully mounted death scene. The question of innocence hangs heavily over the whole film – is it a film about unjust punishment of legitimate warfare, or a defence of war crimes?

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows lieutenants Harry 'Breaker’ Morant (Edward Woodward) and Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) being marched from the prison compound in Pretoria to their execution by firing squad in a nearby field. An extreme long shot shows Morant reaching out his hand to Handcock and the two walking hand-in-hand to two empty wooden chairs. After sitting down, they refuse the offer of a blindfold. The clip cuts between Morant and Handcock, and the firing squad of Cameron Highlanders as it prepares to fire. In a voice-over, Morant reads an abridged version of his final poem, 'Butchered to Make a Dutchman’s Holiday’. The final shot is a close-up of Handcock and Morant, with the latter calling out, 'Shoot straight you bastards. Don’t make a mess of it!’

Educational value points

  • The clip depicts the execution of lieutenants Harry 'Breaker’ Morant and Peter Handcock in Pretoria, South Africa, on 27 February 1902. Following a British court martial, the two men were found guilty of the murder of 12 Boer prisoners and sentenced to death by firing squad. They were acquitted of the murder of a German missionary who was on his way to report the murders.
  • The two men admitted to killing the prisoners, however, they claimed that they were acting on unwritten orders from General Lord Kitchener, commander-in-chief of British and colonial forces. The execution of Morant and Handcock created some disquiet in Australia in 1902, with opinion divided over the fairness of the trial and the severity of the sentences.
  • Harry 'Breaker’ Morant (c1864–1902) was an adventurer and skilled horsebreaker (hence the nickname) who came to Australia in 1883 from Britain where he was born. He served two tours of duty in the Boer War, enlisting with the 2nd Contingent, South Australian Mounted Rifles in 1899. In 1901, after acquitting himself with distinction, Morant was commissioned into a British-led unit of irregular soldiers called the Bushveldt Carbineers. Morant was also a balladeer whose work was published by The Bulletin magazine under the pseudonym 'The Breaker’.
  • The film provides an interpretation of events that occurred during the Boer War (1899–1902). The War was fought between Britain and Dutch–Afrikaner settlers, known as Boers, over the control of resources in southern Africa, which was divided into British colonies and independent Boer republics. Australia sent about 16,000 troops to serve in the War, and Australian men already in South Africa also joined British and South African colonial units.
  • Major James Francis Thomas, who defended Morant and Handcock, is portrayed in the clip. Thomas was an inexperienced lawyer from Tenterfield in New South Wales who was appointed to the defence the day before the trial commenced, giving him little time to prepare. While there is no evidence that the trial was fixed, it was conducted in secret and proceedings were closed to the press, with key military witnesses suddenly redeployed to India. After the verdict, Thomas attempted to make a personal appeal to Kitchener for clemency but the General had absented himself from army headquarters.
  • The clip illustrates the techniques used by director Bruce Beresford to portray the executions as a miscarriage of justice. As the two men walk hand-in-hand to their execution the camera remains fixed for 28 seconds and their retreat into the distance symbolises how they have been abandoned by the British. The scene also suggests that war is futile, a view that is underscored by the juxtaposition of Morant’s poem. In this sequence the slow and deliberate movement of the actors, the constant drone of wind and absence of dialogue combine to create a sense of tragedy.
  • The film depicts Morant and Handcock as scapegoats. This is made clear by the epitaph requested by Morant, his terse comment to Handcock, 'This is what comes of Empire building’ and the use of an abridged version of his final poem (the light and witty tone of which belies its savage criticism of British imperialism). The film supports the claim that Morant and Handcock were executed to prevent Germany from entering the conflict on the side of the Boers and to mollify the Boers as the War was drawing to a close.
  • Breaker Morant represents male identity and courage in particular ways. The depiction of Morant and Handcock as independent and physically tough men, whose egalitarian relationship is characterised by camaraderie, steadfast loyalty and a larrikin irreverence for authority, taps into the myth of the Australian 'digger’ or soldier that was to develop during the First World War. The film depicts Morant and Handcock clasping hands as they walk to their execution and this may be intended to suggest that their courage is partly a product of mateship.
  • The film’s director, Bruce Beresford was at the forefront of the 'new wave’ of Australian cinema in the 1970s. Breaker Morant, which some regard as his finest work, was well received when it was shown at Cannes Film Festival in 1980 and established his international reputation. The film won several awards at the 1980 AFI (Australian Film Institute) Awards, including Best Film and Best Director. Beresford’s films tend to explore issues of self, national identity and the clash between cultures or races. Since 1980 he has worked both in Australia and the USA.

Morant and Handcock are standing together with a soldier behind them.
Soldier Do you want the Padre?
Lt Harry Morant No, thank you. I’m a pagan.
Soldier And you?
Lt Peter Handcock What’s a pagan?
Morant Well, it’s somebody who doesn’t believe that there’s a divine being dispensing justice to mankind.
Handcock I’m a pagan too.
Morant There is an epitaph I’d like. Matthew 10:36.
Soldier All right gentlemen.
Morant Well Peter, this is what comes of Empire building.
Morant and Handcock walk away from their prison cells followed by two soldiers.

Inside the cell, Major Thomas talks with the priest.
Thomas Matthew 10:36?
Priest 'And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household’.
Thomas looks down at his feet.

An armed guard waits beside two empty chairs on top of a mountain. Morant and Handcock walk up, and grasp hands. There is an armed guard behind them. Morant and Handcock sit on the chairs, refusing the blindfolds offered by the guard. The two armed guards walk away, leaving Morant and Handcock sitting, watching the sunset. Morant’s poem is heard in voice-over as the soldiers in the firing squad prepare their rifles for the execution.

Morant It really ain’t the place nor time to reel off rhyming diction,
But yet we’ll write a final rhyme while waiting crucifixion.
For we bequeath a parting tip of sound advice for such men,
Who come across in transport ships to polish off the Dutchmen.
If you encounter any Boers, you really must not loot ‘em,
And if you wish to leave these shores, for pity’s sake don’t shoot ‘em.
Let’s toss a bumper down our throat before we pass to heaven,
And toast the trim-set petticoat we leave behind in Devon.


A soldier marches away from the firing squad to give the order.
Soldier Aim!
The firing squad aim their rifles at Morant and Handcock.
Morant Shoot straight, ya bastards. Don’t make a mess of it!

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