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Breaker Morant (1979)


In the Boer War in South Africa in 1901, three Australian 'irregular’ soldiers are tried by a British military court for the murder of 12 prisoners and a German missionary. The accused are Lieutenants Harry Morant (Edward Woodward), Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) and George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald). Morant, an English-born adventurer who has spent years in Australia, maintains he was following unwritten orders. Their inexperienced Australian lawyer (Jack Thompson) struggles to have his case heard.

Curator’s notes

The trial of Morant, Handcock, and Witton was enormously controversial at the time and remains so, more than 100 years later. The film rekindled the debate in 1980, but was itself attacked over accuracy. The script, based on a play by Kenneth Ross, argues that their trial was fixed from the outset. Lord Kitchener, head of the British forces, is shown agreeing that the soldiers must be sacrificed, in order to keep Germany from joining the war on the Boer side. At the same time, the film shows that the soldiers did kill the prisoners and the missionary. The question is whether these constituted war crimes and whether they got a fair trial.

With the recent war in Vietnam fresh in the public mind, these questions still had strong resonance in 1980. Debate still rages about whether Kitchener ever issued verbal orders to kill prisoners. The film represented Australia in the competitive section of the Cannes Film Festival in 1980. Jack Thompson won the festival’s best supporting actor award.