Tuesday, September 22, 2015

He'll Never Get to Heaven if He Doesn't Die

Last night, I spent a decent amount of time reading about the life, court-martial trial, and execution of Harry "The Breaker" Morant. Not so much that I could confidently claim that the amount of time spent thusly had been decent enough, but I was enlightened anyway, to the extent that I'm able now to look at one of my favorite films, Breaker Morant from 1980, directed by the underappreciated Bruce Beresford, a key film in the Australian New Wave, and now out on Blu-ray, most deservedly and, to me, unexpectedly, from The Criterion Collection, in a new way. Before Saturday, it had been many years since I'd last watched it, and when you watch it as a young person, or when watched it as a young person anyway it can appear rather less complex than it is. Though in fairness to the young, there are good reasons why it might be partially misunderstood, which I'll get to. But when you learn about the real Morant, the sense that the film is "merely" a very strong example of the courtroom drama, with grit and a British-hating twist to it, begins to not just fall away, but to feel absurd.

In 1901, during the Second Boer War, which was waged between the British (with the assistance of forces pulled from their colonies, such as Ireland and Australia) and South Africa (allied with a Dutch sovereign republic located there, populated by Dutch farmers known as Boers) for reasons the explaining of which I thank God it doesn't currently fall under my purview to take a shot at, Morant, in command of a British Army unit called the Bushveldt Carbineers, ordered the execution of several Afrikaner soldiers, who had just surrendered and been disarmed. Later, a German minister named Heese, who had witnessed the crime, was murdered, apparently at Morant's behest, and to keep him quiet. Three men were subsequently arrested for these killings: Lt. Peter Handcock, Lt. George Witton, and Harry Morant, also a Lieutenant, and their commander. The motivation for murdering the POWs was, allegedly, the earlier death in combat of the unit's previous commander, and Morant's friend, Captain Hunt. Complicating matters, prosecutorialy-speaking, was the question of whether or not orders had come down from British high command that no prisoners were to be taken. Complicating matters as far as the legend of Breaker Morant goes is the fact that Witton, Handcock, and Morant were Australian, but they were being tried (and in the cases of Morant and Handcock, executed) by their colonial masters, the British. Witton, who ended up only serving a short prison sentence, would eventually write a book about the case called Scapegoats of the Empire, which, as you might imagine, excoriated the British and called the trial a farce. Many believe this book, among a few other things, went a long way towards positioning Morant as a man who was railroaded, a brave and fiery innocent who had to pay the price for the Empire's callous overreaching. Which is roughly where things get interesting.

There is very little reason, you see, to believe that Morant, Handcock, and Witton were anything but quite guilty, and against the belief that Morant was a hero, there has risen in Australia a counter-movement which hopes to show that the preponderance of evidence, then and now, proves that Morant, Handcock, and Witton were murderers. I can't pretend that I'm an expert on this case by any stretch, but what fascinates me, and what brings us here tonight, is that one of the things that these historians have had to battle against is Beresford's film, which has inspired many of its viewers to regard the story as one of straightforward injustice, with Morant the primary victim of it, crushed under the boot of etc. But what I'd somehow never noticed about Breaker Morant, or let's be generous and say I'd forgotten it, is that that's not really what it is at all. Or almost not at all. A film which once struck me as so classical now seems deeply strange.

The movie stars Edward Woodward as Morant, Bryan Brown as Handcock, Lewis Fitz-Gerald as Witton, and Jack Thompson as Major Thomas, their attorney. Fitz-Gerald's Witton is the young, scared, naive soldier who depends for his education about this world of military legal madness and potential education on the bitter, witty cynicism so expertly projected by Woodward and Brown, and the nose-to-the grindstone efforts, as well as a kind of realistic hopefulness, of Thomas, which is a state of mind that Jack Thompson seems to be actually living through as we watch. Woodward and Brown, as I've said, play their roles as men who refuse to give up and don't want to die and don't think they deserve to, but their experience of the British Army has been such that they can't quite imagine any other outcome. Early on -- and this is a pure courtroom film, by the way, with flashbacks to the killings and the events surrounding them, interspersed -- as Thomas, who has had less than one day to prepare a defense before the trial begins, is offering objections and motions that are dismissed almost out of hand by the lead judge Lt. Colonel Denny (Charles Tingwell), we see Morant and Handcock glance at each, shaking their heads out of frustration, but not surprise.

The whole tone of the film matches Handcock and Morant's fatalism. Beresford uses no score, the only music being that which is occasionally played by a military brass band who appear on screen. That can of irony can't help but bode poorly for those on trial. Though Woodward, and Morant, is the star, this sort of choice by Beresford seems to favor Brown, and Handcock. Brown is really wonderful, his face almost motionless even when he's angry, which is often, but his eyes are magnificent, staring not just through you, but through the wall behind you as well. When he speaks out in court, it's fast, in a bark, and it's always a sarcastic joke. He's fucking pissed and he doesn't believe anything he or Thomas might do will help him, so he might as well tell these people what he thinks of them. The editing matches him, seems almost to follow his lead. Again, it's a courtroom film, which would seem to invite long takes, a certain slowness, but Beresford and editor William M. Anderson cut Breaker Morant, which is only about 90 minutes long, pretty fast. There are shots that last barely a second. Which isn't to say the film is frenetic, but rather, simply, that it moves. There's a frenzy in the air, as at stake is justice for almost two dozen murdered men, and the possible execution of three more. And that frenzy makes the film fast. But with no music. The film is quiet and fast. This is a style that make the courtroom formula, which on some level must be avoidable unless your aim is to turn it on its ear, feel vibrant, or rather desperate.

But they're guilty. Morant, Handcock, and Witton, and Morant and Handcock especially, killed those men, or gave the orders to have them killed. I'm not speaking here about the actual history (although from what I can tell it seems hard to deny their guilt in the real world, too); I'm talking about the film. This film, which has somehow fueled the popular belief that they were innocent, portrays them as guilty. It does argue that a "no prisoners" order was given, and it does very briefly show that Morant may have initially been conflicted about that order, but when the power was his he followed it with gusto. I'll say more about Woodward in a minute, but speaking of "no prisoners," there's a real Peter O'Toole light in Morant's eyes here.

The person most bewildered by the popular reading of Breaker Morant is Bruce Beresford, who, in this rather interesting 1999 interview, which provides an overview of his career up to then, says:

I read an article about it recently in the LA times and the writer said it's the story of these guys who were railroaded by the British. But that's not what it's about at all. The film never pretended for a moment that they weren't guilty. It said they are guilty. But what was interesting about it was that it analysed why men in this situation would behave as they had never behaved before in their lives. It's the pressures that are put to bear on people in war time. Look at the atrocities in Yugoslavia. Look at all the things that happen in these countries committed by people who appear to be quite normal. That was what I was interested in examining. I always get amazed when people say to me that this is a film about poor Australians who were framed by the Brits. That was not what the film was about for me. And I never said that.

And if you're watching Breaker Morant and thinking "Those goddamn British," you might want to take a moment and think about what the prosecution and the judges are arguing for: fair treatment of POWs. Now, of course, if a "no prisoners" order was given then from some quarters, in the course of all this, hypocrisy is playing a part. But is that all there is? Can the prosecution of these killers of a couple dozen men, one of whom was nothing more than a witness to their other crimes, really be boiled down to mere hypocrisy? Are they wrong? Does their hypocrisy absolve Morant? Are we now prepared to accept "I was just following orders" as a valid excuse?

On the other hand, the film does depict the trial as unfair; Tingwell's Denny is almost a bit too much in his portrait of a man whose mind is made up. I do have to wonder why, if Beresford never intended for audiences to see the story as that of three men who have been railroaded, why the prosecution and the judges are shown as so dismissive, unbending, and unsympathetic, torturing with their obtuseness even the undeniably noble Major Thomas. You can certainly simultaneously believe that the defendants were killers and that the trial was iffy, but there's an unbalance in portrayal which, when the true thrust of the film finally hits home, can be almost disorienting.

It's enough, at times, almost, to make you think that Breaker Morant wants you to understand that these men were guilty, but that collectively we should let them all off the hook. But no, that's not what's going on here, because quite clearly, what interests Beresford the most is Morant. And casting Woodward, who was English, not Australian, was a masterstroke. In his 2004 commentary track ported over for the new Criterion release, Beresford says that he cast Woodward mainly because he looked so much like the real Harry Morant, but Woodward is so extraordinary that he could have looked like me and he would have still been the perfect choice.

If the film seems to match the rhythms of Brown's Handcock more than those of its titular character, I'd say this makes sense. The real Morant was a somewhat well-known poet (some of which is read in the movie by Woodward), and Woodward plays him as a man who somehow projects aristocracy and everyday approachability at the same time. He seems well-liked by his men, and they're loyal to him, but he has more education, and interests and ambitions which are quite unlike those of the men in his command. He seems like he should be at the table with the other judges during the trial, but he isn't. As such, liked or not, he's apart. He's apart from the film too, in a way. Woodward was a unique presence -- he didn't seem like a guy who could, or even should, make an entire movie bend to the will of his personality, but he was capable of it, and he does it here. His Morant is such an engaging yet disturbing enigma (but, as Beresford notes, would he ever have done anything like this if his friend hadn't been killed?) that Breaker Morant the film ends up feeling as though it's being held up for examination by Morant -- by Woodward's Morant. As though it's one of his poems. Which, as the ending suggests, it sort of is.


John said...

Yes, but I don't know that there was ever any doubt of their guilt. The strong feelings on the matter, as far as I'm aware, come precisely from their being used as scapegoats by the British, whose troops were doing much the same thing they were singling out these Australians for, in order to deflect criticisms of the handling of the war away from the empire. Essentially, the trial was a mere formality for the British, the men had been condemned more for political reasons than out of any sense of justice. That's certainly the impression the movie left me with, though admittedly it's been a long time since I last saw it.

JBW said...

Yeah-- Morant ordered his prisoners killed. So did Shakespeare's Henry V. But Morant besides writing poetry sings charmingly, fully uniformed in a parlor-- was surprised you didn't mention that alongside the poetry, since that scene (along with the horsebacked Boers lighting explosives with their cigars) is what I remember best from my only viewing. His is the classic image of gentleman-soldier--in movie terms, that trumps battlefield homicide any day.