Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Bruce Beresford (director), Jonathan Hardy, David Stevens, Bruce Beresford (screenplay writers), Breaker Morant (1980)

The film Breaker Morant (1980) was directed by Bruce Beresford and co-written by Bruce Beresford with Jonathan Hardy and David Stevens who based their screenplay on the play Breaker Morant by Kenneth Ross (1978).   It is a historical epic and anti-war film that centres on the courtroom drama involving the trial of three Australian soldiers accused of war crimes at the close of the Boer War (1899−1902).  They are presented as having been unjustly sacrificed, used as pawns by the British imperial high command in political games intended to bring the war to a satisfactory conclusion.  In this republican and anti-imperial film, the cinema audience is invited to see the British imperial high command as not acting in the interests of the new nation of Australia, which implies that Australia would be better off as independent from Britain and the British Empire.

In addition, while appearing to celebrate the qualities in Australian soldiers that would later be appreciated as the ANZAC spirit, like ingenuity and mateship, the film also explores the complexities of the psychological impact of war on human behaviour and the problematic nature of distinguishing war crimes.  The film implies that if atrocities were committed they were committed by otherwise normal people in extraordinary circumstances and that the impact of war on human behaviour is one of the most morally troubling dimensions of war. 

The filmmakers display considerable scepticism regarding the ability to define some acts of war as ‘war crimes’. The film suggests that war creates an environment that can bring out the worst side of human nature and the application of moral and legal standards that are viable in peacetime are extremely problematic during wartime.  Combat has a logic of ruthless necessity that requires otherwise ordinary, civilised moral men to kill other human beings.  Often it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between a killing that is legitimate in war and a killing that is illegitimate and therefore murder. 

The film also explores the issue of moral culpability and the defence used by many of those accused of war crimes that they were ‘acting under orders’. The film invites the cinema audience to reflect upon who is responsible: is it those who follow possibly unjust orders or those who give them?  Generally, the film suggests that commanders are more culpable than junior officers and soldiers, although the right of a junior officer or solder to refuse to obey an unjust order is established as an option.  This suggests that those who obey an unjust order bear some of the responsibility in contrast to those who refuse such orders.  The cinema audience is invited to reflect upon the complexity of war crimes in relation to the two wars where the concept was most famously applied, the Second World War and the Vietnam War.  

The treatment of these three Australian soldiers, in what is depicted as a rigged trial that served wider political objectives, provided a vehicle for the filmmakers to mount a critique of the ruthless realpolitik and utilitarian ethics of the British imperial high command that treated these colonial Australians as expendable.  In this respect, the film reflects the new nationalism that emerged in the 1970s that stripped traditional Australian nationalism of its residual imperialism and pro-British sentimentality, while incorporating additional values drawn from the emerging politically correct Left, such as pacifism and anti-racism.  The film also reflects the rise in republican sentiments among the Left in Australia after the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor Government by the Governor-General in 1975.      

The film places the cinema audience in the position of a jury, inviting them to assess the evidence presented in testimony and flashbacks to conclude that the accused soldiers were caught up in the morally compromising circumstances of war while those in the British high command were guilty of gross injustice.  The British elites are presented as aloof, and as undesirable overlords who display a racist sense of superiority over colonial peoples, such as the Australians.  The film implies that Australia should move further from its origins as an outpost of the British Empire to become a fully independent nation.

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2021 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Breaker Morant meaning, Breaker Morant themes, Breaker Morant analysis, Breaker Morant notes