BB born in Sydney in 1940, studied philosophy at Sydney University. Worked briefly in advertising and then ABC TV in late 1950s before moving to London. Head of production at the British Film Institute Productions Board 1966-70 where he specialised in short film documentaries. In 1971 returned to Australia. Association with Philip Adams and the renaissance of the Australian film industry.


  • the vulgar, beer-swilling "comedy" Barrie McKenzie Holds His Own (1974)
  • Don's Party (1975) about an election night party of "true believers"
  • the story of a religious boys' boarding school The Getting of Wisdom (1977)
  • a film about the Boer War, the British Empire and military justice Breaker Morant (1980)
  • The Fringe Dwellers (1987) about an aboriginal family which moves from a shanty town to a city suburb
  • Sydney "surfie chicks" rebel against being treated like slaves and take to the waves (to the disgust of their "boy friends") Puberty Blues (1981).
  • American debut with Tender Mercies (1983).
  • Since then has worked in both countries with mixed success: a biblical epic King David (1985)
  • Oscar winning Driving Miss Daisy (1989) about the relationship between a elderly Jewish woman and her black chauffeur
  • Black Robe (1991) ranks with Breaker Morant as his 2 best films - about the relations between a French Jesuit priest and Algonquian Indians in 17thC Canada.


Based on a true story of an Englishman, Harry Harbord Morant (Edward Woodward) (1864-1902), who falsely claimed descent from an aristocratic family and forced to flee to escape debts and being discharged from Royal Naval College, leaves England 1883 to start new life in Australia. Makes a name for himself as a "breaker" of horses and poet for the nationalist magazine The Bulletin. Volunteers to fight in South Africa and joins other skilled Australian horseman in South Australian Mounted Rifles in January 1900. Made dispatch rider, promoted to corporal then sergeant, served at battle of Bloemfontein and several other engagements. Considered staying on in South Africa as settler, joined Cape Constabulary rising to rank of Lt. Returned to England and was engaged to perhaps two different women - one of which was sister of friend Cpt Hunt of prestigious 13th Hussars. Re-enlisted early 1901 when war entered guerrilla stage and Lord Kitchener eager to bring it to a speedy end. Joined newly formed special fighting unit, the "Bushveldt Carbineers" (BVC) to fight the Boers on their own terms in Northern Transvaal. Light and fast unit unencumbered with supply trains. Majority of Australians but also British, South African, Americans, New Zealanders. Film claims that oral orders were given not to take Boer prisoners and to fight Boers with terror and guerrilla tactics. After Hunt's death and mutilation (broken neck, face stamped on with boots, cuts to legs (Victorian-era euphemism for genitals?) - Davey, p. xliii) in a Boer ambush in August 1901 Morant sought personal vengence for his friend's death - executing prisoner Visser who was wearing Hunt's jacket. Some months later German missionary Hesse killed in mysterious circumstances. British High Command decided to court martial 6 officers and 3 NCOs in Lord Kitcherner's BVC of whom Morant, Handcock, Whitton and Picton were implicated in "at least 20 murders" (Bryant, p. 141). To avoid unfavourable press attention prosecution was conducted in secret, an inexperienced Australian "bush lawyer" was appointed to defend them, the trial began on 8 January, 1902 the day after the defence lawyer was appointed, proceedings closed to press (against Crown regulations). Morant and Handcock were acquitted of missionary's murder but not 8 other Boers (4 of whom school teachers accused by Morant of being "train wreckers and marauders"). Whitton, Handcock and Morant were sentenced to death with recommendations for mercy; only Whitton's sentence commuted by Kitchener. Picton given dishonourable discharge. Commander of BVC reprimanded and removed from command, BVC disbanded. News of the verdicts was suppressed for 3 weeks. The younger soldier (Whitton) later wrote an account of his experiences as a self-styled "scapegoat of the empire".


The Play

Based on a play by Kenneth Ross, "Breaker" Morant (1978).


G.R. Witton, Scapegoats of the Empire: The True Story of Breaker Morant's Bushveldt Carbineers (Melbourne: D.W. Paterson, 1907). Reprinted 1982.

Breaker Morant and the Bushveldt Carbineers, ed. Arthur Davey (Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, 1987). Second Series No. 18.

Kit Denton, The Breaker (1973) (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1980).

Kit Denton, Closed File (Adelaide: Rigby, 1983).

F.M. Cutlack, Breaker Morant: A Horseman Who Made History. With a Selection of his Bush Ballads (1962) (Sydney: Ure Smith, 1980).

Hallman B. Bryant, "'Breaker' Morant in Fact, Fiction and Film," Literature/Film Quarterly, 1987, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 138-45.

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Great Boer War (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1903). 16 editions appeared during the war.


Meaning of the Title

Based on a true story of an Englishman, Harry Harbord Morant (Edward Woodward) (1864-1902), who falsely claimed descent from an aristocratic family and forced to flee to escape debts and being discharged from Royal Naval College, leaves England 1883 to start new life in Australia. Makes a name for himself as a "breaker" of horses and poet for the nationalist magazine The Bulletin. Volunteers to fight in South Africa and joins other skilled Australian horseman in South Australian Mounted Rifles in January 1900.


  • Edward Woodward - Lt. Harry "Breaker" Morant
  • Jack Thompson - Maj. J.F. Thomas
  • John Waters - Cpt. Alfred Taylor
  • Bryan Brown - Lt. Peter Handcock
  • Rod Mullinar - Maj. Charles Bolton
  • Lewis FitzGerald - Lt. George Witton
  • Tanunda Town Band

Set at the time of the Boer War (1899-1902). Boers were Dutch settlers who went to South Africa in 16th century and who refused to submit to British imperial control. Sought to establish an independent Boer Republic. British and colonial troops (including Australian volunteers) were sent to crush the rebellion. Boers did not have a regular army but used armed farmers who fought in an "irregular" i.e. "guerrilla" manner. Like the Americans in Vietnam 65 years later, the British often could not tell the difference between combatant and non-combatant (no uniform, part-time fighters). Again like the Americans in Vietnam, the British attempted to separate the civilian Boers from the fighters by herding civilians into "concentration camps" (US use of "strategic hamlets" in VN). Many striking parallels between this episode of Victoriam imperialism and American involvement in VN.

Film is shot as a series of flashbacks during the court martial. Filmed in Burra, SA.


  • The turning of "Breaker" Morant into a legendary, heroic figure; a "scapegoat of the empire"; a christ-like figure who, in Morant's poem, is "cru-ci-fied". Legend began with Whitton's book in 1907 and periodically revived. Compare with another "christ-like" soldier, Sgt. Elias, in Stone's Platoon(1986)?
  • One issue not directly discussed but implied is the morality of the British and Australian attempt to prevent independent Boer nation being established. Parallels with VN and similar relationship between USA and Australia. Suggested in film that war helped forge Australian nationalism (which did not yet exist as federation only took place in January 1901).
  • The reasons given by Morant, Handcock and Whitton for enlisting to fight: Morant to escape his past; Handcock to escape unemployment and thereby support his family and also for nationalistic reasons, Whitton for glory.
  • Film raises question of how does one fight a guerrilla war - as BM puts it "a new war for a new century." (More accurate to note that Spanish resistance to Napoleon after 1808 true beginning.) Bushveldt Carbineers specially created to counter Boer guerrilla tactics (wrecking trains). Boer word used to describe their own tactics was "commando" - fighting behind the lines. Questionable morality of not taking prisoners, using Boer hostages to stop trains being blown up, right to kill German missionary (non-combatant) who was giving Boers militarily useful information. How does one recognise the enemy without a uniform? Women, children and priests involved - can one kill them too? Danger that irregular war can lead to revenge killing as part of private war. What happens to laws of war in a guerrilla conflict? Idea that atrocities are inevitable - My Lai in VN. BM claimed that it was customary in war to kill as many of the enemy as possible and that the only law of war he recognised was "rule 303."
  • Recent historical precedents concerning treatment of irregular soldiers (guerrillas) and civilians by regular armed forces: Gen. Sheridan's destruction of civilian farms in Shenadoah Valley in Civil War; German policy of not recognizing "franc-tireurs" in Franco-Prussian war as regular soldiers and summarily executing them; contemporary (1902) American courts martial of soldiers in Spanish-American War in Philippines 1898-9 for torturing and killing Philippino prisoners resisting American occupation
  • Problem of spoken vs written orders. What are the duties and responsiblities of the lower officers and men to carry out immoral or questionable orders? Scene in Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957) when artillery officer refuses to carry out general's order to fire on own men without order in writing. Nuremberg defense in Nazi war crimes trials - just following orders. Need for clear and non-contradictory orders in time of war. Australians claimed that Lord Kitchener gave orders to kill any Boer wearing British khaki.
  • The question of military justice - French Army's principle of "pour encourager les autres". BB makes court martial of BM look like a show trial. Is what the British did to the 3 Australians any different to what they did to Visser? Parallels drawn between the 2 summary executions. Australians charged with 3 counts - execution of Boer Visser for wearing an Australian captain's jacket; the killing of 6 Boers who surrendered (part of the group which killed Captain Hunt), claimed they had illegal dum-dum bullets; killing the German missionary Hess (a civilian).
  • Revival of interest in atrocities committed in guerrilla war with sentencing of US Army Lt William Calley in 1971 for murder of civilians at village of My Lai in Vietnam in 1968.
  • Claim by Australian defense "bush" lawyer (Jack Thompson) in his summation that war changes man's nature; that atrocities are committed by civilised men who are caught in an abnormal (uncivilised) situation; that soldiers should not be judged by civilian laws and moral codes; that revenge, reprisal and mistakes are inevitable in a guerrilla war. This is the true "tragedy of war."
  • The anti-British, anti-Empire sentiment of the film. Film plays on contemporary anti-British feeling - British disdain for colonial troops, ready to sacrifice them in order to clear the way for peace talks. Reflection of Australian attitudes in late 1970s? British military shown in very unsavoury light. Expression of disillusionment with the idea of "defending the Empire" (British or American). BM concludes that "this is what comes of Empire-building." Compare with similar anti-British feeling in Weir's Gallipoli (1981)
  • Execution scene - compare with Losey's King and Country (1964) and Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957).
  • BM wants passage of the bible to be his epitaph: St. Matthew chapter 10, verse 34-36.

34. "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I am come not to send peace, but a sword.
35. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.
36. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household."

  • The Breaker's last poem "Butchered to Make a Dutchman's Holiday" (Cutlack, pp. 175-6):

In prison cell I sadly sit -
A d-d crestfallen chappy!
And own to you I feel a bit-
A little bit - unhappy!

It really ain't the place nor time
To reel off rhyming diction-
But yet we'll write a final rhyme
While waiting cru-ci-fixion!

No matteer what 'end' they decide-
Quicklime? or 'b'iling ile? sir!
We'll do our best when crucified
To finish off in style, sir!

But we bequeath a parting tip
For sound advice as such men
As come across in transport ship
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!

And if you'd earn a D.S.O.-
Why every British sinner
Should know the proper way to go
Is: 'Ask the Boer to dinner'!

Let's toss a bumper down our throat
Before we pass to Heaven,
And toast: 'the trim-set petticoat
We leave behind in Devon.'

  • The background music and song - "Soldiers of the Queen" with lyrics (quoted in Bryant, p. 144):

and when we say we've always won
and when they ask us how it's done
we'll proudly point to every one of England's soldiers of the Queen.

  • Explanations for the missing court martial records: cover-up of trial by Kitchener and his supporters; all but one case 1850-1914 "destroyed under statute" (offical Public Record Office explanation); "destroyed by Luftwaffe" (Davey, p. lxiv) during WW2.
  • The reaction of Arthur Conan Doyle (of "Sherlock Holmes" fame), author of a contemporary best-seller about the "Great Boer War":

There is one incident, however, in connection with the war in this region which one would wish to pass over in silence if such a course were permissible... (A)n irregular corps... (with its) wild duties, its mixed composition, and its isolated situation must have all militated against discipline and restraint, and it appears to have degenerated into a band not unlike those Southern "bush-whackers" in the American (civil) war to whom the Federals showed little mercy. They had given short shrift to the Boer prisoners who had fallen into their hands, the excuse offered for their barbarous conduct being that an officer who had served in the corps had himself been murdered by the Boers. Such a reason, even if it were true, could of course offer no justification for indiscriminate revenge... This stern measure (the execution of Handcock and Morant) shows more clearly than volumes of argument could do how high was the standard of discipline of the British army, and how heavy was the punishment, and how vain all excuses, where it had been infringed. In the face of this actual outrage and its prompt punishment how absurd becomes that crusade against imaginary outrages preached by an ignorant press abroad, and by renegade Englishmen at home. (p. 521).