“The fact of the matter is that war changes men’s natures. The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men. The tragedy of war is that these horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations.”
If Australian war movies have a common theme or connective thread, it’s that we always seem to be at the mercy of some more powerful country, throwing us head first into a war and giving us the worst jobs. The Australian soldiers in The Odd Angry Shot seem mainly oblivious to why they’re fighting in Vietnam or the not so justified reasons for the war in the first place. Gallipoli is the Australia’s most famous war story, as the Brits made our soldiers cannon fodder for the Turks in WWI. And now, I’ve found another one to add to the list of movies where Aussies get fucked over during a war, Breaker Morant.
In South Africa at the turn of the 20th century in South Africa, the Beor war is being fought between the British and the Dutch colonialists. As was British tradition at the time, they sent in Aussies to do their dirty work. With Dutch farmers taking up arms and practicing a kind of guerilla warfare, the poms had to develop new ways to fight an enemy that wasn’t always there in plain sight, wearing a bright uniform to identify themselves as the enemy. Which is where the Bushvelt Carbineers come in. The first group of soldiers ever referred to as commandos, they fight behind enemy lines and resort to any measure to get the job done.
Measures that have brought Lt Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant (Edward Woodward), Lt. Peter Hancock (Bryan Brown) and Lt. George Ramsdale Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) before a British Court Marhsall. With Maj. JF Thomas (Jack Thompson) as their legal defense, the story flashes back to the three incidences and alleged crimes that the three mean are being charged with. When Harry’s superior (and brother in law) Capt. Simon Hunt (Terence Donavan) is killed by a Dutch ambush, Harry takes a zero tolerance policy with every enemy soldier he encounters. Even those surrendering peacefully.
I don’t know if the movie was deliberately ambiguous, or if I just missed the point, but I never felt like it was trying to tell me if Harry and his men were clearly right or clearly wrong in the actions they took. I certainly think they were ruthless in their actions, but Breaker Morant makes the circumstances so extreme and pressure filled, that even when mistakes are obviously made, it’s possible to see why they were made in that context.
For an army to function, a hierarchy must be obeyed and orders must be followed. A movie like Breaker Morant shows what happens when those orders aren’t the best or most well intentioned. Harry obviously lets his personal feelings cloud his judgement, but at the same time, he’s following the orders given to him by a superior. And if he didn’t follow those orders, would more of his own men have been killed by the enemy? Like I said, I don’t know if they deliberately left those issues a little murky, of if I am just too dumb to see the answers, but it’s the murkiness that made me like Breaker Morant a whole lot.