To what extent does Breaker Morant seem to legitimise war crimes?
I will face my God, writes Handcock on the eve of his execution, with the firm belief that I obeyed and served my King as I thought best. Breaker Morant, directed by Bruce Beresford, seeks to excuse his protagonists, portraying them as victims of the British military. By drawing our attention to the injustices against Morant, Handcock and Witton, Beresford makes the drama one about their fate and sidelines the war crimes completely. To argue that he legitimises war crime is excessive. However, he could certainly be accused of underplaying the seriousness of what they did.
Breaker Morant is filmed by a repulsion and dislike for war. Thomas makes several passionate speeches about how despicable it is. When Denny objects to Lord Kitchener being called as a witness, doubting that a man so venerable could be capable barbarity. Thomas angrily refers to Kitcheners policy of his deadly concentration camps, reminding the court that those orders were issued¦and the soldiers like myself¦had to carry them out, however damned reluctantly! The senior masterminds of the war are shown throughout the film as scheming political animals, with absolutely no compassion, interested more in their own careers and comfort than in the either their own men or the enemy. The whole notion of the Empire is repeatedly rejected by the film, both in Morants words, were scapegoats of the bloody Empire and in the deeply ironic singing of Soldiers of the Queen on the soundtrack. The execution scene of Morant and Handcock is itself the ultimate argument against militarism and its bitter consequences.
On the other hand it is also true that Breaker Morant makes excuses to legitimise war crimes. It attacks the war in general and may attack Kitchener and Hamilton, but without a doubt, it is surprisingly gentle on Morant and his comrades. The very first flashback scene shows the Carbineers betrayed in an ambush. Viewers are made to sympathise for them and for the loss of men on their side. However, no thought is given to why they are in Boer territory, or even that would have happened to the men in the farmhouse if an ambush had not taken place. The cut to the follow on scene the one where the film argues was the turning point for Morants changes from a normal man to a madman, is the one in which he discovers Hunts mutilated body. The revenge which follows suddenly seems normal since the Boers were held accountable for his death. Even the cold-blooded execution of Visser seems excusable as a crime of passion.
When Hesse is linked to Captain Hunts atrocious death, his death seems reasonable too. The war crimes in the film are not presented in particularly shocking ways. Beresford does not force viewers to think about the pain of the Boers since there is no real detail of their deaths. We dont see Visser shot, just his dead body. We dont see the Boer prisoners shot. We dont see the murder of Hesse explicitly; just a brief shot of his body, eyes wide open yet strangely this moment is completely separated from the scene in which we se the distant figure of Handcock shooting him. The focus is always on Morant and his comrades: not on the victims of their actions. The whole argument of the film is that war changes mens natures, and that its barbarity makes judgement impossible. Thomass defense of the three accused men is that we cannot hope to judge such matters unless we, ourselves, have been submitted to the same¦provocations as these men, whose actions are on trial.
Beresford admittedly does not completely excuse the immorality of war crimes. There is Wittons concern over the shooting of Visser, and later his anguish over the execution of the Boers who gave themselves up under a white flag. There is Morants own uneasiness when told by Taylor that they could not take prisoners. However, we are disturbed as we watch Taylor finish off the Boers on the veldt and this perhaps gives reason as to why the prosecutions case could bot be dismissed entirely. Thomas confirms this, acknowledging that the murders were committed.
Breaker Morant does not legitimise war crimes, in the sense of saying anything that happens in war is permitted. It never says shooting unarmed prisoners of war acceptable. It does question the morality of the take no prisoners order. It does acknowledge that war eventually leads to barbarity. However, by focusing our concern to primarily the injustices of war, Beresford portrays their crimes as insignificant, softening any blame we might hold to their actions. The tragedy and the horrors are finally less important to us than concern for the normal men who commit crimes in the belief that anything is justified in such abnormal situation.