Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Movies: There is a category of film that one might call, lacking better terminology, the moral-responsibility-in-war film. Most famous, I suppose, is Judgement at Nuremburg, wherein the "just following orders" excuse for war crime was dealt with harshly. But there is a film, set when the consequences of World War 2 were unimaginable, that confounds the viewer with the complexity of the war crime.

Breaker Morant follows the fate of three British soldiers in the Boer War, two Australian enlistees and one English officer, the eponymous Harry "Breaker" Morant (played by Edward Woodward -- the Equalizer! -- well enough for you to forget what he went on to do on TV). Harry is gentleman officer, a bit of a poet, unaware that the assumptions upon which his world, and his career, rests are about to crumble when, following what he believes to be a standing order, he executes a group of captured Boer guerillas that his garrison cannot afford to guard (including a German missionary who may or may not have been aiding the guerillas). When the British government receives a formal protest from the German government, Harry and his two Australian aides are court-martialed for war crimes, despite -- as becomes obvious -- the British Army's tacit approval of the execution of prisoners. Their young military lawyer (in a bravura show by Jack Thompson), aware that his defendants are intended to be scapegoats, nevertheless puts on a serious and unexpected defense.

One of the amazing aspects of the direction (by Bruce Beresford) is that, despite our distaste for what these soldiers have done, our sympathy for them is not systematically destroyed by cinematic moralizing. While quite obviously an anti-war film, Breaker Morant refuses to do what the bureaucracy does in the story -- namely, to indict the soldiers in lieu of the generals, and themselves. No one watching the film will ever confuse its motives, or be fooled into sympathy for Nazi footsoldiers who implemented the final solution for their superiors two generations later. But the cold economy of the military courtroom dramatized here (and I'm nothing if not a sucker for courtroom drama -- it's the lawyer manqué in me) makes a plea to recognize moral intricacy of war -- an exercise, quite simply, in efficient killing. As the soldiers' defense attorney says, echoing others, "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."

Breaker Morant is exceptional because it's impossible to pigeonhole. As I said, it's neither a moral lecture on the brutality of 19th century colonialism nor a brief against culpability. In fact, one figure of great sympathy, and clearly a directorial persona, is the figure of Thomas, the defense attorney, who wages his own battle with idealism as he grows closer to clients he believes to be guilty of some sort of war crime. Breaker Morant is instead a simple human drama, a mournful meditation upon the normal men in abnormal situations.

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