Blu-ray Review: Breaker Morant (1980)

If you’ve never seen Breaker Morant, you’re likely familiar with the film’s defiant last words shouted by Edward Woodward as the stoic lead. Now you can discover or re-visit the film that’s topped more lists about Australian cinema than any other, thanks to Umbrella Entertainment who added the classic to their Sunburnt Screens sub-label earlier this month.

Set during the Boer War in 1901, three lieutenants of the Australian Bushveldt Carbineers face court-martial over the murder of Boer prisoners, however, they maintain orders came from British High Command to fight the Boers on their own terms and to take no prisoners.

Having known little about the Boer War prior to watching the film, you quickly get a sense of the ugliness that stained the controversial military campaign. It serves as one of the most brazen examples of British colonialism, which caused independent Boer states, made up of Dutch-speaking inhabitants, to take up arms against the Empire.

Harry Morant, an English-born South Australian, is an extension of arrogance exhibited by the British towards their elusive enemy of farmers and landowners, and while his trial can easily be seen as farcical, Morant never expresses any remorse over what were undeniable crimes. It’s a significant chapter in both Australian and British history, that’s been debated endlessly over the past century, but as the basis for a big-screen dramatization, Breaker Morant, is a stupendous example of Australian cinema that has a real international appeal, even though it was made entirely Down Under.

With the trial being the focal point of the film, events that lead to the subsequent hearing are told in numerous flashbacks for context and character development of the three men whose fate is pending. Jack Thompson as defence council, Major J.F. Thomas, lays on his finest upper-class Australian accent as the sharp legal mind who doesn’t miss a beat in calling out hypocrisy. However, the top-billed Edward Woodward as Morant elevates the film with his skill as an actor, dignified stance and screen presence, much of which comes from his commanding voice. Bryan Brown is more or less playing Bryan Brown, as I feel he often does, but his Aussie Larkin persona works for the character of Lt. Handcock, who’s arguably worse than Morant in regard to the treatment of the Boers.

VIDEO AND AUDIO

Presented via a brand new 4K restoration from the original interpositive (I’m pretending to know that means), this fifth volume of Sunburnt Screen offers a superior transfer to that of Criterion’s 2015 release, with added sharpness, detail and clarity. While the film wasn’t shot in South Africa, the arid regions of South Australia proved to be a suitable stand-in for the tumultuous nation. In true Umbrella fashion, the dry orange-brown hue dominates much of the pristine 1.85:1 image, whereas both the 5.1 & 2.0 DTS-HD MA tracks proved very natural-sounding and realistic audio tracks. You can feel the power and force of every rifle shot fired in combat.

SPECIAL FEATURES

  • ALL NEW Audio Commentary with Director Bruce Beresford, Producer Matt Carroll and Actors Jack Thompson and Bryan Brown
  • ALL NEW Breaker Morant: The Retrial – Feature-length documentary
  • Edward Woodward audio interview with John Cook
  • The Breaker – Documentary
  • The Myth Exposed – Director’s Postscript
  • Photo Slideshow
  • Photo Gallery
  • HD Trailer
  • US Trailer

Umbrella’s assortment of extras encapsulates the mythos of ‘The Breaker’, especially in Breaker Morant: The Retrial, which is a little like watching Trekkies in some parts as some of the individuals seeking to clear the legendary figure’s name is unable to look at the case and the man objectively. Nevertheless, a lot of the history is covered over the 90-plus minute runtime, which has a lot of value after watching the film, which in contrast only covers a brief period of Morant’s life. To clarify though, the documentary was actually released in 2013, but is relatively new compared to the film and of course the real-life trial, much like the audio commentary, which is worth the listen for a retrospective take.

I highly recommend listening to the audio interview with Edward Woodward, who talks about the film, the character and the controversy that surrounded The Second Boer War. It’s clear he’s well educated, yet very humble regarding his achievements as an actor, who also possesses a marvellous singing voice, of which we get a sample towards the interview’s end.

The Breaker – Documentary is also feature-length but produced to coincide with the film’s release 41-years-ago, plus a nice assortment of production photos round of the generous list of extras.

Breaker Morant explores the ‘fog of war’ while treating audiences to a high calibre production about morality in the face of atrocity, all for king and country. I feel like I’m among the minority who view Morant as a villain rather than the hero that has since become a symbol of defiance against the crown.

BREAKER MORANT
(1980, director: Bruce Beresford)

★★★★½

 

direct blu-ray screen captures

 

 

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