First published on 29 Nov 2010. Updated on 29 Nov 2010.
You haven't watched Breaker Morant in years, have you? Sure, you saw it when you were young, since it was one of those Australian films that everyone went on about at the time. And, like so many of the Australian cinema canon (cf: Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Devil's Playground, My Brilliant Career, etc etc) it absolutely deserves its place in the "Australian films were amazing in the 70s, what the fuck happened?" pantheon. What is, on paper, a pretty straightforward story – three Australian soldiers are court-martialled on charges of murdering prisoners during the Boer War – it becomes both a treatise on the horrors of war and a microcosm of Australia's birth pangs as a new nation.
Seeing it with fresh eyes and a lifetime of media in between, it's remarkable how great a film it remains. While Edward Woodward's portrayal of the title character sticks in the head as the epitome of disciplined stiff-upper-lip resilience, it's Bryan Brown as the larrikin Lt Peter Hancock and Jack Thompson as the out-of-his-depth lawyer Major JF Thomas that stand out. Having long known them as Quality Australian Actors it's a pleasure to be reminded how strikingly talented they were. The supporting cast is also superb, including the late, great Charles "Bud" Tingwell as the officious Lt Col Denny, determined to see the Australians carry the can for the Empire; Terence Donovan as the doomed Captain Hunt; and Ray "Alf from Home & Away" Meagher in the small but perfectly-pitched performance as Sgt Major Drummond, while Lewis Fitz-Gerald never bettered his supporting role as the young, naïve Lt Witton.
It also looks fantastic: the rough brown-and-gold landscape of scrubland South Australia is a perfect facsimile of the South African veldt. Bruce Beresford keeps the pace up throughout, knowing when to cut to a battlefield flashback lest the film descend into a courtroom-bound procedural.
The second disc contains the 1970 documentary The Breaker and it's post-millenial addendum, which cast doubt on the supposedly "true story" of Morant. But this portrayal of the madness of war and the manner in which lives can be cast aside for political motivations is, if anything, more resonant in 2010 than it was in 1980. Australian war films don't come better than this.
Extras ‘The Breaker' documentary, ‘The Myth Exploded', photo gallery
Reel DVD, M $14.95