Breaker Mourant

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“Breaker Morant”: Victorian Attitudes and British Imperialism

The film “Breaker Morant” is a cinematic attack of the trial of three Australian colonials serving in the British Army during the second Boer War, which opposed the British against two Boer republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The war was waged from 1899 to 1902 and resulted in a British victory and the annexation of the two republics into what would eventually become the British territory of South Africa.

While the film’s focus is on a miscarriage of justice against the Australians, who became involved in a new type of guerilla war, the movie’s underlying theme is to demonstrate the hypocrisy of Victorian England’s attitudes towards its colonial subjects as well as to indict British imperialism at the beginning of the twentieth century.

As Charles Dickens famously pointed out in his indirect disapproval of the Victorian Age: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness.”(Dickens, page 585) Victorian Britain, the predominant world power and arbiter of social and political correctness, portrayed itself as the light to the nations. The British viewed their government as enlightened and its treatment of its colonies as compassionate. It preached equality and mutual respect. In the minds of the millions of its Commonwealth and dominion populations, however, the British had developed a sense of inherent superiority and dominance that would eventually lead to the independence movements in the nations of the Commonwealth and the eventual dismantling of the British Empire.

“Breaker Morant”, a movie directed by an Australian, portrays a Commonwealth nation’s view of this Victorian hypocrisy in the first years of the twentieth century. The movie begins by telling the tale of three Australian volunteers who volunteered for service in a newly formed British military unit named the Bushveldt Carbineers. The Boer War, unlike all its predecessors in British history, featured battles against groups of commandos, whose guerilla tactics included the use of women and children in combat and in the ambushing of British units. These bands of irregulars wore no uniforms and carried on an unconventional form of warfare. To battle the Boers, The Carbineers had to develop many new tactics that did not necessarily coincide with the military ethics of past wars. These included the adoption of a “take no prisoner” policy and “in an attempt to force the Boer guerillas to surrender, the British military authorities in South Africa seized thousands of Boer women and children whose menfolk were still fighting and detained them in …camps known as concentration camps. The conditions in the camps were bad, with almost no medical facilities and little food… The death toll in the camps was extremely high.” (Gilbert, page 38)

After complaints of immoral treatment made by the German Empire about the “unethical” behavior of the British military, London found that it was incumbent upon them to prove that they, the British, still held the moral high ground. It would be inopportune to bring English soldiers to defend unethical behavior. If they could find Commonwealth soldiers, clearly in their minds of a lower moral and ethical level than those of their English partners, to bring to trial, the British would prove to the world that they maintained moral superiority. This led to the courts-martial of Lieutenants Morant, Handcock and Witton, three Australian colonials who had served in leadership roles in the Bushveldt Carbineers.

From the outset of the film, one sees the condescending attitude the British displayed toward their colonial brethren. Their lives, according to the British, were cheaper and more easily sacrificed, they were less capable, they were not nearly as refined, their behavior was less restrained and their ethics were much...
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