September 22 2021
10:05 AM
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Criterion Collection Reviews: Breaker Morant and Mister Johnson
Kozak rating: 4 stars

Bruce Beresford is one of the Australian directors who came into prominence during the 70s and became known as one of the members of the then new age of Australian cinema along with revered names like Nicholas Roeg and Peter Weir. Yet he doesn't get as much respect from film buffs as Roeg and Weir, perhaps because he doesn't really have a bona fide masterpiece to his name like those two have in spades, and perhaps also because he's a versatile director who's hard to pinpoint into one particular style or genre. It's hard to come up with a specific image or feeling when asked about a Beresford film, and even though he directed his share of bad films (The overrated Oscar winner Driving Miss Daisy and Double Jeopardy comes to mind), his willingness to keep working and constantly try different material is admirable.

One of the rare times Beresford tackled a very specific theme through different films, albeit using very different tonal approaches, took place when he helmed two films, ten years apart from each other, about the destructive nature of British colonialism on the very people the empire colonized: The 1980 military court drama Breaker Morant, and the 1990 dramedy Mister Johnson. Even though Breaker Morant was a big hit at the time of its release, and was the film that brought Beresford to the world stage, these two excellent films might not be well-known to film buffs outside of Australia. Thankfully, the good folks at Criterion are looking to attract some attention to them by releasing these two films on DVD and Blu-ray on September 22.

Based on a play that tackled one of the most notorious real life military injustices in Australian history, Breaker Morant is about three Australians soldiers who were wrongfully accused of murdering war prisoners and were brought to trial as scapegoats so the British-Dutch peace talks could be restored during the Boer war. The Australian soldiers, led by the headstrong British expat "Breaker" Morant (Edward Woodward), claim that they were only following orders when executing prisoners, yet when the British army lies and tells the court that no such order was given, Morant and his fellow soldiers face the death penalty, and the only person who can save them is an inexperienced lawyer named Thomas (Jack Thompson).

Upon learning about Breaker Morant's plot, the first comparison one will think of will of course be Stanley Kubrick's anti-war masterpiece Paths of Glory, also about three soldiers who were picked as scapegoats in order to further the war effort. Both films have a similar angry approach to such injustice, yet Breaker Morant adds an extra level of complexity and suggests that no one is entirely innocent in war. We know that the soldiers in Paths of Glory are completely wrongfully demonized as being cowards, but the flashbacks in Breaker Morant show that even though the soldiers were following orders, they either didn't mind killing unarmed captured enemy soldiers, or in the case of Morant himself, who was seeking to avenge the death of his superior officer, took pleasure from the act.

The fact that the defendants willingly participated in monstrous acts while technically being innocent gives the film a much-appreciated ambiguity, while the film works as a powerful indictment of British colonialism that obviously saw the colonized people as not much more than disposable assets. The performances in Breaker Morant are solid throughout, but Jack Thompson deserves an extra shout-out for his passionate and insightful take on the otherwise cliché "inexperienced lawyer tackles a big case and surprises everyone" situation.

Ten years after Breaker Morant, Beresford immediately followed his big Oscar winner Driving Miss Daisy with Mister Johnson, a film that honestly dealt with the inherent racism in British colonialism, perhaps as a subconscious effort to apologize for the simplistic and condescending way Miss Daisy dealt with racism. Based on Joyce Cary's acclaimed novel, Beresford's film is about the titular Mister Johnson (Maynard Eziashi), a native in 1920s colonized Nigeria, who finds out how insignificant he is to the British empire when he falls in love with British values and tries his damnedest to fit in with his white Brit superiors.

Claiming to be a proud Brit when other white people constantly remind him to his face that he will never be their equal simply because of the color of his skin turns Mister Johnson into an inherently comedic character. Even though it would have been easy to dismiss him as a clueless Uncle Tom type, Beresford's empathetic approach to the character and Eziashi's tender and human performance create more of a tragicomical story than flat farce. Johnson constantly employs shady and sometimes downright cruel methods to get what he wants, and even though he learned all of his tricks from the colonialists' playbook, his life spirals out of control simply because he's the wrong color and was born in the wrong country.

The 1080p Blu-ray transfers of both films look gorgeous and clean, while retaining the film-like grain of the original cinematography. Breaker Morant is one of the most beautiful-looking Australian films I've ever seen, and I know that it faces stiff competition in that category (Walkabout, Picnic at Hanging Rock). The impeccable turn of the 20th century production design of interior locations, mixed with the expert framing, create a period drama look reminiscent of Bergman's Fanny and Alexander. On the other hand, I'm not a big fan of Mister Johnson's cinematography, maybe because Beresford and his DP drenched their film in too much yellow, perhaps in order to sell the unbearable heat of the location. Alas, this approach looks too stylistic than what they probably intended.

Both films have extensive contemporary interviews with the cast and crew, but the most valuable extra in either release is a feature length 1973 documentary on the real Breaker Morant story, found of course in the Breaker Morant DVD and Blu-ray. Regardless of which film you buy or rent (I recommend both), you're going to get the kinds of quality extras we've come to expect from Criterion. Both Breaker Morant and Mister Johnson will be available in separate Blu-ray and DVD releases on September 22.