The film centres around the 1902 court martial of Lieutenants Harry Morant, Peter Handcock, and George Witton – one of the first war crimes prosecutions in British military history. Australians serving in the British Army during the Second Anglo-Boer War, Lts. Morant, Handcock, and Witton stood accused of murdering captured enemy combatants and an unarmed civilian in the Northern Transvaal. The film is notable for its exploration of the Nuremberg Defense, the politics of the death penalty, and the human cost of total war. As the trial unfolds, the events in question are shown in flashbacks.
What follows is the complete text of the closing argument delivered by Major J. F. Thomas on behalf of Lieutenants Morant, Handcock, and Wilton in the court martial portrayed in Breaker Morant:
The main fact of this case–that the Boer prisoners were executed–has never been denied by the defense. However, I feel that there is no evidence at all for bringing charges against Lieutenant Wilton, a junior officer who had no reason to question the instructions of his superiors and whose only “crime” was that he shot a Boer in self-defense.
And further, no one denies the admirable fighting qualities of the Boers, nor, in general, their sense of honor. However, those Boers fighting in the northern Transvaal, in commando groups, are outlaws, renegades, often without any recognized form of control, addicted to the wrecking of trains, the looting of farms. Lord Kitchener himself recognized the unorthodox nature of this warfare when he formed a special squad to deal with it–the Bushveldt Carbineers.
Now when the rules and customs of war are departed from by one side, one must expect the same sort of behavior from the other. Accordingly, officers of the Carbineers should be, and up until now have been, given the widest possible discretion in their treatment of the enemy. Now, I don’t ask for proclamations condoning distasteful methods of war, but I do say that we must take for granted that it does happen.
Let’s not give our officers hazy, vague instructions about what they may and may not do. Let’s not reprimand on the one hand for hampering the column with prisoners and at another time and another place haul them up as murderers for obeying orders.
Lieutenant Morant shot no prisoners before the death of Captain Hunt. He then changed a good deal and adopted the sternest possible measures against the enemy. Yet there is no evidence to suggest that Lieutenant Morant has an intrinsically barbarous nature. On the contrary. The fact of the matter is that war changes men’s natures. 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, situations in which the ebb and flow of everyday life have departed and have been replaced by a constant round of fear and anger, blood and death.
Soldiers at war are not to be judged by civilian rules, as the prosecution is attempting to do, even though they commit acts which, calmly viewed afterwards could only be seen as unchristian and brutal. And if, in every war, particularly guerrilla war, all the men who committed reprisals were to be charged and tried as murderers, court martials like this one would be in permanent session, would they not?
I say that we cannot hope to judge such matters unless we ourselves have been submitted to the same pressures, the same provocations, as these men whose actions are on trial.