Morant (Edward Woodward), Handcock (Bryan Brown) and Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) meet their lawyer, Major J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson), a country solicitor. It is one day before their trial is to start, and they are horrified to discover their lawyer has no trial experience.
Summary by Paul Byrnes
The scene gives a good introduction of the characters, their social status, their youth or experience, their relationships with each other. Morant speaks with an educated English voice; Thomas has an Australian educated voice; Handcock is much more broadly working class Australian, but full of savvy; Witton’s social status is less clear, but not as important in the scene as his absolute youth. The glance between the two older men makes clear they have been shielding him from the full knowledge of the charges. Thomas has no such inhibitions. Much of the film is about questions of youth versus experience, honesty versus cynicism and political expediency – an interesting ethical domain to explore, given that it’s a film about war crimes, and 'military justice’.
In the Boer War in South Africa in 1901, three Australian 'irregular’ soldiers are tried by a British military court for the murder of 12 prisoners and a German missionary. The accused are Lieutenants Harry Morant (Edward Woodward), Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) and George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald). Morant, an English-born adventurer who has spent years in Australia, maintains he was following unwritten orders. Their inexperienced Australian lawyer (Jack Thompson) struggles to have his case heard.
The trial of Morant, Handcock, and Witton was enormously controversial at the time and remains so, more than 100 years later. The film rekindled the debate in 1980, but was itself attacked over accuracy. The script, based on a play by Kenneth Ross, argues that their trial was fixed from the outset. Lord Kitchener, head of the British forces, is shown agreeing that the soldiers must be sacrificed, in order to keep Germany from joining the war on the Boer side. At the same time, the film shows that the soldiers did kill the prisoners and the missionary. The question is whether these constituted war crimes and whether they got a fair trial.
With the recent war in Vietnam fresh in the public mind, these questions still had strong resonance in 1980. Debate still rages about whether Kitchener ever issued verbal orders to kill prisoners. The film represented Australia in the competitive section of the Cannes Film Festival in 1980. Jack Thompson won the festival’s best supporting actor award.