Dir: Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies; Crimes of the Heart; Driving Miss Daisy)
Australian military drama that explores the ethics of war under changing circumstances. Set during the Boer War at the turn of the last century, an Australian patrol is under court marital from British authorities for executing some Dutch prisoners of war and a German missionary. Their case is caught up in global and colonial politics, and throughout the course of the movie we recognize their predetermined fate and yet are forced to judge ourselves whether their actions were censurable.
The story is by and large interesting, certainly complex enough to make the audience do some work. Tidbits of information come out during the course of the trial that make us reconsider the characters several times. Much of the acting requires that stiff upper lip British aloofness, giving only the Australians much of an emotional range in which to work. I have no complaints there.
The sound, though, is particularly muddy. The film did not have much of a budget, and it takes place largely in one cement courtroom, leading to echos on top of already quickly spoken and accented English. I had to back it up and relisten to dialogoue several times.
The issue raised by the film is what conventions of war apply when the enemy themselves does not follow them. The Boer's are irregular soldiers, not in uniform, raiding on farms and civilian property, early commondo fighters. The British "gentlemen's" system cannot fight that, so tactics turn more brutal. Should we blame them? And should we blame the soldiers who carry out those orders?
American torture policy was foremost in my mind during the film. I think that we are supposed to sympathize with the defendants here who were put in an intolerable position by orders from above and now are being made scapegoats. I take a more judgmental view, that following an unjust order is itself an unjust act. But to the extent that the film wants to put ultimate fault in a flawed war policy, I could not agree more. No matter how heinous the enemy, the moral high ground can only be maintained by strict adherence to reasonable rules of war. Shooting prisoners, or torturing them, is blameworthy on the ground and inscribed in policy.
Sometimes movies can be presentist in ways the filmmakers could not have anticipated. But continually telling stories is a way to reconsider old themes, and hopefully relearn their lessons.