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NITA Movie Review: Two Movies About Military Justice

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Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey

I’ve previously written about movies with military justice themes (A Few Good Men, Paths of Glory) and since November 11 was Veterans Day, I thought I’d review two other movies where military justice plays a key role.[1]

Breaker_morantWe’ll start with Breaker Morant, a 1980 film directed by Bruce Beresford and starring Edward Woodward as the title character. The film is set during the Boer War in South Africa (1899 – 1902.) Morant is an Australian officer in a mostly Australian unit organized by the British Army to combat the guerilla tactics of the white south African Boers. The unit is encouraged to deal harshly with Boer captives and Morant (and others in his command) do exactly that, engaging in actions we might now consider war crimes. The higher-ups decide to court martial Morant and two other officers, in hopes of reducing political pressures. Those higher-ups make sure that their role in the harsh treatment of the Boers is glossed over, if not completely covered up. Morant’s assigned counsel, Major J.F. Thomas, had never tried a case before. He tries to present a viable defense, but the trial is hardly fair: the overall commanding officer (who established the policy) never testifies, the defendants are barred from presenting evidence that other British officers did exactly the same thing as Morant and his men, and it becomes clear that the Australians are being scapegoated as uncontrollable colonials. The result of the trial is predictable.

Breaker Morant was a real person, an Englishman who had spent time in both Australia and South Africa. He was, in fact tried and convicted of the acts he was accused of. And yes, he actually committed them. Even so, he has become something of a hero in Australia; take a look at the extremely active website, breaker.morant.com. The movie’s director, Bruce Beresford, has expressed surprise at the way the movie is regarded by Australians: “I always get amazed when people say to me that this is a film about poor Australians who were framed by the Brits.”

Mutiny_0Next we’ll examine a movie about men at war and what happens to them under stress. The Caine Mutiny (Columbia, 1954) was based on a best-selling book of the same name written by Herman Wouk; the book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1951. It was directed by Edward Dmytryk and had the proverbial all-star cast: Van Johnson, Fred McMurray, and, as the mentally-ill commanding officer, Captain Queeq, Humphrey Bogart, in his last film. (He received a Best Actor nomination, losing to Marlon Brando for On the Waterfront.) The film tells the story of a destroyer-minesweeper, the U.S.S. Caine, and her officers and men. Queeg takes over from the slovenly Captain DeVriess, and immediately tensions arise between him and his junior officers, as Queeg is a stickler for military protocol, even to the point of absurdity. A series of incidents involving a severed tow rope[1], missing strawberries and yellow dye on the water during an island landing cause those junior officers first to question Queeg’s competence as an officer, and eventually Queeg’s sanity. During a typhoon, Lt. Maryk (Johnson), having been previously egged on by another officer, Lt. Keefer (McMurray), relieves Queeg of command after Queeg’s orders appear to put the Caine in danger and Queeg freezes on the bridge..

The Navy decides this was mutiny, and puts Maryk and another junior officer on trial, where a guilty verdict could lead to execution. They are reluctantly defended by Lt. Barney Greenwald, brilliantly portrayed by Jose Ferrer. The trial scenes are wonderfully done. The prosecutor, Lt. Commander Challee (E.G. Marshall, Juror Number 4 in 12 Angry Men), presents a powerful case, including psychiatric testimony that Queeg is sane. It looks as if a conviction is certain, until Greenwald cross-examines Queeg – and things change rapidly. The officers are acquitted, but Greenwald takes his own clients to task for failing to help Queeg when he needed help. The film leaves you a bit unsure exactly who the good guys are – except for Greenwald.

The Caine Mutiny was extremely well received. In addition to Bogart’s nomination, the film was nominated for six other Oscars, including Best Picture. Wouk had early adapted the novel for the stage in a play titled The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, focusing only on the trial; the play ran on Broadway for a year.

Both Breaker Morant and The Caine Mutiny are well worth your time. They are thoughtful about the effects of war on those who fight it and use the courtroom procedures we’re familiar with to delve into the behavior and character of those men. We should never forget that war can cause good people to do awful things – and that sometimes the law has a difficult time reconciling those behaviors with our concepts of justice.

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[1] As before, my caveat: I’ve never served in the military, so I’ll leave it to Mike Roake, Charlie Rose, Chris Behan and others who have served to discuss the accuracy of the procedures shown in these films.

[2] “Sometimes you don’t know if you’re Caesar about to cross the Rubicon or Captain Queeg cutting your own tow rope.” – Justice Anthony Kennedy

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NITA’s team of practicing lawyers, professors and judges from around the nation dedicates its efforts to the training and development of skilled and ethical legal advocates to improve the adversarial justice system. NITA's Goals are to:
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