Breaker Morant (1980) chronicles the trial of three Australian soldiers for executing prisoners during the Boer War in 1901. It cost just $700,000, won Oscar nominations and umpteen film awards and led to director Bruce Beresford establishing a career in Hollywood.
With the exception of Woodward – whose name sounded like a “fart in a bath” according to Laurence Olivier – Breaker had an all-Australian cast and crew. The principal horses were supplied by Heath and Evanne Harris, and others came from South Australia where the picture was filmed.
All horse action took place in Burra, a historic mining town two hours from Adelaide. This location represented the Transvaal region of South Africa, where much of the fighting had taken place. Many of the picture’s riding extras were locals on their own mounts.
‘Margaret’, ‘Gwen’ and two dark brown stockhorses were the Harris’s experienced equine specialists who could fall, rear, hit their marks and do close-ups.
“I used to take Margaret and Gwen to pony club when I was a kid,” recalls movie horseman, Cody Rawson-Harris, who had been too young to work on the film. “They were chestnut full sisters and purebred Quarter Horses. In Burra, Margaret did some falls when the soldiers are galloping around the tents. They were soft sand set-ups, so she and her rider never got hurt.”
The film’s leading man didn’t want to get hurt either so prepared for his role by taking riding lessons in England. Harry “Breaker” Morant had been an excellent horseman and Woodward was anxious to replicate this man’s talents. Director Beresford had hired him because he thought he resembled Morant.
ONLY RIDE IN CIRCLES
In the past, the British actor had done some social hacking and had even ridden in a film. He told me when I interviewed him in Burra of the first film he had ever made. “It was called Where There’s a Will; it comes back to haunt me on late night television!” he said. “In preparation for Morant I spent three months at my local riding school. The winter was the worst in years and we only went outside once where we had to walk very gingerly because the roads were so icy. All my lessons had been around the indoor arena so when I arrived in South Australia, I really could only ride in circles!”