Starting from the age of ten, I began to watch films on cable that piqued my interest. There was something alarmingly real about them. And even at that age, I could tell there was a profound difference between them and ET.
The first was Breaker Morant (1980), a court room drama set in 1900 in South Africa during the Boer War. Three Australian officers are arrested on various war crimes charges, most notably shooting prisoners and a missionary. They are convicted by British officers and two of the three are executed. I did not notice it at the time, but there is a strong element in the film that the Australians were not culpable in their crimes, even though, with one exception, they admitted to committing them. They claimed they were following orders to execute Boer prisoners which the British High command then denied. The film makes no bones about it: the Australians were used as scapegoats by the British to bring about a peace conference with the Boer command.
The film is a startling piece of work, taut, clean, moving about the contours of its narrative with no extraneous parts. There is both the feeling of inevitability AND suspense which many good pieces of art convey at once.
The second was Gallipoli, directed by Peter Weir in 1981. In Gallipoli, two young soldiers go to battle in the ANZACs, the combined Australian and New Zealand army core, against the Ottoman Turks during the First World War in 1915. The campaign is a disaster, fought in rocky terrain which gives the defender the advantage. The film has a similar theme as Breaker Morant: the English use the Australians as machine gun fodder to protect British interests, and the famous Battle of the Nek, feature at the end, vividly illustrates this points.
Both films did a remarkable job in giving Australian film its own voice, by portraying two wars which gave rise to Australian nationalism. Yet both broker in myth rather than historical evidence. Even after a hundred years of searching, no orders to kill Boer prisoners has even been found, and repeated attempts to posthumously pardon Breaker Morant have failed. To South African whites of Afrikaner ancestry, he is simply a war criminal. In Gallipoli the impression is given that the fatal order that led to the Battle of the Nek is given by English officers. In fact, the campaign was led by Australian officers. The mistakes, and there were many, were mainly performed by ANZAC commanders. It was an Australian blunder.
Breaker Morant and Gallipoli both provide a genuine Australian voice, but fail to confront the ugly truths behind the incidents they portray. Complicity in the atrocities of war can seldom be laid on one side or the other. Often, there is an active interplay between different elements. These two New Wave films, now not so new, are extraordinary films, but less than perfect history. They are more about national identity than the history they purport to convey.