Like a lot of other Americans, I first took note of actor Edward Woodward in ‘Breaker’ Morant, which came as part of the late-Seventies, early-Eighties wave of Australian films that launched Bruce Beresford, Mel Gibson, Bryan Brown, Peter Weir, Fred Schepisi, and George Miller on international careers. As the title character, an Australian officer accused of atrocities against civilians during the Boer War, Woodward was loaded with weatherbeaten star quality, particularly in the scene when a friend, an intelligence who knows the fix is in, offers Morant a chance to escape certain execution. “Take a boat and see the world,” his friend says. “I’ve seen it,” Morant replies, and Woodward’s delivery ranks up there with Clint Eastwood’s signature line from Unforgiven — “Deserve’s got nothing to do wth it” — for sheer blistering coolness. Watching it, I assumed Woodward was simply further proof that something in the Australian water was producing actors and filmmakers who could put Americans to shame.
As it turned out, Woodward — who died yesterday at age 79 — was a British actor, so talented that Laurence Olivier invited him to pick his own role at the Royal National Theatre. (Told he could write his own ticket, Woodward chose the lead in Cyrano de Bergerac — what wouldn’t I give to see that performance!) It’s a measure of Woodward’s lack of artistic vanity that one can spend most of The Wicker Man thinking his insufferably priggish police sergeant Neil Howie is the film’s villain, until the horrifying finale turns our expectations upside down, and gives Howie a strange moment of redemption and even grandeur.