Director Neil Jordan was at the height of his fame following his great
success with "The Crying Game" when he was finally able to convince
film investors to fund "Michael Collins," a project which was 10 years
in the making. I knew little about the history of the struggle for
Irish independence but after seeing this film, it propelled me to do a
little research. As a history lesson Michael Collins does well in
covering the main historical points but Jordan does little in
presenting the British point of view.
The film begins with the Easter Rising of 1916, a violent protest in
Dublin which resulted in the defeat and arrest of the leaders amongst
the Irish rebels. What Jordan doesn't let on here is that the rebellion
was not at all popular with the Irish people and the tide didn't turn
until the British executed the majority of the rebels following the
Liam Neeson does well in playing Collins as a dynamic, strong character
but Collins was around thirty when the events of the film takes place
and Neeson was about 14 years older. If you're willing to forgive the
age difference, Neeson is quite believable as the fiery Irish leader
who is still regarded as a George Washington figure amongst the
contemporary Irish populace.
Jordan is at his best when he dispassionately regurgitates the sequence
of events that led to the establishment of Ireland as a free state and
the resulting civil war. Of particular note are the gripping scenes of
escalating violence: Collins is a beaten by the Royal Irish
Constabulary after speaking at an election rally; Collins recruits a
squad of killers who murder 14 members of the MI5 "Cairo Gang" and the
ensuing act of genocidal revenge taken by the "Black and Tans"
paramilitary force at a soccer match; the IRA attack on the Custom
House which Collins opposed as he knew the British would easily win;
the attack on Collins after the treaty with the British, at an
anti-Treaty Republican rally; the offensive against the "The Four
Courts" by the anti-Treaty side of the IRA, despite Collins' bitter
opposition; and the ambush of Collins, resulting in his death.
Also of great interest is the conflict between Collins and Eamon de
Valera (played by an effective Alan Rickam) who early on felt that
Collins was acting on his own. The actual split between the two leaders
is foreshadowed when de Valera goes to meet President Woodrow Wilson in
order to gain recognition of the IRA's objectives and takes Collins'
best friend and constant companion, Harry Boland, with him. Eventually
de Valera orders Collins to negotiate the treaty with the British over
his objections that he's not a diplomat. And it was de Valera who split
with Collins over the terms of the treaty which broke Ireland into two
and still had the new Irish Free State swearing allegiance to the
What's most fascinating about Collins is that initially he was regarded
as a terrorist by the British but after negotiating the treaty between
Ireland and the UK, he was now regarded as a "moderate." In fact,
during the Irish civil war, the British supplied arms to Collins'
forces who eventually defeated the anti-Treaty faction. Jordan argues
that Collins' targets were either brutal forces of the British
intelligence service or Irish collaborators, not innocent civilians.
Whatever the case, Collins, who was yesterday's terrorist now became
today's dignified statesman.
Jordan unfortunately leaves out the British side of the story. Instead,
they're all evil or supporters of evil. Jordan is not adverse to
twisting historical facts to make the British seem worse. The scene of
the massacre at the soccer match is exaggeratedno armored vehicle
entered the premises and machine gunned people in the stands. A British
Court of Inquiry found that the actions of the paramilitary group "was
carried out without orders and exceeded the demands of the situation."
The commander of the Dublin District stated that "the firing on the
crowd was carried out without orders, was indiscriminate, and
unjustifiable, with the exception of any shooting which took place
inside the enclosure." Nonetheless it was also true that this inquiry
was suppressed by the British government. The King of England and some
British politicians expressed their horror at the Bloody Sunday
massacre and such a public relations disaster did much to strengthen
the hand of de Valera's government, eventually leading to the peace
treaty between Ireland and England.
The killing of the double agent Irish detective who aided Collins, Ned
Broy, also appeared to be designed by Jordan to manipulate the audience
into hating the British even more. Broy is actually a composite
character of three people. While people were tortured by the British
(particularly those who were involved in the assassinations of British
intelligence agents on Bloody Sunday), Broy lived well into his 80s.
Jordan's decision to take a few liberties with historical events and
characters doesn't seem so bad in light of his overall success in
depicting the chronology of events in the Irish fight for independence
and its aftermath. Nonetheless, aside from Collins (and perhaps de
Valera) most of the other characters in the drama are unremarkable and
certainly Julia Roberts has little to do as the love interest between
Collins and sideman Boland.
While necessary, after a while, many of the violent goings on in
Michael Collins, felt more like a docudrama. Only when the conflict
between de Valera and Collins heats up, can one say that the narrative
becomes truly compelling. Again what's missing is the British point of
view (and perhaps a singular antagonist) which could have added to the
efficaciousness of this well staged period piece.