By Dermot Keegan
This year marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most famous films ever made in Ireland.
Written and directed by Neil Jordan and starring Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea, Alan Rickman, and Julia Roberts, Michael Collins, which was the box office smash of 1996. The film dramatizes the short but eventful life of one of Ireland’s most famous sons (memorably portrayed by Liam Neeson) to tell the story of the most politically contentious and bloodily violent period in modern Irish history, from the 1916 Easter Rising and the War of Independence to the 1921 treaty negotiations with Great Britain—which led to the controversial partition of the country into a six-county Northern Ireland controlled by Great Britain and a twenty-six county Irish Free State—and the resulting Civil War between proponents and opponents of that treaty.
Collins was at the heart of events throughout the entire period, beginning with his participation as an Irish Volunteer in the ill-fated Easter rebellion at the General Post Office in Dublin. Following his release from prison in 1917, he returned to Dublin where he played leading roles in the newly formed Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its political wing, Sinn Fein. In 1922, when he was Commander-in-Chief of the Irish Free State Army and the Irish Civil War was winding down, Collins was killed during an inspection tour of his native County Cork.
He was thirty-one years old. The film was a long-delayed dream project for Irish writer-director Jordan, who wrote the first of several screenplays for the film in 1982, but for which he repeatedly found it impossible to secure the financing. As Jordan has explained, over a twelve-year period he would write and submit a new version of the script, then go off to make a new film while waiting for the response from studio heads.
It was not until 1995, following the declaration of an indefinite ceasefire by the IRA and Jordan’s box-office success with Interview with the Vampire and Liam Neeson’s rise to fame with Schindler’s List that Warner Bros. deemed the climate right for the funding of such a politically controversial project.
Throughout the filming, in fact, Jordan was acutely aware of the then-ongoing peace process, which would eventually culminate in the April 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which called for the decommissioning of arms by the IRA and other paramilitary groups. Jordan observed, “The process was eerie in the way a whole series of contemporary events paralleled the ones in the past we were filming.”
Not surprisingly, Michael Collins became the subject of political controversy in the British media, even before some critics had seen the film, with the most virulent attacks condemning it as “pro-IRA propaganda” and an “anti-British travesty,” with at least one newspaper editorial calling for the film to be banned. It received more measured critical response in Ireland, where the film broke box-office records, since it provided a forum for the public discussion of important but often taboo historical issues. While Michael Collins necessarily used some dramatic license in its interpretation, Jordan, a former student of history at University College Dublin, defended his film as “accurate to the broad course of the events it depicts,” a view with which most historians, whether British or Irish, accepted to a significant degree.
The identity of a people and a nation is determined by a shared recounted story. Bloody Sunday has been central to the ‘Irish story’. The enemy of consideration of Bloody Sunday is lack of nuance. Sowing the seed of nuance though is tough. The first challenge is to dispense with the myth. For many younger and, indeed, older people, their abiding image of that day is that from Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins: Machine-gun equipped armoured cars go into Croke Park and open fire.
Jordan would explain his deviation from fact on the understandable grounds that he felt the machine-gunned tank captured the faceless callousness of imperialism more strikingly than soldiers shooting, explaining that ‘I wanted the scene to last 30 seconds’. The film was about Michael Collins, not the events in Croke Park, but Bloody Sunday went on for much longer than 30 seconds. The sad reality is that the film did not do justice to the visceral bloodbath that was Bloody Sunday.
The film begins with the Easter Rising of 1916, after which Collins and his compatriots surrender to the British. Liam Neeson carries off Collins’s charisma. One criticism that has been made of the film is when Neeson made this, he was 44. In 1916, Collins was 25. He was assassinated at the age of 31.
Accurately, Collins is shown asking young men to kill for the Irish republican cause – but the fact that Neeson is visibly twice their age it has been suggested changes the tone, making him look more like a behind-the-scenes manipulator. After the Easter Rising, the film depicts the cold-blooded firing-squad executions of its leaders by the British authorities. In real life, that event pushed many Irish people into sympathy with the republican cause.
The film captures the level of emotional impact. It’s more difficult to maintain sympathy for the republicans when they too start killing people, but most of the time Neil Jordan does a fine job of balancing the humanity of the individuals concerned with an accurate picture of the fierceness of the fight.
The film shows Éamon de Valera (Alan Rickman) setting Collins up to lead negotiations in London, knowing it will be impossible to secure either full republican status or a united Ireland. Secretly, he hopes that Collins will take the fall for the concessions. What is more problematic is that the film goes on to imply strongly that De Valera was behind Collins’s assassination.
A fictional teenage boy (played by a young Jonathan Rhys Meyers who would go on to star as Henry VIII in The Tudors) is shown acting as De Valera’s loyal spy and messenger, and afterwards shooting Collins in an ambush. In real life, though they fought each other in the civil war, De Valera wanted to negotiate with Collins. He was not involved in the ambush: actually, he tried to stop it.
“I don’t mean to imply that De Valera had anything to do with the assassination,” said Jordan. Critics argue that why identify De Valera’s boy as the assassin, and why end the movie on a quote from the real De Valera which is made to sound bitter: “History will record the greatness of Michael Collins, and it will be at my expense”? The film has caused many people to speculate what would have happened if Collins had not died so young. Neil Jordan claims: “The death of Collins has the same resonance in Ireland as the death of John Kennedy did in the United States. Because he died so young, people imagine all sorts of lost possibilities.’’