Neil Jordan (writer/director), Michael Collins
“War is murder,” Michael Collins (Liam Neeson) barks in the movie titled after him. “Sheer bloody murder! Had you been here the past year, you’d know that.” Collins directs this at Eamon de Valera (Alan Rickman), leader of the 1919 Irish Rising, and eventual founding President of the Irish Republic. This represents the tension throughout this film, between the diplomat and public face of the Irish War of Independence, and the soldier who commanded that war.
Diametrically the opposite of films like Gandhi and Selma, which selectively celebrate peaceful rebels against unjust governments, Michael Collins unabashedly praises a man willing to kill people, burn buildings, and smash items, to achieve his people’s independence. Though auteur director Neil Jordan makes Collins a hero, he doesn’t prettify him, or his struggles. Wars are won, this movie makes plain, by people who have no place in the peace. In fighting, Michael Collins loses everything.
The story unfolds against the background of British occupation in Ireland. The Irish people mainly speak English, and London-style rowhouses pack close against Dublin’s sooty streets. Like Rome and other empires before, Britain has brought Ireland stability, but at the cost of crushing the occupied people’s identity, usually through violence. Ireland remains peaceful if the Irish stop being Irish. But one peep of demand for equality, justice, or freedom, and leaders meet flying British lead.
Born working-class and hungry in West Cork, Michael Collins rose through Sinn Fein ranks by a combination of strategic insight and public eloquence. But when the Easter Rising of 1916 ends in disaster, and a massive, violent purge of Sinn Fein leadership, Collins survives through sheer luck: the British don’t realize who he is. They turn him loose on Dublin’s foggy streets to resume agitating for independence. He doesn’t take long to develop a following.
|Alan Rickman (left) and Liam Neeson in Michael Collins|
De Valera finds Collins’ tactics appalling. Even when they work to Dev’s favor, boosting him from prison and helping him re-establish his underground government, Dev attempts to constrain Collins. Dev wants the world to recognize Ireland’s legitimate independence, and fears Collins’ assassination campaign makes the Irish look depraved and psychopathic. New York-born Dev spends a year in America, wheedling uselessly for Woodrow Wilson’s recognition. Collins spends that year killing quislings. Only one man makes any progress.
Throughout, Collins attempts to retain a normal Irish existence. He tries playing football with the boys, singing at craics, and maintaining a relationship with his love, Kitty Kiernan, played by Julia Roberts. (Roberts, a blatant nod to American markets, has the worst fake Irish accent since that prancing ninny from the Lucky Charms commercials.) But the longer the story continues, the clearer it becomes he can’t be normal. Wartime makes him choose: life, or nation?
We already know Collins wins. But Dev’s last gambit pays huge dividends: rather than negotiating the peace treaty himself, Dev sends Michael Collins, nobody’s idea of a diplomat. This produces a treaty that grants Ireland incomplete independence, partitions the North, and gives Churchill control over Ireland’s military affairs. Overnight, Collins descends from national hero to villain, and civil war erupts. Collins, who spent years fighting for Irish independence, is forced to fight against Irish partisans.
This movie has garnered criticism for historical inaccuracies, particularly lionizing Collins at de Valera’s expense. Some important events are combined despite happening years and miles apart. Soldiers’ fates are presented in ways that didn’t necessarily happen, but make a better screen picture. Even Neil Jordan has admitted fictionalizing the story for better comprehensibility, especially for international markets. For historical purists, I recommend Tim Pat Coogan’s engaging, but huge, Michael Collins: the Man Who Made Ireland.
Americans like to worship heroes who supposedly achieve political ends through non-violent means. We make saints of Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi, despite our own seven-year Revolution. This movie clarifies that, in global affairs, sometimes victory really matters more than the means. But this doesn’t make Michael Collins an unmixed hero. He gained his people a nation, but lost everything for himself. Neil Jordan stresses that war isn’t glorious, it’s just the price we pay.