by Michael Wilson
The turn of the last century brought turmoil and triumph to the world. Within the first two decades the first airplane flew, the world’s largest ship Titanic was built and sunk, and World War I was fought. When history is studied many people notice the important role that the British Empire played, but the civil strife that racked Ireland is often overlooked.
The story opens with the final hours of the 1916 Easter Rising. Out of the surrender, IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) leader Michael Collins takes charge. He rebuilds the tattered remnants of the Irish resistance in Dublin, springs Eamon de Valera from prison, and develops new tactics to fight the British. This new outbreak of hostilities becomes known as the Anglo-Irish War. Escalation of violence eventually brings the British to the negotiating table. Collins fails to negotiate for a free Irish Republic, but he is able to come away with an Irish Free State under the British Crown. After the populace votes in favor of the treaty, de Valera leads his supporters in an open revolt that turns into the Irish Civil War. Collins is named Commander in Chief of the National Army, and soon becomes engaged to Kitty Kiernan. Shortly after his engagement he leaves on a mission to speak directly with de Valera but he is assassinated. The movie ends with his funeral.
This film, while focusing on the role of one particular man, Michael Collins, actually deals with the issue of Irish independence. By the 1920’s, when a majority of the film takes place, Ireland has been under British rule for approximately 700 years. Despite being the closest of the British Colonies, Ireland was constantly in revolt and constantly oppressed by the Crown of England. Groups such as the Black and Tans (recruited in the 1920s to the Royal Irish Constabulary) regularly terrorized the public and increased tensions, leading up the mission of Michael Collins and his tactics that eventually give all but six counties in the north independence. Sadly, it was his friend and fellow rebel Eamon de Valera that vilified Michael Collins the most and later said during his 1926 presidency, “It is my considered opinion that in the fullness of time history will record the greatness of Michael Collins, and it will be recorded at my expense.”
Throughout the movie many important Irish resistance leaders are depicted; though most play a minute role, there are five characters of consequence in the film: Michael Collins, Harry Boland, Eamon de Valera, Kitty Kiernan, and Ned Broy. Of the five listed above all but Ned Broy are portrayed as historical characters. Liam Neeson, who plays Michael Collins, does a phenomenal job. Neeson is able to convey the sheer passion and courage of rebel leader while maintaining the seriousness of the film. Neeson’s walk and stature are that of a man who is there to get things done, not mess around. Surprisingly, Neeson looks very similar to Michael Collins except for the fact that he is a touch taller. Neeson also shows himself to be a master in exploding into famed Irish cursing rages. Harry Boland, Michael Collins’ good friend, was played by American actor Aidan Quinn. Quinn does a decent job overall but does not display superior acting. Quinn however does a much better job with the Irish accent than some of the other actors on the set. In regards to his appearance, the real Harry Boland had a little more weight in the face but Quinn does look similar enough to be a brother. Kitty Kiernan is played by Julia Roberts, an American actress who is known for her role in the film Erin Brockovich. Roberts’ only shortcoming in the film is the accent which sounds oddly fake, almost as though she is trying too hard to make it work. Despite this setback Roberts does a dazzling job portraying the charm that the real Kitty Kiernan is said to have possessed. This charm in the film and in history grabs the attention of both Michael Collins and Harry Boland; this is one of the many issues that strain their friendship. In the end it is Michael that Kitty gets engaged to. In the final minutes of the film, after Michael is assassinated, Kitty emotionally breaks down. It could be argued that Roberts’ portrayal looks fake, but on the contrary it is an accurate depiction of someone who has lost everything, in this case a fiancé and the hope for a united country. Eamon de Valera, an Irish American who is a major political figure and rebel in Ireland, is played by British actor Allan Rickman. Rickman ’s portrayal of de Valera rivals Neeson’s portrayal of Collins as far as quality of acting is concerned. De Valera is accurately shown to be an ardent Republican dedicated to the freedom of the country of Ireland. Rickman’s distinct voice helps to illuminate the side opposing Michael Collins during the Irish Civil War. Of the five important characters in the movie only Ned Broy is portrayed hugely fictional. Ned Broy was a real person, but the character in the movie is actually a combination of the real Ned Broy and a fellow rebel Dick Mckee. Ned Broy was played by Irish actor Stephen Rea. Rea’s acting is cool, calculating and honest. Rea really gets across the feeling of an everyday man who decides to help out.
While the movie is mostly historically accurate there are a few discrepancies that help build the story of the film but are not historically accurate. The first scene of the movie is the surrender of rebel forces during the Easter Rising of 1916. The movie shows Eamon de Valera, Harry Boland, and Michael Collins surrendering at the General Post Office. In all actuality Eamon de Valera surrendered at a biscuit factory where he was Commandant. Harry Boland and Michael Collins evacuated with the rest of the GPO garrison from the burning post office the day before the surrender to another building down the street. The way the scene was shot for the film was very important so that most of the major rebel characters entered at the same time showing a unity of purpose. Later in the film Eamon de Valera is arrested again and Michael Collins and Harry Boland lead a raid to spring him from the Lincoln County Jail in England. This event never happened; in fact, Eamon de Valera was released. Director Neil Jordan’s decision to go ahead with the scene gave him an opportunity to show the bonds of brotherhood that had developed between the main characters. About three quarters of the way through the movie there is a massacre of rugby fans at Croagh Park by the Black and Tans, the British Constable Reserves. The film depicts the dramatic entrance of an armored car crashing through the wooden fence and then raining fire on the crowd with its twin machine guns. This event which did take place did not include a tan; rather the Black and Tans attacked the crowd with rifles. The real Ned Broy survived the war, unlike the character in the movie, and went on to become commissioner for the army. The fate of the character from the movie was actually that of Irish resistance leader and intelligence officer Dick McKee who was tortured and shot by British Intelligence. The death of Harry Boland immediately after the battle for the Four Courts during the Irish Civil War did not take place in a river. Harry Boland was shot to death in a hotel next to the river. It is accurate that following his death Michael Collins started trying to work out the peace deals that eventually led to his assassination in county Cork. It is however an inaccuracy that Joe O’Reilly was there to cradle the dead leader.
Along with a story that closely followed history, there are several important artifacts and concepts that are important to our understanding of the story and its relation to history. The Irish flag for instance is shown throughout the movie. The flag itself consists of a green bar and a gold bar separated by a white one. The green stand for the Catholics, the gold for the Protestants, and the white represents the truce between the two. The flag was first legitimized around the time of the Easter Rising in 1916. Early on in the film Michael Collins tells his troops that they will be organized into “flying columns,” a strategy that he is credited with transferring to urban warfare. The flying column refers to a group of men who have one goal and carry little in the way of extra baggage. This allows them to move quickly and strike fast. Other tactics such as dressing your soldiers in street clothes so they blend back into the crowd were further pioneered by Michael Collins. To supplement his troops during the Irish War for independence, Michael formed a group called the twelve disciples. They were charged with assassinating British intelligence officers and were widely successful. The brutality of the fighting that Michael Collins led brought the British to the negotiating tables and ended the war. The names of all twelve disciples have never been found. The song that is played in the beginning of the movie and carried on throughout it is The Chieftains’ rendition of “The Foggy Dew” with Sinead O’Connor singing. The song is attributed to Peadar Kearney, the man who wrote the Irish national anthem, and was written towards the end of World War I.
Director Neil Jordan should be given a lot of credit for his ability to take a story that spans almost a decade and keep it both entertaining and historically accurate. The film itself was shot in Ireland and amounted to almost 20% of the Irish film industry’s budget for 1996. An extraordinary attention to detail was achieved. Everything from the guns and uniforms of the soldiers to the automobiles and civilian clothes were period reconstructions of the highest quality. When Michael Collins was released it had a rating of PG despite all the blood, violence and cursing. The censor stated that its historical content outweighed the violence and that parents should review the film. Apparently the message got across for Michael Collins is the second highest grossing film in Irish history. This movie is a fitting tribute to a man that people are having a hard time remembering as a hero.