Michael Collins: The Films Critics

Michael Collins: The Film’s Critics

In 1996 the release of the film ‘Michael Collins’ directed by Neil Jordan brought the story of Michael Collins to a worldwide audience and cemented his status, for many, as one of Irelands greatest hero’s. Retrospectively, we can look back at the hagiographical portrayal of ‘The Big Fella’ as what is to be expected of a Hollywood blockbuster biography at the time. While they may tell a story from history, its main aim is entertainment rather than historical accuracy with romance, villainy and heartbreak taking centre stage above political ideologies. This type of historical film was the fashion of the time with others in a similar vein such as Braveheart and Rob Roy, featuring the same leading man, Liam Neeson, released just prior in 1995. The misunderstanding of the subtle disclaimer of ‘based on a true story’ and the general structure and creation of a Hollywood movie is something that is often overlooked by commentators critiquing biographical films. This is something that is certainly true of how the Michael Collins film was received particular by the political and history communities in a politically turbulent Ireland in 1996

Films are constructed from screenplays. A screenplay almost always consists of three Acts that are broadly similar to the Acts of a play – i.e the exposition, complication, and resolution. The film will not usually have a central cast of more than six characters, though unlike a play, support roles can be extensive. In Hollywood, these characters will usually provide a love interest and villain for the central character. The writer of the screenplay writes approximately one page of dialogue for each minute of screen time, and he/she must try to ensure that each line moves the plot forward. Unlike other artistic media, films have little opportunity for speculative or though provoking dialogue.

Most films will conform to this basic structure, It will be immediately apparent that history does not usually conform to this structure. Therefore, it is usually difficult for a screen writer to write a historically accurate screenplay. Add to this the fact that much of the dialogue initially uttered by the real people went un-recorded, and strict historical accuracy becomes almost impossible. Many of Ireland’s traditional film reviewers understood this and treated the Collins film as they would others, rating its entertainment value and the performances of its participants. In this regard the film received relatively positive reviews. Yet, on its release, much of the Irish discourse surrounding Jordan’s Michael Collins seemed to focus less on the film and more on the history as well as the contemporary politics of 1990s Ireland.

Fr. Michael Twohig, author of The Dark Secret of Béal na Bláth, was probably the most visceral in his demolition of the film. Referring to Liam Neeson’s stature and Julia Roberts’ teeth, Twohig declared, ‘if there were to be a bedroom scene between Neeson and Roberts judging from Rob Roy, it is going to look like a giraffe collapsing onto a frightened fawn, sporting a set of teeth like a graveyard.’ Twohig attacked the film’s well-known inaccuracies regarding the deaths of Ned Broy and Harry Boland, but never once commented on the screenplay or entertainment value.[1]

The Sunday Times also chimed in with a list of the film’s historical inaccuracies, while Professor Tom Garvin called the film’s ending ‘a total fiction.’[2] Writing in the Sunday Tribune, Stephen Collins accepted that the film ‘may be a good movie but it is bad history.’[3] Collins’s article went on to hint at a fear that grew in intensity between the film’s premiere in Venice in late August and its Irish premiere in November. The summer of 1996 had seen widespread rioting in the wake of the Drumcree standoff. This came in the midst of a renewed Provisional IRA bombing campaign which was mostly confined to Britain, and continued hostilities by the Continuity IRA. The peace which had looked possible after the Provisional IRA’s ceasefire in 1994 seemed to have been blown away by the Canary Wharf bombing in February. In the Tribune, Collins was concerned that the film failed to mention ‘the 1918 election, which gave something of a democratic mandate to the Irish Volunteers.’[4] There seemed to be a fear that this patriotic look at a republican hero may further encourage the contemporary dissidents or, in the least, encourage an increased support for them. For this reason the official promotional material for the movie in Europe had the patriotism toned down in. A poster of Liam Neeson in a victorious pose, holding a rifle in one hand above his head with the Irish tricolour flowing behind was replaced with a more reserved image of Collins the politician.

After the Irish premiere in November, the criticism that Collins had just hinted at, took centre stage. Although best known as a professional historian, Paul Bew seemed content to flirt with contemporary politics when decrying the film’s allegedly inserting ‘the terrorist technology of the present … into the “heroic” past of Irish history.’ In a manner that was common at the time, Bew pointed out the film’s many historical inaccuracies and omissions, without considering that the insertion of every historical detail, may have resulted in a screenplay that nobody would invest in. But it was his assertion that the film attempted to portray the politician and alleged former terrorist Gerry Adams as a ‘latter day Collins’ that raised eyebrows. According to Bew Jordan’s film had something in common with Adam’s autobiography (Before the Dawn, Brandon Books, 1996) in that ‘the guiding principle of both works is the same: selective amnesia in pursuit of an unbending political agenda. And woe betide those who don’t accommodate themselves to it.’ Thus having bemoaned Jordan’s film ‘gratuitously inserting the terrorist technology’ of the 1990s into its narrative, he himself thematically inserts the biography of a man who is never mentioned in the film. [5] Bew’s venture into political commentary was used by the former terrorist turned Loyalist politician David Ervine, when he cited the historian’s critique in his call for Northern Irish Unionists to boycott the film.[6]

Ruth Dudley Edwards was perhaps more used to forays into contemporary politics and condemned the film as ‘grossly irresponsible.’ Her historiographical concerns were the omissions of any mention of Home Rule, or of the unpopularity of the rising in 1916.[7] Her political concern was that the Provisional IRA ‘claiming Collins as their own.’[8] Professors Tom Garvan and Roy Foster also expressed a fear that Jordan’s Collins might somehow be used to justify the continuing violence of the Provisional IRA. Collins’s nephew and namesake dismissed these fears, conceding that while the film contained violent scenes, it was at its core, a depiction of historical events. Collins also repudiated Eoghan Harris’s (who had written a Collins screenplay that almost made it into production) assertion that the film was ‘dangerous Provo propaganda – the remark of a dark character.’[9] Neil Jordan went a little further, and perhaps validated some of Paul Bew’s concerns in defending the films historical content, but also referring to contemporary political developments:

Yesterday’s terrorist is today’s statesman and I have no apologies to make about the film. It shows an attempt by one character who is involved in warfare to replace warfare with politics. That is the continuing story of Ireland and Britain.[10]

Stephen Rea went much further in his reaction to the critique. Rea barely referred to the film, placing two feet firmly in political waters when criticising those who had critiqued Jordan’s work. With regard to the political concerns of some commentators, he bluntly rebuffed:

It’s like their ashamed of what their grandparents did. Fuck them. I hate them because they have inordinate influence. For some reason nowadays it’s meant to be terrible to be a nationalist and not to be a unionist. The nationalists have made huge steps away from their traditional position but the unionists haven’t. And still everybody is meant to think that the PUP and David Ervine are delightful human beings. It’s a load of balls.[11]

For his part, Liam Neeson seemed to have tired of the controversy. He was taken seriously ill after the premiere in Venice and reportedly looked tired and pale during premieres in Cork and Dublin. Addressing the political controversy that had raged around the film, Neeson seemed disappointed and resigned to the fact that his work would not be credited by all:

It’s a real mixed bag of emotions, in a way I’m kissing Michael Collins goodbye … It’s funny I was really looking forward to coming over here … But now I feel as if everyone wants you to be a politician and a diplomat and to solve every problem in Europe, when all you want to say is that it’s a movie and that hopefully it’s entertainment.[12]

In the end the controversy surrounding the film seemed to emanate in large part from people straying into territory in which they could not claim expertise. Historians were suddenly film critics or politicians. Film makers were historians, and journalists were film makers and historians. In a democratic and free society, citizens are allowed to express opinions on subject matters where they cannot claim expertise. It is for that society to decide how much weight it attaches to such in-expert opinions. Regardless of its detractors the movie succeeded where it matters most, at the box office and became Irelands highest grossing film ever on its release here, making over four million pounds.

While there is some artistic licence taken and some historical inaccuracies for the majority of people it is accepted for what it is, a Hollywood movie. For us at Michael Collins House, it is a double edged sword. The film makes the story of Michael Collins accessible to a wide and international audience and creates further interest in the topic but we do find ourselves often attempting to correct the skewed narrative which has been accepted as gospel by some. The story of Michael Collins and what he achieved in his short lifetime is something which could never be accurately simplified into a traditional 90min screen play but nonetheless forms the bases for an entertaining movie ‘based on a true story’.

[1] The Examiner, 5 February 1996.

[2] The Cork Examiner, 17 January 1996. See also; See also; The Sunday Times, 14 January 1996.

[3] Sunday Tribune, 1 September 1996.

[4] Ibid. Collins’s statement is debateable as the film certainly illustrates a political campaign taking place in the wake of the 1916 Rising, and before the meetings of the Cabinet.

[5] Irish Independent, 7 November 1996. Bew’s central argument was that the use of a phrase like ‘take the gun out of Irish politics’ and the insertion of a car bomb scene, were not historically accurate and framed a deliberate attempt to frame a historical narrative in a contemporary context.

[6] Irish Independent, 19 October 1996.

[7] Dudley Edwards assertion that the rising was unpopular in 1916 has of course been challenged (by Joe Lee with reference to the provincial media and the route marches of the 1916 prisoners through heavily Unionist parts of Dublin.

[8] Irish Independent, 7 November 1996

[9] The Examiner, 30 August 1996. Evening Herald (Time Out), 7 November 1996.

[10] Sunday Tribune, 1 September 1996.

[11] Evening Herald (Time Out), 7 November 1996.

[12] Ibid.

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