History and the Movies: Michael Collins (1996)

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To view Michael Collins click here.

“If the price of freedom, if the price of peace, is the blackening of my name, I will gladly pay it.”

Those are the words of Michael Collins as spoken by Liam Neeson. Actually, to put it more accurately, those are the words of Neil Jordan, writer and director of Michael Collins(1996), as spoken by Liam Neeson portraying Michael Collins. It’s the kind of thing Michael Collins may have said but didn’t. And maybe that’s all that matters. History and the movies have always been uncomfortable bedfellows and I have long argued that I don’t care if the history is correct in the movie as long as A) the movie works and B) the history is broadly accurate in spirit. As I wrote here years ago, I’m watching the movie for the entertainment, not the history lesson. If I want to learn the history, I can read about it whenever I want. So when a filmmaker changes certain aspects of history to further dramatize the story, I don’t usually mind as long as no one’s character is being irreparably smeared (see First Officer Murdoch in James Cameron’s Titanic). And, indeed, Jordan does change certain things in his effort to make the fight for Ireland’s independence more accessible to a wider audience without completely rewriting history. He does pick on Eamon de Valera (Alan Rickman) just a little bit by portraying him as a self-centered and jealous leader, a president of the Republic of Ireland who would rather start a civil war than agree to favorable terms he didn’t negotiate (the Anglo-Irish Treaty). In actuality, he believed the terms weren’t favorable and refused to cave on his principles. Michael Collins, on the other hand, both historically and in the movie, felt the treaty, which insured a certain measure of independence for Ireland, was a necessary first step. But does any of this make for a good movie?

There was a short period of time back in the 1990s when Liam Neeson was doing well as a period actor (Schindler’s List [1993], Rob Roy [1995], Ethan Frome [1993]), long before he became known to a younger generation almost exclusively as the guy from the Taken (2008, 2012, 2014) series. During this time, Neeson took on the role of Michael Collins, the Irish patriot who spent his very short life fighting for Irish independence from the British Empire. That role may still be the one most perfectly suited for Neeson’s gifts as an actor and his own physical makeup. While he’s not a dead ringer for Collins, he’s a pretty damn good match, and his acting style, one that has always reminded me of a brawny, quiet man holding back the anger and chaos just under the surface, works perfectly for the young activist and fighter. There’s nary a moment in the movie when the viewer doesn’t feel that Collins might unleash the beast inside. This works marvelously well at making us appreciate just how much restraint Collins is employing in dealing with the British, and de Valera, later on. He hates the empire and would die trying to break Ireland free from it but his love for Ireland also gives him the strength to do what he needs to do when the time comes.

Austin Powers in Goldmember

And all of that works, all of the parts that give us an inside feel for Michael Collins himself. What doesn’t work necessarily well is the feeling that Neil Jordan wanted to get as much history as he could into the short time frame his film allotted at the expense of understanding Collins. The scenes don’t feel as though they’ve had time to play out before we’re off to another political debate, committee fight, fiery speech or violent standoff. One could argue that making a film like that is, indeed, in keeping with Collins’s tumultuous and frenetic life, one that ended quite soon when he was shot dead at the age of 31 (yes, Neeson was 44 when he filmed this but still had a young enough face to pull it off). But a movie about Collins should provide more than tumult and we never really get a feel for Collins the young man, and what keeps him moving forward. I’m not saying the basic explanations aren’t there, as in he was an Irish patriot fighting for his rights, I’m saying that we never get a feeling that this is a movie about Collins so much as a dramatic reenactment of the struggle for Ireland’s independence. Fortunately, that still makes for a good period piece and a fairly entertaining film but it could have been so much more.

The performance by Neeson, as stated above, is one of his best and he carries the film while others would make it falter. Julia Roberts, a top star at the time, was brought on board in an attempt to give the movie some added star power. And don’t get me wrong, I think Julia Roberts is a talented actress but she simply doesn’t work here. Her accent is unconvincing on the one hand and her modern cadence and manner is distracting on the other. There are certain actors who work best playing in a contemporary time frame and I think Roberts is one of them. Others in the cast, like Aidan Quinn as Harry Boland, do well but don’t have much to do except respond to whatever Collins or de Valera say, never feeling like anything more than a standard foil, first to de Valera, then to Collins. Stephen Rea gives a deliberate understated performance as Ned Broy but, again, seems less a character than a historical reenactment and finally, Alan Rickman, one of the most talented actors of the 1990s and beyond, plays de Valera a bit… too much. Neil Jordan said that he nixed many Irish actors that he felt were playing caricatures of de Valera rather than a real person but Rickman feels exactly the same way. He doesn’t feel like de Valera, he feels like Alan Rickman carefully saying each word to look and sound like de Valera. It is unfortunate that such an important character in the movie feels distracting every time he is on the screen.

Still, I’d recommend it. I’d recommend it as a starter guide to a very compelling period in the history of Ireland, one that has interested me for years, perhaps because of my grandmother, Nellie Frances Keenan, and my father’s constant reminder that just because we had an Italian last name, we shouldn’t ignore our Irish roots. But mainly I’d recommend it to see Liam Neeson give an energetic and powerful performance as Collins himself. Sometimes, a powerful performance is all you need.

Greg Ferrara

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11 Responses History and the Movies: Michael Collins (1996)
Posted By swac44 : August 25, 2017 9:18 am

I saw this film shortly after a trip to Ireland, and visiting many of the key Dublin sites of the Irish uprising, and also reading a few books about the struggle (there’s one called The Troubles that was very detailed, but clearly written), and while I was intrigued to see the period portrayed on the big screen, it had a bit of a Coles Notes feel about it, and many key players were either trivialized or left out.

I haven’t seen Michael Collins since it was released, but my memory is that it fell short of the mark, despite the powerhouse cast. Maybe it needed a longer running time to achieve the epic quality it was after, and get a little closer to the truth of the situation. I’ll throw in my recommendation for Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley for a more powerful statement about “The Troubles”, but it’s from the perspective of the everyday Irish freedom fighter, so these two films fit quite well together as a double feature.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 25, 2017 10:36 am

We are in agreement. As I said in the piece, it’s about Neeson’s performance for me and not much else. Your description of it as a Coles Notes version is dead on. Harry Boland’s character is so undeveloped there was nothing for Aiden Quinn to do and nothing, except Michael Collins insistence that Boland was important, that really clued the audience in to why Boland was an important figure.

And Julia Roberts, who has done a lot of fine work in other movies, feels like Keanu Reeves in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, out of place and out of time. The very same year, I think, she did Mary Reilly, which didn’t do too well in theaters either and brought an end to her attempt as becoming a period actress doing accents.

Posted By S stranger : August 25, 2017 1:32 pm

I had no complaint about Michael Collins. Excellent actors. I’ve only had trouble with the American actress Julia Roberts playing an Irish maid….she was too iconic and recognizable to use, distracting from the reality in the film and her horrible accent. There were so many excellent Irish actresses who could have contributed their skill…. it made it less. When will directors and producers learn that a ‘name’ is meaningless to the integrity of the film.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 25, 2017 2:55 pm

Ain’t that the truth. Coppola did not want to use Reeves but having him as the star was a part of the financing deal. I assume that it helped Neil Jordan get the budget he needed for Michael Collins by having Julia Roberts on board. She was a superstar but ended up as nothing but a distraction in the movie.

Posted By Arthur : August 26, 2017 11:16 am

I’d like to pick up on a side note.

You write, “History and the movies have always been uncomfortable bedfellows and I have long argued that I don’t care if the history is correct in the movie as long as A) the movie works and B) the history is broadly accurate in spirit.”

When I saw the Kevin Costner film, THE UNTOUCHABLES, I was surprised to “learn” that then DA Thomas Dewey was corrupt. I had always thought that he was a complete straight shooter. Only to find out later that the popular perception of him was correct. His portrayal in the movie was an exercise in “poetic license.”

His descendants were none too pleased, but there was nothing they could do about it. Hmmmmm If you ask me, there ought to be a law. . . .

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 26, 2017 12:43 pm

Arthur, that’s another interesting example of smearing a real person for no good reason. If a corrupt DA is necessary for your script, invent a fictional DA. With TITANIC, if Cameron really needed a scene where an officer takes a bribe, shoots two passengers, and then kills himself, he simply should have invented a fictional officer instead of using First Officer Murdoch. It seems like basic decency: If you’re using a real person in your movie who was not famous (i.e. a president, movie star, etc) don’t destroy their reputation just to make a scene work. Invent a character to do that and it will be fine. I mean, what the hell?

Posted By Arthur : August 26, 2017 3:54 pm

Perhaps directors should be required or somehow strongly encouraged to attach disclaimers in the opening or closing credits in such cases? Free speech is not without its own set of inherent problems.

Posted By Marco : August 27, 2017 11:00 pm

I had an Irish girlfriend some years ago, and studied Irish history for several years. When we traveled to Ireland, I spent weeks touring all of the important sites of the 1916 Rebellion and the Civil War, including the site where Michael Collins was killed at Beal na Blath in County Cork. One of the books I read was Tim Pat Coogan’s “Michael Collins” which the movie was largely based on. A few years later, I met Coogan at a book signing and spent time with him in an Irish pub. When I asked him about the movie that was being made about the Big Fellow, he told me that Kevin Costner had been signed to play Collins in the movie. I remember telling Coogan what a disaster Costner would be portraying Collins, since he was ridiculed for his lousy accent in “Robin Hood” and that he could never handle a convincing Irish accent. Coogan agreed that it was a bit of a stretch, but that Costner would add a big name to the movie and that was the only way it would get made. I told him that there was only one actor who could play Collins, and that was Liam Neeson. Fortunately, a fiasco called “Water World” intervened, and Costner couldn’t start his role as Collins. Liam Neeson was terrific as Collins, and his performance made the movie into a credible historical film. The worst thing in the movie was Julia Roberts pretending to be the Irish love interest of Collins and Boland. She was brought on to add a big name to the movie, and she was very unconvincing as Kitty Kiernan. Just think how bad it would have been if she had played opposite Kevin Costner. If anyone wants to read a great book on the Easter Rising, I highly recommend “Rebels: The Irish Rising Of 1916″ by Peter de Rosa. It’s all true, but it reads like a historical novel.

Posted By swac44 : August 28, 2017 8:08 am

As I commented on a post on another film about The Troubles, the James Cagney drama Shake Hands With the Devil, a fictionalized version of Collins is portrayed by Michael Redgrave, referred to only as “the General”. He’s really an amalgam of players, but Collins seems to be the likely inspiration. Shot largely in Ireland, it’s worth seeing as a companion piece.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 28, 2017 9:34 am

Marco, I envy you that you got to go to Ireland, something I still haven’t done, and two, that you got to have a great conversation at an Irish pub with Coogan. Like you, I am quite relieved it was not Costner (whew!) and really wish Roberts had been left out as well. And as we clearly agree, Neeson was the only person to play Collins. Not enough people know about this role and how it is among the best, if not the best, of his career.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 28, 2017 9:35 am

Swac, I have never seen Shake Hands with the Devil and have two unbroken arms to set it up with so I don’t know what I’m waiting for.

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