Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Historical epics seemed to have gone out of fashion in the 1990s. There were lavishly expensive action films, of course, but historical events took second place to invasions from space. There's that Mel Gibson movie in Scotland as one exception, and Ron Howard even took some 65mm equipment out of mothballs for his oddly unwatchable epic western, Far and Away. Irish director Neil Jordan had come up through various 'outsider' English dramas, the cult film The Company of Wolves and scored big with Mona Lisa, The Crying Game and Interview with the Vampire. That brought him directly to a subject dear to many an Irish patriot, 'the troubles' of the early 20th century. Revolutionary Michael Collins is bigger than life and also a little mysterious, a genuine icon of the Irish cultural memory. Jordan's ambitious film gives history a good shake, presenting contentious events in an even-handed but always pro-Irish way. Mounted on a big scale, it's for the most part well cast, with Liam Neeson adding another great role to his budding career.
So why is the film Michael Collins all but forgotten?
In 1916, English forces put down the bloody Easter Week Rebellion. The top Irish ringleaders are executed, but both Michael Collins (Liam Neeson) and Sinn FŽin intellectual Éamon de Valera (Alan Rickman) survive prison to reorganize. Instead of fighting the British head-on as before, Collins invents urban guerilla tactics that include outright ambush murders of the police and army experts sent to suppress the Irish nationalists. Both Michael and his best comrade Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn) fall in love with Kitty Kiernan (Julia Roberts). They wonder if the romance will ruin their friendship. Éamon and Harry go to America to raise support. Michael takes advantage of his anonymity -- the enemy still doesn't know what he looks like -- to go through police files with the help of insider informant Ned Broy (Stephen Rea). Michael gains enough information to ruthlessly target the top Brit officers. The death toll rises steadily. Will the English give up and give Ireland its independence?
It would be hard to imagine a better role for Liam Neeson, an Irish-born actor with the good looks and imposing physique of a classic-era movie star. Yes, a Sean Penn could surely act this role but Neeson inhabits it. When Michael Collins takes to a street corner to preach rebellion, Neeson shakes his fist and makes his voice bellow out over the crowd with such authority that we're all ready to sign up.
Michael Collins gives us a man who chooses to use terror strategy in struggle that's been going on for centuries. The First World War seems a catalyst for this new rebellion, mostly by patriot-idealists strongly committed to the cause. In any revolution the best men must stick their necks out, and are usually the first to die. Michael and Éamon survive The Easter Week executions because they aren't yet important enough to stand out. Most of the movie details the expected intrigues of give & take violence, spy activity, and targeted murders. Michael sends his young killers out with orders so fierce that they don't dare come back without a successful kill, and even then they're upbraided for using too much ammunition. The plotting also shows the wicked horror of guerrilla warfare. At one point Michael's assassins successfully murder a new squad of anti-insurgency experts almost as soon as they check in to work.
The leads also debate the nature of the killing, asking themselves if it's worth it, etc. These scenes are perhaps necessary but the real lesson imparted is that a revolution of this kind is an ugly business, through and through. The British are brutal from the very beginning, but it's not long before we begin to feel sorry for them. The show cheats somewhat, making us think that the victims are mostly officers and intelligence experts. Suspected Irish informants were dealt with hust as harshly. But I imagine that Collins and his soldiers had no time to worry about morality... just avoiding capture was bad enough.
This Michael Collins is something of a Robin Hood who takes a personal role in many raids. Many escapes involve rushing upstairs and dashing across rooftops. It happens so often that we recommend the Brits hire acrobats and steeplejacks to form special '4th Story Squads.' The rebellion would have been finished in a week.
Neil Jordan of course simplifies the political end of the story, but both his script and the actors make what's there seem relevant. Éamon De Valera is not a guerilla fighter and expects Michael to follow his orders in the field, even when common sense tells Michael otherwise. Although Éamon is the obvious political brain of the rebellion, he later nominates Collins to go to England to negotiate the truce. The national hero returns with a deal that divides the country and keeps Northern Ireland under Brit supervision. It's unclear whether Éamon meant Collins to fail, or to bring back a different outcome. The result plays right into the hands of London -- an Irish civil war. The first rule of colonial management is to get the locals fighting each other, instead of The Crown.
Collins is a hero for forcing England to the bargaining table, but the solution he won resulted in another century of ingrained bloodshed and hatred split upon lines both political and religious. Michael Collins can be commended for not setting its title hero up as the Man of the Century, but it leaves him even more of a mystery than before. 1
The film's action and suspense are quite entertaining, especially the scene in which Stephen Rea's clerk helps Michael walk right into police headquarters to conduct a full night's research in their confidential files. The final act implies that the first generation of revolutionaries soon lost control of their troops. Collins has the total loyalty of his fighters up through 1921, a solidarity that breaks down when everyone must choose sides in the civil strife. Collins suddenly finds himself the one wearing the uniform, fighting out in the open again and taking orders from a man who may want him out of the way. The new generation of fighters are no longer 'his boys,' but gun punks that don't trust anybody and can't be intimidated. Collins seems diminished, no longer in control. Things were easier when he commanded a tight little unit and pulled all the strings.
Perhaps the main failure of Michael Collins is its romance. Julia Roberts looks fine as the historical Kitty Kiernan, who was indeed engaged to Michael Collins. But even in 1996 Roberts was too big a star for the limited role of 'the girl' in the picture. Roberts' own fans probably see her as badly miscast, stuck in a situation where she can't flash her extravagant star personality.
There's also the fact that Michael Collins is an epic story, yet Neil Jordan's direction doesn't impart an epic feel. The recreations of events use massive settings, large crowds and plenty of military hardware, but it all seems small scale anyway. Neil Jordan constructs his scenes out of many shots of details, rather than allowing anything to play wide. Offhand, I'd say that filming in anamorphic widescreen might have been the answer, but film gauge alone doesn't make things look big -- John Frankenheimer's The Train is not in 'Scope, and it looks enormous. Jordan's biggest sequence is a British machine gun attack on a soccer field, right in the middle of a big game. As filmed the attack is a spectacular, spiteful backlash against Collins' targeted ambush killings. But the scene doesn't feel big, and neither does Michael Collins.
Liam Neeson is a pleasure to watch, as are his co-stars Quinn, Rickman and Rea; they're all nicely subsumed into the fabric of Jordan's storytelling. A large cast of familiar Irish and English faces backs them up. Forget that Julia Roberts was (presumably) shoehorned into the movie for box office appeal, as her subplot is kept to a minimum. The movie is refreshingly unsentimental, free of patriotic blather and flag waving. 2
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Michael Collins is a good SD encoding of this attractive period drama. In the big city scenes cinematographer Chris Menges' colors are appropriately muted and dark.
A big plus for the disc is the inclusion of an hour-long English South Bank show dedicated to the movie, at least half of which is an historical examination of the real Michael Collins. We learn much about his background that the show doesn't touch. The man had an excellent preparation to become a nationalist leader -- the law, business, the military. He died at the age of 31, but in those last few years he was one of the most politically active men of his time.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Michael Collins DVD-R rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Supplements: 60-minute English TV show about movie and the historical Michael Collins.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 27, 2015
1. A good comparison with Michael Collins is Francecso Rosi's 1961 movie Salvatore Giuliano, about a Sicilian nationalist revolutionary whose story is steeped in much more mystery and controversy. Rosi's investigtory approach doesn't pretend to have the answers, but makes a strong statement about the way politics can change the historical image of great men.
2. American movies have a firm tradition of pro-Irish sentiment and enthusiasm. John Ford's movies alone are packed with Irish revolutionary fervor. To gauge the warmth toward Michael Collins, one only has to watch the saloon scenes in Portrait of Jennie with David Wayne and Albert Sharpe. One mention of Collins' name and Sharpe starts dancing; he commissions a big mural to be painted over his bar.
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson
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