Each time a film takes its subject matter from history there will be arguments over accuracy. Were the characters portrayed as they truly would have acted? Did the events take place at the true times? Were the events depicted in a chronological manner? Such questions are just the beginning when examining the correctness of Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins. Generally speaking, books on history are more truthful than films. Books do not have to work quite as hard to be entertaining, politically correct and/or concise as films do and thus, books can often cover much more material in an in-depth manner. However, I do not think these factors should prevent anyone from seeing the film. It was the film that sparked my unwavering interest in the life and times of Michael Collins and it will always have a special place in my movie collection (and heart) for that reason alone.
But was it accurate? Based on my opinion and my studies, if I had to rate the film for accuracy on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being 100% truthful, I would place it at roughly 7.5. Sure, there were events taken out of sequential order, characters not developed to full potential and cinematic liberties (e.g. Stephen Rea’s character Ned Broy existed and did help Collins but his film persona is actually a combination of G men melded into one) but I think Michael Collins captures the essence of its title character well enough. Some have argued that the film’s portrayal of DeValera is unfair. In his review, Roger Ebert wrote, “‘History will record the greatness of Michael Collins,’ the Irish president and patriot Eamon De Valera said as an old man in 1966, ‘and it will be recorded at my expense.’ Yes, and perhaps justly so, but even Dev could hardly have imagined this film biography of Collins, which portrays De Valera as a weak, mannered, sniveling prima donna whose grandstanding led to decades of unnecessary bloodshed in, and over, Ireland.” He goes on to write that Alan Rickman “played” DeValera “with shifty conceit.” I will bow out on the offer of stating my opinion, but this topic is something the viewer must consider when watching Michael Collins. Author Diarmuid Ó Giolláin makes a relevant observation on this topic when notes, "Liam Neeson’s towering frame in Neil Jordan’s film, by exaggerating Collins’ height, emphasises his heroic dimensions and in the process doubly shrinks DeValera."
Michael Collins (Liam Neeson): Yeah, I want peace and quiet. I want it so much I’d die for it.
Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn): You mean you’d kill for it first.
MC: No, not first. Last.
HB: Did it ever strike you you were good at it?
MC: Good at what?
HB: Bloody mayhem.
MC: You’re not so bad yourself.
HB: But Mick, you’re more than good—you leave them sittin’ in the halfpenny place.
MC: We haven’t seen anything yet.
HB: Are you sayin’ things are gonna get worse?
MC: nods affirmatively
HB: So then we’ll have to get worse?
MC: Yep. And you know what I think then? I hate them. Not for their race, not for their brutality—I hate them because they’ve left us no way out. I hate whoever put a gun in young Vinny Byrne’s hand… I know it’s me and I hate myself for it. I hate them for making hate necessary. And I’ll do what I have to to end it.
Neil Jordan has often commented on how difficult it was to write and film a movie like Michael Collins. Indeed to say that recording the life of Collins was a monumental task is to make an understatement. Jordan once wrote that he “never lost more sleep over the making of a film” but he felt he would “never make a more important one.” It is easy to understand why. In the compilation book Michael Collins and the Making of the Irish State, Professor J. J. Lee penned an article entitled, “The Challenge of a Collins Biography.” In it, he discusses the role of Jordan’s movie:
“Judged by the standards of Hollywood’s treatment of historical topics more generally, it cleaves with remarkable fidelity to the spirit of the historical record as far as Collins himself is concerned, however impressionistic some of the detail may be, and however unsatisfactory its portrayal of De Valera. It might easily have succumbed to the temptation to weave the story line around sex, with titillating treatment of his relations with Lady Lavery, etc., to satisfy the mass voyeuristic market. Few film makers would have had either the integrity or the courage to resist the temptation. Neil Jordan had. For that alone he deserves enormous respect.”
Lee goes on to say that Jordan’s depiction of Collins is probably consistent with what Collins himself would have wanted—“the bluff, straight-speaking soldier, uncontaminated by the sordid maneuvers of mere politics.”
Neil Jordan during the filming of Michael Collins
Cathal Brugha (Gerard McSorley): We were elected by the people of Ireland and did the people of Ireland think we were liars when we meant to uphold the Irish Republic?
Arthur Griffith (Owen Roe): In the letters that preceded the negotiations not once was the demand for recognition of the Irish Republic. If it had been made we knew it would have been refused—
CB: So Mr. Collins is asking us to accept an oath of allegiance to a foreign king, and the partition of the northern part of the country?
AG: Mr. Collins, the man who won the recent war, has himself described the Treaty as a stepping-stone towards the ultimate freedom—
CB: Mr. Griffith has described Mr. Collins as the man who won the war!
Michael Collins (Liam Neeson): On a point of order, Mr. Chairman, are we discussing the Treaty or discussing myself?
CB: The Minister does not like what I have to say.
MC: Anything that can be said about me, say it.
CB: Mr. Collins, the position you had in the army was as chief of one of the subsections. Nobody sought notoriety except you…
MC: Come on, Cathal.
CB: One person was held up by the press and put into a position he never held. He was made a romantic figure, a mystical character which he certainly is not. The person I refer to is Michael Collins.
MC: I would plead with every person here—make me a scapegoat if you will, call me a traitor if you will but please, let’s save the country. The alternative to this Treaty is a war which nobody in this gathering can even contemplate. If the price of freedom, the price of peace, is the blackening of my name, I will gladly pay it. Thank you.
There is little doubt that Jordan chose the perfect actor to portray Collins. Liam Neeson looks a bit like Collins and captured his personality (or at least what we know of it) very well. In an interview with E! Online, Liam Neeson discusses the film:
“Some of Collins' sidekicks would say, ‘Mick, this guy's got to go,’ but he would find out all he could before ordering a man's death. And as the hour approached for the execution, in his own mind, Collins became both the executioner and the victim. He would pace up and down, transformed in almost a kind of exorcism when he knew he was responsible for taking someone's life. Now, when you say ‘terrorist’ to me, I think of someone who plants bombs in restaurants and airplanes and kills innocent people. Collins never, ever stood for that.”
When asked what he hoped people would come away from the film with, he responded, “I'd like them to pick up on the universal aspect of the story. It's also the history of every country that has wanted to shed the yoke of oppression and injustice, including America. There are lots of similarities between George Washington and Michael Collins. They both took charge of a ragtag army and developed hit-and-run tactics.” The intensity that Neeson brings to the role of Collins is superb and I think it is fantastic that he received a Venice Film Festival Best Actor award for his performance.
A series of photos in which the resemblance is easy to see: Liam Neeson (1 & 3) and Collins (2 & 4).
Michael Collins (Liam Neeson): They can jail us. They can shoot us. They can even conscript us. They can use us as cannon-fodder in the Somme. But… but, we have a weapon more powerful than any in the whole arsenal of their British Empire. And that weapon is our refusal. Our refusal to bow to any order but our own, any institutions but our own. Our friends in the Royal Irish Constabulary would like to shut me up—jail me again, shoot me, who knows. But I’d like you to send them a message. If they shut me up, who’ll take my place? Who’s going to take my place? I can’t hear you…
[The crowd is roaring.]
MC: Who’ll take my place? Will they shut you up?
Neil Jordan also discusses a number of historical figures who have relied on the military techniques Collins developed, ranging from Mao Tse-Tung in China to Yitzhak Shamir in Israel. On the episode of The South Bank Show featuring Collins’s biography, Colonel Michael Dewar, an expert on counter-insurgency, comments about Michael’s innovations. He mentions that Collins realized, perhaps ahead of many others, that when a large army is not available, small groups of people striking from within a crowd on a city street or similar urban setting can be even more effective. In fact, Dewar goes so far as to say, “Whether we’re thinking in terms of conventional warfare or whether we’re thinking in terms of urban guerrilla warfare, he (Collins) was probably its inventor.” Possibly the most important thing Neil Jordan hoped to convey about the film and the life of Collins itself is that Michael Collins “would never be a proponent of contemporary terrorism as practiced today. He was a soldier and a statesman, and over time, a man of peace.”
Joe O’Reilly (Ian Hart): You’ve got to think of him the way he was. The way he’d cycle round Dublin in his pin-striped suit with ten-thousand pounds on his head. ‘Why hide, Joe,’ he’d say, ‘when that’s what they expect?’ And he never did what anyone expected. He got the British out of here and no one expected that. Some people are what the times demand and life without them seems impossible. But he’s dead and life is possible… he made it possible.
A group shot of actors in costume for the film. L to R, Aidan Quinn, Julia Roberts, and Liam Neeson with their true-to-life counterparts beneath: Harry Boland, Kitty Kiernan and Michael Collins.