It Is Not War #5: Michael Collins

A nice short one this time.

Neil Jordan’s biopic of the iconic revolutionary is rightly lauded as a fine piece of filmmaking. Neeson, simply put, is Collins for those two hours and the supporting cast (even Julia ‘This is my Oirish accent’ Roberts) does well. Everyone loves Alan Rickman as Dev, and rightfully so, but I thought some of the others deserved special credit. Gerard McSorley as Cathal Brugha is one of favourite minor character performances (he is amazing in that treaty debate scene, which was such an accurate depiction of how the Dail worked, even in 1922).

And moreover, Jordan is able to weave a good yarn about the man without too much anti-English rhetoric or pro-Treaty sympathising. It’s portrayed as a tragic story, and it is. It’s the story of a country struggling to stand on its own, before it tears itself apart. Seriously, the Civil War scenes, of the fighting in Dublin, are remarkably well shot, invoking that feeling of horror that only civil strife brings.

But I’m gushing with praise. Michael Collins has its problems and one of them is the very beginning.

Michael Collins: The Easter Rising

The movie, after a short crawling text intro, jumps straight to the climax of the Easter Rising in 1916.

Now, I can point out numerous historical inaccuracies with this brief battle scenes. There are many. But that’s not what I’m aiming to do with It Is Not War. Instead, I’ll focus on the military aspects.

The battlefield: O’ Connell Street, Dublin, in front of the General Post Office, a large Georgian style building.

The forces: The rebels, members of the Irish Volunteers, the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish Citizen Army. Badly armed, shell-shocked, close to the end, the rebels have been under fire for close to a week at this point, holed up inside a disintegrating GPO. Among them is Michael Collins, depicted as a lower ranking member of the force. They are commanded by Padraig Pearse, seen briefly towards the end of this scene.

The British, located behind a barricade of carts, sandbags and cars, are made of numerous bog standard infantry, armed with Lee-Enfields, a machine gun and most crucially, several pieces of field artillery. At least one officer is in command of the group.

The aims: For the rebels, nothing beyond endure, then surrender. For the British, shell the rebels into giving up.

There is no real need for a blow-by-blow here, it’s all one big general scene.

The British are very, very close to the GPO. Incredibly close. Unbelievably close. Keep in mind what this scene, as it is presented, is asking you to belive. The British have not only managed to get within metres of the rebel position, but they’ve been able to set up a neat little barricade, a machine gun post and some artillery pieces (0.46).

For some reason, the rebels in the GPO have allowed them to do this. Considering that such an action (or rather, lack of action) is tactically suicidal, it’s rather strange that the rebels seem content to allow it.

The again, maybe they laid on the fire as the British set up their position. In which case, the casualties would have been enormous for the BA. Too big. Unacceptable. So, in either scenario, its nonsense.

Also, the barricade seems to be mostly wood. Wood, incase you’re wondering, is not bulletproof (1.10).

Moving on, that artillery is way, way too close to the target. That’s not how artillery is used. The British Army, one of the most professional militaries on the planet, appear to be sighting the targets of their artillery attacks down the barrel, like it’s a rifle (0.57).

No, no, no. It’s not that kind of weapon. Aside from putting it and the crew in danger by putting it so close to the enemy (at that range it should be a bullet magnet), it’s not imporving the destructive power of the thing that much. The shells will still cause destruction from a greater distance. Moreover, artillery actually can fire over buildings (something these soldiers seem to be unaware of) as long as you reconnoiter your targets. Considering the British have gotten this close, that shouldn’t be a problem.

On a historical note, the inexperienced Free State soldiers, fighting the Civil War six years later, did indeed sight their artillery targets down the barrel. But only because they weren’t properly trained with the weapons. It’s a stupid thing to do.

Moreover, if the artillery is firing that close the GPO should no longer be standing. Mortar and brick just isn’t that strong. The GPO got burned out and gutted during the real Rising, and that was from artillery fire from a few streets over. But the skeleton, the outside walls, of the building stayed standing. That wouldn’t happen in this scenario.

An artillery shell seems to go off very close to Collins himself at one point. Really, the concussive force of the blast should be enough to kill him or, at the very least, result in serious scarring and auditory damage. Now that would have made for a different film (1.18).

And also, all the British soldiers are too close to be believable, unless the camera isn’t showing the piles of dead that didn’t get to the barricade. We see numerous squaddies pelting down the road in the open towards the barricade and none of them fall. How is that possible? We see rebels in the building firing out, so they are not completely suppressed. They should be taking down more Brits then this (0.42).

God, look at them all packed together like that (1.35). It’s insane. The IRB and co. might actually have won the Easter Rising if that’s what they were doing.

Also, some of them have bayonets attached (2.02). Why? I’m not sure. No close contact fighting here (or in reality).

The British soldiers, for their part, don’t seem to be doing anything then just shooting at the building (0.53). I see no targets for them to aim at, and they all seem to just be pointing their weapons in the general direction of the building and opening fire. It’s not a Napoleonic battlefield lads, no need for mass fire here. The artillery alone should be enough to keep the building suppressed.

There is also a brief shot of one of the statues on the top of the building getting blown up (0.50). Why was this statue deliberately targeted by artillery (it would have to have been, at this range)? What a waste of shells.

The rebels soon decide that enough is enough and raise the white flag. Somehow, the British commander sees it through all the smoke and gives the order to cease firing (1.30).

Leaving aside the historical inaccuracy, I gotta say, in this proposed situation the first man walking out of the GPO should be getting many bullets heading his way. It’s just the way it is. Surrenders don’t happen like that. A British soldier sees an enemy walking out the front door, he’ll shoot. They’re still carrying their guns after all.

So why?

A dramatic opening is what. Jordan didn’t have a giant budget for battle scenes, so he had to pack a lot of action into this brief few minutes. The result is this bizarre bit of urban combat. The aim might be to make the British look bad, mercilessly pounding the landmark building with their overwhelming firepower.

It might be to demonstrate the vast difference in the two armies, one of the central themes of the whole film being that Collins is distrustful of conventional tactics. This scene might be a part of that, showing how useless it is to try to take the British on at their own game.

And a realistic portrayal of the GPO fighting, with artillery from other streets and the river, just wouldn’t look as good. Here we see explosions and gunfire and soldiers running around like something important is going on. It’s better than seeing a load of rebels stuck in a burning building with no one to really shoot at. We get to see a dramatic surrender, rather than see the rebels slink away out the backdoor to surrender elsewhere.

Michael Collins. It’s dramatic and devastating but it isn’t war.

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3 Responses to It Is Not War #5: Michael Collins

  1. Eugene says:

    The barricades could have been rebel-made. Abandoned when shells started falling. As for the rest, no excuse.

  2. HandsofBlue says:

    I suppose that is a possibilty. My thinking may be influenced by the real-life GPO fighting. I don’t think any such barricade existed. Im not even sure if that street in front of the GPO existed. It dosen’t now anyway.

  3. Pingback: Revolutionary Remembrance: The Easter Rising On Film | Never Felt Better

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