I’ve said many times that, in this centenary decade, it is of the most vital importance to engage people as much as possible with what happened in this country 100 years ago, that’s if you want to do it right. And one of the most far reaching and effective means of doing this is through entertainment, TV or film.
The Irish Revolutionary Period doesn’t have a whole lot to go on though. I’ve talked about the paucity of existing visual depictions of the Easter Rising before, and someday I’ll talk more about the same state of affairs for the War of Independence and the Civil War.
But there are two giant examples that tower over any other attempted adaptations. One is Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley, a film I have somewhat negative feelings towards, which I might get the chance to elaborate on at some point. The other, at the top in terms of box office take and popular knowledge, is Neil Jordan’s biopic of Michael Collins, released in 1996 and starring Liam Neeson in the title role. In this post and maybe two others, I’m going to go through Michael Collins in a bit of detail, and talk about some of the things it gets right in history, some of the things it either wilfully or otherwise gets wrong, and how sometimes this isn’t such a bad thing in cinema. The film is a divisive one in this day and age, but I do still appreciate it greatly for the story it tells and the manner in which it tells it. The following will talk about that. I’ll apologise here and now for the quality of the pictures that accompany the text, I’m afraid my copy of the film is in no way high definition.
The opening crawl is an interesting, and oft divisive way of opening a film. On the one it imparts information that the audience needs directly. On the other, many feel like it’s too much telling instead of showing. With the first notes of Elliot Goldenthal’s stirring score reverberating in the background, Jordan’s sets the scene simply, but also uses some interesting phrases bound to raise eyebrows before the first shot has even appeared. Ireland is described as Britain’s “most troublesome colony”, which the United States might disagree with, and seems like needless hyperbole looking back.
But Jordan seems to have wanted the romanticism to begin right from the off, and continues by openly acknowledging that the film will be about Collins’ “life and death”. I suppose only foreign audiences would not be aware of how Collins died, but I do find it intriguing that Jordan was willing to frame his film in this manner, and lay out clearly that the main character would not survive the story that was about to be told. In line with the romanticism of setting up Ireland as a plucky underdog almost immediately, we also have the view from the outset that the story we are about to watch will be a personal tragedy.
Then Michael Collins opens properly in a very unexpected manner, with a full on look at Ian Hart’s Joe O’Reilly. O’Reilly has no firm involvement in proceedings beyond simply being present in important scenes, but his dedication to Collins is obvious. And so his inclusion at the opening, and with the first lines, seems appropriate. And the type of shot is meant to give Ian Hart the opportunity to emote in as eye-catching a way as possible, though the stony-facedness of O’Reilly is less emotive and more indicative of the seriousness of what has transpired. Michael Collins starts at the end with O’Reilly’s words an acclamation of Collins to join the ranks of history’s great men, those who have ensured that “life is possible”. But the very first line – “We have to remember him the way he was.” – hints at a different “warts and all” interpretation to come. In that way I suppose, Jordan is demonstrating the two approaches and the two viewpoints that his film must try and reconcile: the giant and the ordinary man, the hero and the flawed beast. Of course, this being biopic, Jordan will be guilty of glorifying his main subject a bit too much, as many biopics are. Julia Robert’s is also first seen in this opening, the first half of a bookend to the entire film, but the issue of her accent is yet to become apparent.
The title of the film looms over us before we are transported back a few years, to the maelstrom of the Easter Rising. The recreation of that rebellion here is all sorts of wrong, both in terms of what actually happened (a surrender outside a flaming GPO is a bit more dramatic than Moore Street) and in the depiction of military tactics (Why are the British aiming down the sights of their artillery?), but captures the necessary feeling of a failed rebellion being crushed under the weight of a tyrannical foe. The score captures the horror of war in the keening lamentations of the background choir, a motif that will be repeated during the Battle of Dublin scenes later, very deliberately. The surrender of the rebels is a slow and patient thing, Jordan making sure that we see them for the battered and bruised defeated that they are, as they march out in files and lay down their arms.
Our first proper glimpse of Liam Neeson’s Collins, alongside Aidan Quinn’s Harry Boland, is also here. Straight away, we have to understand the closeness between these two men, that will make their double separation later – over Kitty Kiernan and the Treaty – all the more tragic. Here, they are dressed the same, and splattered with grime the same. Collins’ first lines are a self-pitying summation of the common situation of Irish rebels: “The game is over Harry, lost again”. Neeson reined in on an all out Cork accent at times in the course of the film, but the distinctive twang is allowed to flourish at the right moments, making otherwise unremarkable dialogue that bit more memorable.
The Volunteers are led away while the score turns more tragic. Jordan now takes the time to introduce some antagonists, namely the detectives of the DMP that will be the rivals of Collins for the first half of the production, chief among them Sean McGinley’s Smith. The British army officer who describes the Rising as a “farce” is nameless: it’s Smith, nicknamed “the Dog” in real life, who is the main focus of antagonism here, plain clothes but looking entirely vicious with that stick in hand. We might also notice Stephen Rea’s Ned Broy alongside him.
The leaders of the Rising are rounded up, their names being listed off like a name drop of Irish republican heritage. Smith gets his “Kick the dog” moment, half-literally here as he gives a wounded James Connolly some physical abuse, Jordan over-egging it a bit. The moment seems designed to give Alan Rickman’s remarkable performance as Eamon De Valera an introduction, as he urges Collins to restrain his rage “til the next time”. Like Boland, we are introduced to Dev as he stands next to Collins, the two marked as comrades in arms before an inevitable sundering later. As the leaders of the Rising are dragged away, Jordan gives us our first bit of headline dialogue, to offer a glimpse of what’s to come, as Collins tells Boland that the next uprising will be different: “We won’t play by their rules Harry. We’ll invent our own”. In this, Jordan is subtly capturing a well established line of thinking from Collins, that his tactics of taking on the British administration in Dublin were designed as a direct contrast with the failure of the Easter Rising, which Collins looked back on with some disdain.
A sudden, and presumably deliberately jarring, transition occurs, as we flash to Kilmainham Gaol and the execution of the signatories taking place, the grey pallet casting a mournful tinge to everything. This sequence is one of the film’s best, with De Valera’s narration of a letter to Collins both marking them out further as close friends and establishing the future tactics that would make the Dail/IRA viable. Dev’s sentences are cruelly punctuated by gunshots from outside, as man after man is killed, Jordan recreating Connolly’s execution exactly as it occurred. The first glimpse of Rickman’s marvellous performance shines through as his voice grows stern in response to the gunshots: “…and everyone of us they shoot, brings more people to our side”. De Valera is clear in how things should proceed from this point, even if they are all in prison, De Valera’s writing is shot beautifully with the light of the prison window shining through into his non-descript cell. The Republic is “a fact”, made so by the “life blood of those who proclaimed it”. It’s flowery language, but fits what we know of De Valera. The Volunteers will “defeat the British Empire by ignoring it”, a sentiment that is enunciated with power, but still seems overridingly small next to the continued executions elsewhere.
We move swiftly on, past Frongach and the revolutionary school there, to 1918, where Collins and Boland are travelling through the Irish countryside on a steam train. I think this is the first scene that properly sets Michael Collins up as a period piece, with the manner of transportation, the dress and the more quaint “Oirish” music. Earlier scenes, military in nature, aren’t as well suited to establishing that. More importantly, this scene is the first to really get into the friendship of Michael and Harry. Collins is the talker, with a deeper intelligence that he likes to show occasionally. Boland is less like that, and more inclined to make a cheap joke at Collins’ expense. When the two reach their destination, they survey a wedding scene down the platform, which Collins comments favourably on. It won’t be the last connection Michael Collins draws between its title character and wedding dresses, allowing a certain sentimentality to emerge from him.
Travelling to a campaign speech, this being a time of elections that the film doesn’t go into in too much detail, Collins and his group notice the not so subtle observation of them by Ned Broy. A great scene unfolds, as Collins manages to have a chat with Broy while the two cars are delayed over the passage of a flock of sheep. It’s that weirdly Irish moment, which you can still see on rural roads today, that seems tailor made to pluck the nostalgia of Irish audiences. For me, I loved it more for the glimpse it offered of Collins’ humour, as he repeats the sarcastic rejoinder offered to him by Stuart Graham’s Tom Cullen, to Broy: “So, what did you have for breakfast?” Collins has swagger and a certain arrogance: he isn’t afraid to walk right up to the apparent enemy and make a joke. I remember Jonathan Lewis’ The Treaty, with Brendan Gleeson in the lead role, having a somewhat similar scene, where Collins bluffs his way past a checkpoint on a rural road by pretending to be someone he isn’t.
What follows is one of the films more powerful moments, giving Neeson the chance to show Collins’ popular support and ability to manipulate the masses. In a country village, that might be meant to be somewhere in Longford – probably somewhere in Wicklow in actuality, where much of the film was shot – Collins gives a speech to a large crowd of people, exhorting them to vote for a Sinn Fein candidate in the upcoming elections, even though the candidate is currently in prison. The speech is simple, but memorable, well written to get the maximum impression of Collins ingrained in the mind in as little time as possible. Collins namedrops the war in Europe and echoes De Valera’s words from earlier, that one of the movements most useful weapons is sheer “refusal…to bow to any order but our own”.
The meeting is soon broken up by ranks of the RIC, looking positively fascistic in their dark uniforms and with truncheons in hand. Collins cares little. He closes his speech with a direct effort to get the crowd involved and whipped up, aided by Boland: “If they shut me up…who’ll take my place?”. The crowd’s response is unanimous: “I will!”. A fracas ensues and Collins gets clubbed in the head, even as Boland viciously swings a hurley at their attackers. It’s a wonderful scene in invoking some of the anarchy and disintegration of peaceful discourse that was becoming evident at the time. This is a violence of a different kind to the sensationalised Easter Rising scene of earlier: this is brutal, hand to hand stuff, ugly in a very different and more pronounced way. The scene also works at emphasising Collins’ importance to his friends and followers, as they struggle to get him away from the fighting and the possibility of arrest.
Collins recovers in the next scene, which serves as the proper introduction to Kitty Kiernan. Most biographies and accounts of Collins’ life, from my own observation anyway, tend not to spend too much time on her and her relationship with Collins, but Jordan makes her a central character in the unfolding story. A love interest is that sort of Hollywood requirement I suppose, and Jordan does OK work with her, choosing to emphasise the relationship with Harry Boland in a manner that sets him up against Collins. Of course, it follows that Kiernan has little agency of her own, and is largely defined by her relationship with those two men, though I still feel that Roberts had her moments with Kiernan. The performance is more noted for the accent she chooses to employ though. While it’s not Nicole Kidman in Far and Away levels of bad, it’s not very good either, and looks even worse next to Neeson’s more believable Cork twang. The first interaction between the two is hardly a meet cute: Kiernan casually rejects Collins’ attempts to find out the most basic information about her, her own interest in Collins amounting to a simple “What did they hit you with?” (Classic reply: “Whatever it was, it was hard”). The film also brushes over the true story, which is that Collins was introduced to the Kiernan family via a cousin, and he initially set his sights on a different sister. Awkward.
Later though, we get a more emotive intro to the Kiernan character. An evening night in at this home where Collins and Boland are staying amounts to a singing demonstration: Roberts beautifully gives a rendition of part of “She Moved Through The Fair”. Establishing the song as part of the Kiernan character, and her relationship with Collins who watches on enraptured, receives a gigantic pay-off in the films climactic moments, when the song will be used again. It’s one of those achingly Irish tunes too: seemingly happy and carefree in its lyrics initially, but which then easily takes on an aura of wistfulness, sadness and tragedy in its conclusion. Jordan stows some of the tragedy though, removing some of the more creepy lyrics (the verse sung here is missing a line that indicates the “love” of the author who “came softly in” and “laid her hand on me” is a ghost, having died some time before). Collins is up next to sing, despite his protestations, and jumps into a gravelly delivery of “Skibbereen”, with barely a proper note in his head. The small audience sings along anyway though. This song is also very Irish: miserable, bitter against the English and capable of making you think it has 40 verses (one can’t help but think of Bernard O’Shea on Republic of Telly: “Let me tell you the story, 22 verses long, of a woman who dildoed and diddled along…”
It’s been a quiet and reserved sequence after the power of the speech and violence of the Rising and the subsequent executions, and that continues in the next scene. Kiernan, in a grey and somewhat sombrely lit set-up, wakes Collins and Boland the next morning, while we get the first bars of Goldenthal’s utterly heart melting love theme (“Train Station Farewell” on the soundtrack). Collins and Boland are sleeping together, on opposite ends of the same bed, a strange intimacy that we will see several times in the film, but which carries an air of childishness as well. Collins is seemingly awake before the call, and launches into a strange story of a man who proposed to seven sisters, and then their widowed mother. It’s an awkward story to begin the morning with, and Kiernan is uninterested in the implications. This is a glimpse at “courting” in Ireland I suppose, but it is simplistic and rushed really – it seems a bit much that Collins would be thinking of proposals mere hours after meeting this woman, and the same goes for Boland. Collins is remarkably upfront about his feelings and those of his friend – “Harry likes you too” – and the love triangle that has been created is this strangely amicable one. Kiernan turns both men down flat in this instance, and Collins accepts this just as fast.
There is another transition, and suddenly we are in a dimly lit cottage, Collins surrounded by young armed men. Or, sort of armed. As Owen O’Neill’s Rory O’Connor explains to Collins, the guns the fledgling IRA have are either busted or lack ammunition, making the effort look rather comical. But Collins isn’t ready to give into negativity, and smarty informs this erstwhile column that they have other weapons available. Titters erupt when he proclaims that a sod of turf can be “Fuckin dedly!”, but the atmosphere, due to the reactions and the sudden change in music, turns on a dime when he sets the sod alight with some oil. Like Prometheus giving fire to man, the scene has that mystical quality, the rebels staring apprehensively at what Collins is offering.
In the fog of this rural Irish scene, the flaming brands and their bearers emerge, as Goldenthal’s score is marked by rapid, piercing violin strokes. It’s a stylised depiction of the guerrilla army, literally striking out of the darkness and with speed. The RIC barracks is easily done over. The camera follows Collins into the barracks and its needed arms supply (Jaysus lads, its Christmas!”), and then switches to the rifles he’s taking. A sudden cut, with the camera sticking to the rifle that Collins has in his hand. He’s still addressing rebels, but in a different setting, speaking with authority and like a commander. Michael Collins won’t be a film about the larger War of Independence, choosing, rightly, to focus in on the war in Dublin, so this scene serves as a reminder of the role Collins played in that larger national effort, coordinating and directing the formation of the Active Service Units that would do most of the actual fighting. Collins is stern, the booming score backing him up, the cinematography retreating and then advancing back towards him. When the recruits reply lackadaisically to his commands, he berates some discipline and respect into them: “Stand up!…I’ll make a fucking army out of you if it’s the last thing I do”. It’s been a quick action beat after a number of more relaxed scenes, ended by the sight of the train, probably the same train Collins and Boland were on earlier, passing the burning barracks building, the flames reflected off its side, the movement giving a sense of urgency and action.
Then we’re back in Dublin, where a true noir atmosphere is immediately created as Collins heads to a pub for a clandestine meeting. The darkness, the smog, the smoke lingering in the air, the odd streetlight, it’s all very cloak and dagger, very 1930’s style (ironically). This tone and colour will remain in place for most of the film, turning Dublin into a sort of Big Sleep setting, or maybe wartime Paris. Collins is unable to talk any kind of revolution with his comrades in the warm interior of the pub, watched again by Ned Broy. Collins, having enough, decides to deal with the matter, and deal with it himself, personally, showcasing some bravery we haven’t really witnessed up until now.
Of course, it turns out Broy is on Collins’ side, noting that the Cork man can be “very persuasive”. Broy gets no great elaboration in the course of Michael Collins regards his specific motivations, beyond some inferred disgust at some of his fellow DMP members. He parrots one of Collins’ previous phrases – “Our only weapon is our refusal” – which we can imagine being directly related to some of the behaviour other “G-men”. Jordan elects to go to some unfounded places with Broy, but while Rea’s performance is great, there’s not much to say about him beyond his transformation into a tragic figure of Ireland’s violent transitionary phase. Here, he’s classic “G-man” all the way, even in his sympathy to Collins: you can feel the police-like condescension in his “Don’t you ever calm down?”. His entry proper into the story thickens up the plot, as Broy provides Collins with a link to his direct enemies.
We move from there to another shadowy setting, a guarded room where the cabinet of the first Dail is meeting in a rambunctious sitting. Collins, a little too on the nose, is set up directly opposite De Valera, who affects an air of distanced authority for the first part of this scene. The few moments in Michael Collins that focus on set-ups like this are all executed fabulously, the mood largely created by the ongoing back and forth between Collins and Gerard McSorley’s Cathal Brugha. McSorley is great, and his performance here should be one of the benchmarks for turning a relatively minor character into something very notable: certainly, I feel like Cathal Brugha makes a bigger impact than Ned Broy in terms of characterisation and acting ability employed in him. Not for nothing either, his placing here at De Valera’s right hand. Boland is also to Dev’s right. Men who will oppose him later, like Owen Roe’s Arthur Griffith, are on the other side. Hmm.
Collins and Brugha snark back and forth. Collins is incorrectly depicted as “Minister of Intelligence” – he had the finance portfolio in reality, which is weirdly something the film will come back to in later scenes – but I get why they made the change. Brilliantly describing his actual job as “Minister for gun running, daylight robbery and general mayhem”, which elicits a shy smile from Dev, Collins establishes his superiority over Brugha, a clash that will culminate in a brilliant recreation of the Treaty debates later. Now though, the scene moves on to the first sign of cracks between Collins and De Valera, as the two demonstrate the fundamental difference in their attitudes for the first time. Collins is a man of working action, of doing the necessary thing and hitting the English whenever they can, by whatever means. De Valera has his mind on the bigger picture of international pressure, and using political methods to achieve goals. It’s strange how De Valera is depicted in the antagonist role then, seeing as how the IRA could not possibly have achieved a military victory over the British, something Michael Collins will actually acknowledge later (albeit by somewhat blaming De Valera, and his support for the Custom’s House attack, as a primary cause).
Collins fumes as De Valera instructs his cabinet to leave themselves liable to be arrested. “Fuck them” he proclaims to Boland as they ride away from the meeting. A more conciliatory Boland, the film already showing him as sympathetic to the “Chief” warns him to watch us tongue. Collins, never too comfortable in the politicians role, replies acidly: “ I fucking will in future”. The two witness the cabinet arrests, the score reaching a crescendo of notes that illicit feelings of horror. Dev almost exults in his sudden spotlight: “This is an illegal arrest, by an illegal force of occupation!” he cries while being taken away, the media moment he was dreaming of. Collins and Boland are left alone on the steps of the house Dev was taken from, cutely realising it’s the safest place to stay now. Collins drops a hint for what’s to come, upgrading his ministerial portfolio to include “jailbreaks”.
But the promise of that goes by the wayside in another sudden and jarring transition, the darkness of Dublin’s LA-esque night time changing to the brightness of Dublin’s daytime. We’re on the same street that the film opened on, only instead of British soldiers and artillery, there are crowds of civilians. It would be an idyllic scene but for the remains of the GPO being rebuilt in the background, an imposing sight that overhangs anything else in the scene, including a return of the love theme, a threat that is always in the back of the mind.
We’ve had a few scenes dealing with “the struggle”, now it’s back to the love triangle. Boland and Kiernan are “stepping out” as they say, only to bump into Collins. The awkwardness is palpable as Neeson’s character inserts himself between the two, almost relishing his ability to be an interrupting third wheel, though we can see his regret as the two walk away from him. Later, the childish boyishness of the relationship between Collins and Boland is revisited in unsubtle terms, as a wrestling match erupts over Kiernan in their hotel room, one that sucks in an unfortunate Joe O’Reilly. The scene is obviously meant to be comedic, but hints at worse things to come between the two men. In fact, it’s this very hotel room set that will host a very different meeting between the two at a later point.
Back to brass tacks as Collins meets with Broy again, in more cloak and dagger type stuff, this time in a library, very “spook” altogether. Collins has decided to utilise Broy properly it seems, and that means a hazardous quest inside Dublin Castle, the HQ of the DMP. Broy’s reaction to such a proposed plan is great – first laughing, then a dumbfounded “Jesus, you’re serious” – but Collins has little time for it. He’s in charge of operations now, and that means taking some bold steps. Neeson exudes a very important confidence in these scenes, even while maintaining the scamp persona, using quotes from Peter Pan to back up his line of thinking.
This is “Collins the legend” territory really, the apex of his roguish abilities to stick one to the British and generally act like a super spy. Through the darkness of Dublin he saunters into “the Castle” in the guise of an informer, even looking men like Smith dead in the eye in the process, clearly enjoying the activity. Its knife edge stuff in the Castle, between Broy’s desperate attempts to stop anyone else from entering the record room and Collins hiding in the rafters to avoid detection. In-between, we get a better look at how much the “Crown Forces” know about the independence movement, which seems to be a lot, a lot more than Collins was expecting. They are missing one thing though: a clear image of Collins himself.
Collins reaches a defining moment here, as he realises that victory against the British will require an active targeting of their own intelligence system, which means killing G-men, a prospect that revolts Broy, for obvious reasons. But he’s had quite the introduction to the counter-intelligence game all the same. The real life Collins’ infiltration of the Castle – not quite as personal and dramatic as it was here – was one of his key successes in the war, but it’s understandable why Jordan may have felt the need to dramatise it to this extent.
The reality of the situation is made clearer in the next scene, taking place in some rubbish-strewn office. Joe O’Reilly’s mothering instincts and Collins’ importance to the movement is emphasised as both O’Reilly and Boland proclaim “Where the hell have you been?!” upon seeing Collins the morning after his Castle adventure. Collins, quick to the point, is uncaring and starts dictating a letter to be sent to G-men, a letter that is essentially just a death notice. The potential bloodletting is stark for Boland in particular, and it’s good to remember that it is not British military personnel that are the targets here, but Irish law enforcement, an altogether dicer prospect morally. Quinn’s “We’d have to do it…” is a powerful sentiment of trepidation and regret, as well as a realisation that the “Irish Republican Army”, a term Jordan generally shies away from using for obvious reasons, is at a precipice when it comes to military action. That action is being formulated, as Collins asks for “twelve apostles” – young Dublin volunteers without families – to be assembled.
But before that we have to see some of the serious consequences of this proposed escalation, and be made to understand the rising stakes. Smith proves himself a disturbed maniac upon receiving the warning from Collins (“No Fenian guttersnipe threatens me!”), and randomly picks a name from the files to take his frustrations out on. The victim is Tom Cullen, a very minor character thus far, who is grabbed, beaten and tortured in the Castle by Smith and fellow brute Hoey. Jordan uses a single tracking shot to show Cullen’s journey through the Castle hallways, with Ned Broy acting as the audience’s eyes. Stylish silhouettes show Cullen being beaten with what I would almost describe as a western style score accompanying. Broy is clearly unnerved and distressed by this state of affairs, and follows the gang, until the doors are literally shut in his face. Broy is excluded, marking him out even at this moment as different to his peers. Cullen demonstrates a remarkable amount of spine in the face of his potential killers, telling them plainly that its time they left Ireland. The DMP hardliners are unimpressed. Even with that, this scene is as much about Broy as it is about Cullen.
Michael Collins is happy to show that escalation as a gradual thing. Cullen isn’t killed here, as you might expect. The IRA send a warning, the DMP send a bloodied and injured IRA volunteer back, Cullen stumbling through the Dublin night and fog in a daze before being picked up. Now, it’s on the IRA to answer.
Thus, “the Squad”, a military unit that has come to be near-mythical in the annals of the Irish War of Independence. It’s fun and games at times, young men glorying in the power and responsibility being offered to them – “Would we have got past the door?” one of them quips after the boilerplate offer from Collins that they can back out if they want – but things turn serious quickly. It’s notable that Boland, who seemed so upset at the prospect before, is now outlining what the IRA is planning to do: Cullen’s treatment has hardened hearts it seems. The DMP has raised, and the IRA is seeing it. Collins is plain: he wants the Squad to destroy the Castle system of “spies and informers”.
What follows is the first hit, and it’s depicted as a curious mix of religion and public murder. Tony award winning Tom Murphy, a great acting talent who died too young only ten years after Michael Collins was released, seeks an absolution from the Sacred Heart before going out to do the job he has been given, emphasising the key role of the Catholic religion in so many IRA volunteers’ lives at the time. His Vinnie Byrne stalks Gary Whelan’s Hoey through a Dublin market, but walks past him when the opportunity to shoot comes. It’s a critical moment of hesitation and nerves, with Goldenthal introducing some booming blows from the horn section to emphasise the point. Eventually Byrne steals himself, and with a call to the religion he has previously asked for forgiveness from – “May the Lord have mercy on your soul” – he puts his gun to Hoey’s neck and pulls the trigger. Hoey was actually the second G-man to be killed by the Squad in reality; Smith was the first. It’s close up, personal and shocking violence, and it’s what this war has now become, the latest escalation. It was not done without thought. Byrne flees through the terrified crowd, firing the first, on-screen, shot in a very different war. “We won’t play by their rules Harry. We’ll invent our own.”
A very different scene follows, inside Lincoln Gaol, where Eamon De Valera assists a priest in saying mass, oddly blue hues providing a stark difference to what has come before. This is set-up for a scene that is to follow shortly, as De Valera notices that the priest, for some reason, has keys that can get him out of the prison. Rickman has no words in this moment, but we can see, very plainly, the wheels turning in us head. De Valera is a thinker, and a schemer, and there are moments in Michael Collins when this isn’t portrayed in a negative light. Later, he puts his plan into action, using a warm candle to get the imprint of the key, even while patronisingly going along with the priests limp words about prayer being preferable to fighting. This was a somewhat odd moment, since De Valera is usually so associated with the Catholic Church. Here, he seems to be secretly mocking the priest standing right in front of him. But, he is trying to escape after all.
Jordan really does love his sudden transitions, because the next one suddenly comes back to rapid action. Collins’ office is raided by another DMP man, named Kavanagh in the script, and the tempo charge is remarkable: violent strings and horns, flames leaping up, everyone moving and talking very fast, furniture being flung down stairwells. Collins becomes almost Bond-like in his escape, jumping to a neighbouring building, dropping down to surprise some random women, and calmly asking how he can get out of the building. It’s more back and forth between the Dublin based IRA and the DMP, and the retaliation isn’t long in coming.
Kavanagh, played with only a few lines by Frank O’Sullivan gets it next, and again there is a direct connection between religion and the killings. Kavanagh emerges from a service at St Stephens Church and is shot down by members of the Squad, who flee quickly. Importantly, the operation is shown as running far more smoothly and with more coordination than the last one. There are look-outs, transport available for the getaway and no hesitation in actually pulling the trigger. The IRA are getting better at this.
Tell that to Collins of course, who greets the news that Kavanagh was shot multiple times with incredulity. “Riddled!?” he asks, quoting the newspaper headline about the killing, and admonishing his young and cowed gunman that bullets “Don’t grow on trees”. It’s one of those moments that is both serious and comedic. The IRA’s shortage of supplies is going to become an issue, but you can’t help but titter at Collins’ annoyance, Joe O’Reilly’s bemused smile and the sheepishness of the two men who just killed someone. Collins can’t leave it there though, and does offer some praise before the two lads are gone. He’s a leader after all, and he wouldn’t be much of a titanic figure if he was just bullying his subordinates.
Having received the candle with the key outline, Collins and Boland take the boat over to England. It’s a quiet, relaxed moment for these two, and there won’t be many more. Jordan needs this scene to reemphasise the closeness of the two, but also to give Collins a chance to elaborate on what drives him. He’s a coordinating a campaign of killing and bombing, and he’s actually proving surprisingly adept at it, as Boland points out. But Collins isn’t satisfied with just that. There has to be an end point, where Ireland and Britain come to a decision. There follows some of Michael Collins’ best lines:
“And you know what I think then? That 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 it is who put a gun in young Vinnie 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.”
It’s a striking series of lines. Collins has proved himself such a suave, almost gentlemanly figure at so many points already that it feels altogether strange for him to be taking about hatred, but everything that he says fits the character and what we have seen so far. But more importantly, Jordan here is laying the groundwork for the post-Treaty section of the film, that last act where the director has to reconcile Collins the IRA leading hero who “brought the British Empire to its knees”, with the man who was willing to take up arms against his former comrades to defend the compromise he helped barter with that same enemy. “I’ll do what I have to to end it.” Collins here isn’t a man of war, no matter how good he is at generating “bloody mayhem”. He wants peace, he wants a life, a wife, a family. He can’t have that with an interminable struggle, and here we begin to understand why he stands behind the Treaty so strongly.
Act One of the film – or at least its first third – ends with breaking De Valera out of prison. It’s one of the strongest noir moments yet: the darkness, the fog, the steaming breath, the prostitutes and a daring escape from the clutches of the enemy – but it’s also a comedy scene as well. Collins and De Valera bicker back and forth over the prison wall about Collins’ profanity, before De Valera manages to get himself out. There follows, straight out of Carry On-style comedy, a mad moment where De Valera, dressed as a prostitute, pelts it for the waiting car, driven by Brendan Gleeson’s Liam Tobin. As mentioned already, Gleeson had played Collins himself in a different production, but was willing to step into what was a fairly bit role here. The comedy continues in the car, the trio of Collins, De Valera and Boland laughing and joking about their escapade, before the mood turns suddenly serious once more. De Valera mentions the “fun” the two have been having in his absence, remarking stoically that he “reads the papers”. This is all set-up for another breaking with Collins soon to come, with De Valera feeling marginalised and unimportant in the struggle thus far.
For Part Two of this analysis, please click here.
For Part Three, please click here.