Revolutionary Remembrance: Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (Part Two)

For part one, please click here.

Oh, to get inside the mind of De Valera. Jordan's depiction of "Dev" is controversial, and rightfully so.

Oh, to get inside the mind of De Valera. Jordan’s depiction of “Dev” is controversial, and rightfully so.

The second act of the film begins the morning after the jailbreak of De Valera, as the group of revolutionaries prepares to leave Liverpool to head back to Ireland. The brightness of the day and the bustling of the streets is a striking contrast to the previous night-time shots. Collins is disgusted upon learning that not only is Dev leaving for America, but he plans to take Boland with him. “You can’t do this to me!” thunders Collins as he confronts De Valera. The words are striking: both Collins and De Valera act as if this is purely a personal matter, and nothing to with the country or struggle. De Valera is sitting, waiting for the argument, clearly prepared, idly spinning a bicycle wheel, like a spider spinning a web. His retorts to Collins have some sense – international pressure on Britain was a vital part of the revolutionary effort – but serve to make De Valera appear uncaring about the war here. His last appearances in this act will emphasise this even more strongly. Cold calculating De Valera looks bad next to the more action focused Collins. But he isn’t entirely without emotion: When Collins insists he “can’t run a war without Harry Boland!”, Dev’s reply is a soft “You could run it without me.” His words are less an argument that Collins can execute his war without a few individuals, and more a weird statement of hurt, like he is unhappy at being left out. Collins is forced to acquiesce to Dev’s plans, though Michael Collins breaks from the serious drama for a moment of celebration after, as cheering crowds welcome De Valera back home, tricolours waving all around, the GPO still looming in the background, the DMP left helpless, something Collins notes with glee.

But not for long. The scene switches rapidly, another jarring transition, to a quiet Dublin street the next morning. A young boy hammers on the door of a house where Collins, Boland and De Valera are staying. The boy is an interesting touch, another example of the intelligence apparatus Collins has been able to get running, a far cry from the “spies and informers” that have previously ruined their efforts. Someone has tipped the Crown Forces off about where the trio are, but the IRA has a safety measure in place. The trio, sleeping intimately as we have seen Collins and Boland doing before, have to jump over the back wall to escape, while Smith and his bully boys slap the women of the house around, and terrorise children. The contrast with Collins couldn’t be starker, and the escalation theme we have witnessed has now resulted in this, of  G-Division operating without a chance for sympathy from the viewer. Dev makes it to a getaway car, but Collins has some last words before they part: “You’re my chief, always”. The words are dearly meant, but tinged with a certain foreshadowing. It’s not the last time in this film that two characters will part as friends and then meet again as enemies. Dev vanishes from the stage, and Collins has to rise to become a leader now. At least Smith gets his comeuppance though, shot down while taking a taxi. He sees it coming, and nearly gets a few shots off himself, but the sight of his dead body slumping back lacks some of the horror that we felt for Hoey.

Broy starts to realise there might be no way out for him.

Broy starts to realise there might be no way out for him.

What follows is one of Michael Collins’ must controversial, and oft ridiculed, segments. The DMP in Dublin Castle gets taken over by new men from Belfast, replete with overdone accents and just enough slang that you start rolling your eyes, whether it is “boyo” or “geezers”. The attitude of these almost absurdly Unionist men is dismissive and hostile. Broy goes through his rigmarole for the filing room as he did with Collins, but is rudely interrupted, a deliberate connection to the previous Castle scene. These are “old school” coppers, who have no time for records, due process or bureaucracy. Rather, they want “Belfast efficiency”. Well, they do right up until the moment when their car blows up as they leave Dublin Castle. It makes for a striking visual, especially with Rea’s character juxtaposed against the flaming metal, and I suppose it shows the IRA as becoming scarily capable. But it was all a call to a different era of strife in Ireland, a political connection that was made unnecessarily.

Collins and Boland prepare for their own parting. Collins remains bitter about what’s going on, thinking that De Valera is worried that “we might achieve that Republic he wants to talk to the world about”. It’s another scene in bright surroundings that still carries an air of doom, as the two wonder about the possibility of the violence getting even worse. It’s Collins’ problem alone now. The scene switches to a wonderfully recreated Kingsbridge Station (now Heuston Station of course), where Kitty joins the two friends. The three briefly discuss a butterfly, allegedly seen in County Clare, with colours that match the newly adopted Irish flag of the nationalist movement. Collins cynically jokes about it, and the fact that butterfly’s only last a day, but Boland is more optimistic: “But what a day Mick…what a day”. It’s not the last time these three will be walking somewhere talking about some unlikely symbol of the independence movement, and here the suggested butterfly might represent a later scene in the second act, where the three will delight in some brief unadulterated happiness, that simply can’t last.

Kitty and Harry part as lovers, sharing a kiss and romantic words. Harry is, to use his own words, clearly “in the lead” with her, but one cannot help but notice Collins’ jealous looking on, forcing himself to stay back and allow the two a solitary send-off. The scene isn’t over though: as Kiernan tried to leave, she’s accosted by soldiers seeking identification. A classic noir solution soon presents itself through Collins, who happily takes the opportunity to claim Kiernan as his “wife”, kissing her passionately to make the soldiers go away. Kiernan is annoyed (though Roberts’ delivery of this annoyance is poor) but Collins is delighted, already moving in as the woman now that Harry is gone, regardless of his declared intent to “look after her” on behalf of his departed friend. Michael Collins never looks too deeply at the morality of this act, and Harry won’t ever say that it is something that annoys him later. It’s something to keep in mind though, when it comes to a critical appraisal of the Collins character.

The war escalates drastically, in scenes of brutality that do little favors for the British.

The war escalates drastically, in scenes of brutality that do little favors for the British.

Things change dramatically next though. Michael Collins delves into Pathe footage from the era, to show the British response to the rising violence, namely the formation of what became known as the “Black and Tans”, though Jordan is uninterested in really getting into any kind of discussion over the various units that have been grouped under that heading. The British opinion is literally spelled out, as the new police back-up – Auxiliaries even – get ready to rid the “blighted land” of the terrorist foe. A nice transition from black and white into colour follows, as we get our introduction to the “Cairo Gang”, led by a man named Soames, played by Charles “Yes, that’s the guy from Game of Thrones” Dance. Michael Collins must, by necessity, jump around a bit with its primary antagonist characters, and Soames is going to fit the bill for the remainder of the second act. No waiting around for Ned Broy to show him the records room, he just gets in there himself, with a crowd of men, and starts trawling through the mass of paper for anything he can use. As an introduction, it works: unlike the brutish Smith or the comically stereotyped Belfast guy, Soames comes off as looking intent, professional and determined in this brief scene.

It’s the Black and Tans/Auxies who take up the rest, heckled and abused by a crowd of Dubliners as they drive around a residential area of the capital. The scene is a bit on the nose with how vicious and trigger happy it makes the British look, but you won’t find me, or many others, expressing much sympathy for the popular remembrance of these particular British forces. In terms of the film, it’s another brief action beat, another chance to show the growing escalation of the war, with civilians now getting involved as participants and targets, and to show the IRA ready to strike back, this time through the horrific use of a Molotov cocktail. The booming horns make the right impression too, a rising cacophony of sound, which adds just the right amount of horribleness to the visual violence that it scores.

Somewhere on the east coast, Collins meets with Broy, the two having a noir rendezvous underneath a train bridge, even as one of the whistling machines roars by. A nice bit of wordplay for Collins here, as he expresses a sadness about trains. Why? Because they “make me think of places I’ll never see”. Now, if that isn’t some ominous foreshadowing about Collin’s death, I don’t know what is. Broy, always a bit more to the point than Collins, essentially seems to be asking out of their arrangement. Collins encourages him to stick to their plan. Tragedy is obviously in the offing.

In many ways, the upcoming depiction of Bloody Sunday is as much about Broy as it is about Collins. In changing the fate of the Broy character from the historical record,  Jordan makes him the films really great sad figure, this man caught between the previous reality of life in Ireland and the rapidly changing state of affairs in the present, one foot in each camp, and unable to find a way out that won’t result in either his death or the end of the IRA. He’s obviously erring more and more towards the IRA though, even if it’s just a slight change of attitude. Perhaps seen previously as a bit nervous and subservient, in the next scene he corrects Soames when he mispronounces his name as “Boy”. It’s like Broy is suddenly the emerging Irish nation, telling the British to kindly stop patronising them. It gets up Soames nose though, and draws unnecessary attention to Broy.

Collins is smart enough to know that the Cairo Gang is trouble they haven’t seen before, but resolutely faces up to what he has to do. In another moment of “Collins the legend”, he walks right up to the man who is exerting so much trouble trying to find him and ask for a light. With Broy’s help, he starts having all of these new enemies followed. It’s a step-up for Broy, no longer just sharing files, but actively aiding Collins in organising the deaths of his superiors.

The following sequence is all set-up for the Bloody Sunday attacks, perhaps the most famous orchestrated operation of the entire war. Collins finds a way to hit at Soames, discovering where he lives and the identity of the maid who serve him, who just so happens to be the beau of one the Squad’s members. Quite the coincidence. Rosie tells Collins all she knows, and there’s an odd sense of deception going on: Collins isn’t of a mind to tell Rosie what he’s planning to do and she doesn’t seem to have any major inkling either. The role of women in the IRA intelligence network is downplayed in Michael Collins really, and this is one of the only scenes that tries to include the other sex in that regard. Anyway, Collins has found a weak spot in Soames’ life, and that means trouble. The final preparations are made, Collins meeting with the Squad in a theatre, giving them the customary last chance to back out. The moment is momentous: what happens next will be no singular killing, but a cross-city attempt to wipe out a significant proportion of the Crown Forces intelligence operation in Dublin. It’s not enough for the film though, as Collins finds out that Kitty might just be in the wrong place. Mindful of his promise to Harry, and more mindful of his feelings towards Kitty probably, he goes out to get her. The stakes have been raised big time.

Soames is the film's most able villain, and Broy is his main victim.

Soames is the film’s most able villain, and Broy is his main victim.

Ned Broy is at the heart of it all, leaving Dublin Castle with plenty of files, files that he plans to destroy. He’s intercepted by Soames before he leaves, who cheerfully remarks “Sufficient under the day the evil there of” to him, a positive phrase that just seems loaded with venom coming out of his mouth. The Broy/Boy mistake is brought up again, and Soames is like a cat getting ready to pounce on a mouse. The air is rife with tension, even before Soames orders Broy to be followed.

The rest of the sequence jumps back and forth between Broy and Collins, the G-Man’s apparent mission to destroy vital files and Collins’ attempt to get Kitty to a safe place. Kitty is unimpressed with Collins’ desperate and aggressive behaviour, but goes along with him, his pleading doing the trick when grabbing and pulling won’t. Broy, in the meantime, is doomed thanks to the sleeping receptionist at a hotel Collins has warned others to stay away from, followed there and caught in the act of destroying papers. When a Black and Tan demands to know what the papers were, there is something altogether saddening in Broy’s reply: “Words, just words”. Ah, but words have a power beyond their form and make-up, as Broy well knows. Perhaps he had a moment to think on that before he got knocked unconscious by a rifle butt.

Back in the hotel room where Collins and Kitty have sequestered themselves, Collins is reaching an emotional dead end. Kitty expresses a quasi interest in Collins, wondering why he never wrote to her, when Harry did. Collins can only reply that Harry is the “writing type” and that he isn’t, being a “yup from West Cork”. This interaction is rapidly becoming something very much more than a conversation between two potential lovers though.

In the Castle, a bloodied and beaten Broy recreates Cullen’s walk through its corridors, but with a crucial difference: he defiantly refuses to be dragged to his fate, insisting on walking under his own power. The symbolism is obvious, and adds one last tragic note to the Broy character. As Collins asks Kitty to “Promise you’ll never care about me”, Broy is tortured to death, in front of unfeeling Soames, who can’t seem to understand just why the Irish won’t “sing” when asked. Collins’ reasons for asking this of Kitty are plain then, because men in Collins’ lines of work are all too likely to end up like Broy.

Bloody Sunday passes for Collins and Kitty, in one of the films most notable self-justification scenes.

Bloody Sunday passes for Collins and Kitty, in one of the films most notable self-justification scenes.

Bloody Sunday commences in the dim light of the Dublin morning. It’s overlaid with some odd dialogue from Kitty, seemingly comparing Collins’ “boys” and their activity with sending bouquets of flowers and love notes. To me, it’s seems like a clarification request from Kitty, trying to reconcile her obvious feelings for Collins with the violent man he actually is. They lie together on the bed, a simple silhouette. Collins’ answer is simple when asked what kind of message he’s trying to send: “Leave us be…give us the future, we’ve had enough of your past…give us our country back, to live in, to grow in, to love.” It is at once a justification of Collins’ actions that morning, and a declaration of his own feelings for Kitty.

Across the city, the Cairo Gang is killed. Jordan does well to make every hit that bit different. Random, shocking violence erupts at a restaurant. One shooter hesitates, but eventually pulls the trigger under pressure from a comrade. One Cairo member almost gets away, using a women he was sleeping with as a distraction – “I’m not his bloody wife!” – but gets gunned down all the same. Somewhere on a playing field, Liam Tobin gives his target the chance to say a few prayers before pulling the trigger, the violence and religion contrasted again. Soames falls in his room, killed while Rosie, horrified, watches on, a true end of innocence. The real Bloody Sunday attacks had plenty of failures, but the narrative would suffer unduly if such things were included here. Back in the hotel room, Kitty asks the ominous question: “Do you think they got the message?” Escalation, always escalation.

The British are out in the force suddenly, moving through crowds in trucks, the score adding in some all-too-suitable whip crack noises to make the point. You don’t need knowledge of Irish history to understand that something terrible is about to happen. In a warehouse, Collins demands of his men if there were any casualties. A murmur from O’Reilly brings an angry demand from Collins, to which O’Reilly screams “Ned Fucking Broy!” Why O’Reilly might be so angry about Broy’s death is unclear, as the two have never shared the screen really, but it helps to make the point that Broy was, as Collins would say later about another dead comrade “one of us”. Collins, perhaps remembering the moment when Broy tried to get out of their arrangement, is overcome with grief. The full stop on the sequence is added by the sight of Broy’s bloody body being dumped callously on a Dublin street. Of course, the real Broy survived the War and went on to have a notable career in the new Garda Siochana, but in line with the large amount of death soon to happen, I guess Jordan wanted to make Bloody Sunday a more personal experience for Collins.

A very Irish scene, though one with some problems with accuracy.

A very Irish scene, though one with some problems with accuracy.

It’s in Croke Park (Bray’s Carlisle Grounds substituting) that the larger retaliation comes. As people enjoy a gaelic football match, armoured cars burst in and swarm the pitch, this incredibly odd image, of a thing and a location that couldn’t be more different. When they come to a halt, the silence and the stillness is eerie. Then, a Tipperary footballer – Michael Hogan himself – kicks the ball over one of the cars and plays on, scoring a point, to the wild cheers of the crowd. What was it De Valera said in prison? “We defeat the British Empire by ignoring it.” It’s a brilliantly evocative means of presenting this sentiment visually, and a very Irish way of doing it too.

But you can’t ignore bullets, and poor Michael Hogan gets brutally shot down. There is another horrified pause, and then the mass shooting starts. It’s brief enough, with little more in terms of blood shown or people falling, but it serves to make the point. The Crown Forces’ account of the day is that they were fired upon first, never proven, and any attempt to get to the bottom of the matter came to naught. There were armoured cars at Croke Park that day, but they stayed outside: the shooting was done by RIC men mostly. 12 people died, many more were injured, so I feel like it is splitting hairs to get into a tizzy over whether there was an armoured car involved or not. Bloody Sunday is the apex of the British escalation in the war, the moment when things really go insane. In the aftermath, despite the danger, Collins has to see the results of his actions that morning and visits the morgue, silently staring at the bodies. O’Reilly ushers him away, the situation clearly unsafe. After his previous justifications to Kitty, about how he simply wants his country given back, it is a hard moment for Collins. Again, Jordan may be trying to make us understand the resoluteness of Collins in supporting the coming Treaty, as a means of simply stopping all of the killing, since more than combatants are suffering now.

A happier scene – and boy do we need one at this stage – follows. Harry returns from the United States on a small boat, meeting Collins in the darkness of the Dublin shoreline. The reunion is a joyous one for the two (you can well imagine Collins needs the support), but there is an iciness to it as well. “Dev didn’t get to meet the President did he?” asks Collins bitterly, pouring scorn on the point of the escapade. Boland is sympathetic, but seems mostly happy to just be home. Elsewhere, De Valera also comes into port, with a lift from O’Reilly. The driver hands him a paper courtesy of the “Big Fella”. De Valera’s reply is ominous: “We’ll see who is the ‘Big Fella’”. Silly nicknames aside, De Valera is portrayed incredibly negatively in this whole sequence, though much of it has to be inferred. That, and Jordan is leaving a lot out, like the money Dev raised in America for the nationalist cause. Instead, De Valera is portrayed as a petty, jealous man, whose purpose in coming home is to get back on top of Collins, who has risen too far, too fast.

The third breaking with De Valera, after the first cabinet meeting and Dev’s departure to America, is coming fast. At another meeting of the cabinet, in the same shadowy location, Collins arrives late. The mood is markedly different to the shouting match of the last time: now there is just a pregnant silence as Collins takes his seat. I talked before about the symbolism of how people were seated, so it’s notable that Harry Boland is even closer to De Valera than he was previously. The scene commences with  De Valera’s monologue, offering the tantalising possibility of talks with the British. But there is a problem, at least insofar as Dev sees it, namely that the IRA’s tactics are polluting the chances of a negotiated settlement. This reflects De Valera’s actual opinions on the matter, though Jordan leaves out the more general opposition to the change to conventional tactics: Collins is depicted as a lone dissenting voice here.

De Valera in Michael Collins is obsessed with legitimacy and being seen as a proper head of government, and feels sullied by being the nominal head of an armed force described as “murderers”. But Collins isn’t budging an inch. Upon hearing the suicidal suggestion that the IRA fight conventionally, he offers a stinging retort about the Easter Rising, and how the men there marched “in step towards slaughter”. This line of thinking is true to the real Collins as well, and might seem positively blasphemous even today. Collins’ words provoke anger from Brugha, and that fits too, considering how he probably should have been killed in 1916 from multiple wounds.

The back and forth between Collins and De Valera reaches past boiling point, ending with Collins obliquely criticising De Valera for not being present for the last while, and that he misunderstands the reality that “war is murder, sheer bloody murder!”. De Valera is silently outraged by this assertion, and presses the point for a conventional attack on the Custom’s House, the feeling of which is less a proposal of military action, and more a rebuke of Collins and an assertion of De Valera’s authority. It’s a powerful scene, with Collins’ resigned grief at the end making the right ending point.

"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust..." The war comes to a head for Collins.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” The war comes to a head for Collins.

Things have come to a head in the war. It has escalated back and forth, to the point where the IRA is now momentarily transformed into regular army. The Custom’s House attack is not shown in any detail, Jordan aiming for a more stylistic depiction of the ashes spreading over Dublin in the aftermath of its firing, with the CGI being all kinds of iffy really. The attack is pyrrhic in its success, as the Dublin IRA is gutted between men killed and captured. Another action beat erupts, with accompanying chase-like score, as Collins, Boland and others have to make a run for it when their location is compromised. The tragedy of the Custom’s House attack is magnified by the loss of Cullen, who survived DMP brutality but is lynched by the British here, after foolishly trying to take some of the IRA’s guns with them. “War is murder” Collins said, and all he and Harry can do is just watch it happen, the ashes of the Custom’s House still falling.

The scene is meant to puncture De Valera’s position, but he hasn’t gotten off his high horse yet. In a more civilised surrounding of a parlour, Collins and Boland have a more quiet conference with the “Chief”, informing him that soon the IRA will not even have any guns to fight with. Dev is unimpressed with Collins’ sarcasm in the telling: “Don’t be flippant” he says grouchily, like a school teacher addressing a bold child. Boland backs Collins up in his assessment, one of the last times the two will be on the same page.

The breaking between Collins and De Valera is close to being permanent, as he is now openly lying to his boss about how much longer the IRA can hold out. Collins is dead right in his assertion that, at this point, the perception of how “invincible” the IRA is, is far more important than their actual status. Quickly, the two friends are moving on to a new topic: Kitty. It’s remarkable how Collins and Boland are still friendly about her, despite the openly acknowledged rivalry between the two.

That triangle is off for a nice day out, with Kiernan delighting the two men with talk of a horse called “Irish Republic” that has given her some major winnings, a call-back to Boland’s butterfly remarks earlier in the second act. At a classy and elegant dance hall, the two enjoy a meal to the accompaniment of Frank Patterson’s beautiful rendition of “Machushla”. After some of the horrors of the last 40 minutes, the surroundings are positively heavenly.

Harry takes Kitty for a dance, casually pondering on how he was once “a length ahead” with her before he left. We might understand a bit of Kitty’s outrage at the comparison of her love life with a horse race, but the moment becomes more tension filled as Boland insists on an answer, and maybe a decision between the two. Collins, as he had before, can only sit and watch, the triangle about to resolve itself in a decisive manner.

But before that, we get Joe O’Reilly busting into the hall in a tizzy, giving what must be his catchphrase at this stage: “Jesus Mick, where the hell have you been!?” The interaction between the two is comical, both spluttering out words with different emotions, Collins furious that his chance to “be a human being” for a day is being ruined. And it all culminates with two joyous words from Joe: “”It’s over”. The British have called a truce. Collins being overcome with emotion is startling, as he mumbles about how the enemy has “thrown in the towel”, until he actually embraces Joe, demanding “Why the fuck didn’t you say so!?”

He immediately runs to Boland and Kitty, his question to them setting up much of what will dominate the next few minutes: “What was that horse called again?” Patterson’s song reaches its climax as the scene ends, the group engaging in wild celebrations even as the rest of the dancing continues, the camera panning back to take it all in. It’s a moment of perfect happiness, when anything and everything seems possible for these character, not least an Irish Republic, and part of you wants to story to end right there. Close the book, I don’t want to read anymore. Because this moment, the traditional happy ending before the tragedy to follow, is like a butterfly. They only last a day. But what a day. What a day.

"death is a dream..." The film's happiest moment precedes some of its darkest.

“death is a dream…” The film’s happiest moment precedes some of its darkest.

For Part One, please click here.

For Part Three, please click here.

This entry was posted in History, Reviews, Revolutionary Remembrance, TV/Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Revolutionary Remembrance: Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (Part Two)

  1. Pingback: Revolutionary Remembrance: Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (Part Three) | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Revolutionary Remembrance: Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins | Never Felt Better

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