For the first part, click here.
For the second part, click here.
Another jarring change introduces us to the third and final act of Michael Collins. The celebrations and soft music of the last scene vanish, and we see a stunned looking Collins express disbelief at something that has just been put to him. It’s another cabinet meeting, but no more shady basements and noir-lighting: now they look like they are meeting in a place they should be meeting in. And the topic of the meeting is the upcoming Treaty negotiations with the British.
Jordan plays fast and loose with plenty of historical reality to try and make his points in this scene. Collins was never the only person or the sole leading light of the Treaty delegation, but he has to be to fit this film. This scene sets up the true villainy of Michael Collins’ De Valera, now manipulating events for his own betterment, and doing so with mask of reasonableness attached to his face. Collins doesn’t appear to see through the true purpose of Dev’s plan, but the warning bells are all there, not least Cathal Brugha’s reserved agreement with De Valera’s proposition: this is the last guy who would usually be sending Collins anywhere on important business. Collins is desperate in the face of what he is being asked to do, practically begging De Valera “Don’t do this to me…”. But everyone seems to be against him. Crucially, even Harry Boland is parroting De Valera’ s arguments. You can sort of see a thin vein of logic in Dev’s plan of being a “final arbiter”, but if this view was keenly held, it was one of extraordinary naiveté. The scene breaks suddenly for more celebrations, and some comedy, as poor Joe O’Reilly is fingered as “Michael Collins” for the benefit of the press.
The Treaty negotiations themselves are ignored by Jordan. In the next scene it’s about Kitty and Harry. Kitty reads a letter from Mick, still acting as if things can be the same between the three of them. When Harry tries to be more intimate with her, she has to tell him the truth about her feelings towards Collins. It’s a devastating moment for Boland, and Quinn does wonderfully in portraying that. We’ve seen plenty of breaking between Collins and De Valera, but the need for a more personal style to the narrative of the civil war requires the same for Collins and Boland. Some might say that Jordan delegitimises Boland’s following of the anti-Treaty path by indicating the Kitty situation might have been a part of it, but it makes for a better Boland character in the film anyway.
Jordan doesn’t have much time to be spending on all of those matters though, as a lot has to be squeezed into the last 40 minutes of Michael Collins. Four months later, a depressed Collins returns from London, narrating the results of his negotiations. The framing of this whole thing is obviously going to be sympathetic for Collins, as he gets to elaborate on how he feels the Treaty is that “stepping stone” required to gain greater freedom down the line. But we can tell straight away, after all the talk of the “Irish Republic”, that an “Irish Free State” might not cut it. The first example of that is Boland’s reaction, a mixture of disgust and disbelief. Jordan eggs the partition issue, even though that wasn’t the primary divisive factor at the time, and the scene in general feels a bit weak, due to Boland repeating Collins’ narrated sentiments. There’s something interesting in Collins’ emphatic declaration that he “won’t go to war over a form of words”, which isn’t too far away from De Valera’s famous “empty formula” talk later in the 20th century. Boland’s reply is icy and foreboding: “What if its war either way?” The two haven’t had an irrevocable break yet, but it’s coming.
Next thing we know, Collins is getting it with both barrels from De Valera in the same room the cabinet was meeting in only a few minutes before. It’s a shocking change from the civility of that setting, as De Valera rants and rails, and you wonder how much of this is performance: from both men, as Collins remains unbelievable still and calm during the exchange. Everything about the scene is painted as putting Collins in the right: Dev doesn’t deny Collins’ claims, merely says that they are “idle speculation”, and his body language tends towards being the guilty party. Collins has his prepared arguments, but it doesn’t mean anything to a furious De Valera: “What would you know about peace?” he spits acidly when Collins commends the Treaty for giving them a chance to move forward without a war, clearly a nod to one of their previous disagreements.
The encounter ends as badly as it can, both for the relationship of these two men and for the depiction of De Valera: Dev openly rejects Collins’ suggestion that they accept the democratic will of the people, and literally turns his back on the prospect. Only a few moments ago, De Valera was painting himself as the personification of the Irish people, now he seems to have taken that feeling to an extreme. Jordan takes his time in showing this parting, Collins collecting his things and closing his briefcase before walking off, as if he wants to give us a sense of Dev having more than enough time to turn back from the course he is embarking upon, but just not taking it.
Next, it’s a scene for Collins and Kitty. Now Kitty is excluded from the Michael/Boland relationship, watching from behind a window as the two argue on the street. Boland is now the third wheel in this trio, just as Collins was earlier, and it isn’t a role that he steps into gracefully, barely acknowledging Kitty’s presence. The entire affair, mixed with the meeting with De Valera, leaves Collins grief stricken. He can’t even meet Kitty’s eyes later, and her disgust when he posits that they might find no peace yet is powerful. It’s only been a few minutes since the three of them were so happy at that dance hall, but already everything has fallen to pieces.
There follows one of my favourite sequences in the entire film, the Treaty debate. Filmed in Trinity College, it is a brilliant recreation of parliamentary democracy at the time, and the whole thing has that wonderful Irish feel to it: debates in the Dail today are, sometimes, not so different. It’s a mass of people, emotions and crying voices, the obvious symbol of a country divided. Jordan introduces us to this arena so wonderfully, with a tracking shot that focuses on Collins as he arrives in the building, swinging around and showing us the larger hall with its larger debate, even as most of the attention goes on Collins. The divide is obvious in the entire stage, one half applauding Collins, the other half decrying him. And there is a clear divide in characters as well, a veritable who’s who of the film’s participants lining up for and against Collins and his Treaty: Joe O’Reilly, Arthur Griffith, Liam Tobin and even a few Squad members can be seen next to or behind Collins, while De Valera counts Brugha, Boland and Rory O’Connor among his supporters on the other side.
Gerard McSorley owns this room and this scene in his thunderous performance as Brugha, his savage denunciations of Collins ringing in the ears. It’s great because it’s not perfect: Brugha splutters, repeats himself and stumbles a bit, which just makes it all the more real. There’s bravado and showmanship there, really nasty political discourse as he shouts down Griffith’s defending of Collins and riles up his own supporters. His final criticism of Collins is bitter, describing him as an unjustly praised “romantic figure” placed into a position “he never held”.
Collins seems at first like he will start shouting back, but refrains. Eventually the room falls silent for his retort, which leaves aside an attack on Brugha in favour of a more heartfelt appeal for the assembled delegates to “save the country” and avoid a war that cannot be contemplated. His speech is powerful, but seems to make little difference on the already neatly divided crowd. The vote comes and the pro-Treaty side wins with a majority of seven, but there’s little celebration in the audience really, we all know what’s coming. De Valera rises, and like Collins before, the room silences immediately. Brugha was the pitbull leading the charge earlier, with De Valera notably silent. Now he gives his own opinion on the Treaty, a slow and pained dismembering of a document that can “only subvert” the Irish Republic, an entity that “cannot be disestablished” without the will of the Irish people – that is, the will of De Valera. As if suddenly realising what he is about to do, De Valera straightens up and gets to the point, walking out of the Dail with his deputies – “my deputies” as he says – the national parliament split down the middle. Collins finally loses his temper, but is left bowed when he see’s Harry leave too, his friend not having any words to see to him.
Kitty congratulates Michael on his victory later, which is a shame, because it really does make her character look a bit too dumb, not comprehending the split that has occurred and the violence to come. This scene is a more overtly romantic than any of the others the two have shared, a moment of tranquillity amid the darkness of what has passed and what is to come, but Kitty, as a character, has been largely sidelined at this point.
Elliot Goldenthal’s booming score suddenly returns in the next scene, as a rather unnecessary text informs us that we are watching the changeover of power at Dublin Castle, now seen in the bright of day, no longer the formidable fortress it once was. Up rolls Collins, now in a prim and proper uniform of an Irish Free State general, joined by others – though, still not Joe O’Reilly. The scene seems largely filler to me really, only included perhaps because of the famous quip attributed to Collins who, upon being told by the senior British representative that he was seven minutes late replied “You’ve kept us waiting 700 years, you can have your seven minutes”. Other than that, the scene allows for Collins to show some pain at everything that is transpiring, wearily remarking that the lowering of the Union Jack was “what all the bother” was for. Still some comedy though, as he follow up by jokingly asking if he gets to wear the ridiculous hat the British Viceroy (?) is wearing.
Things are turning to hell in a hand basket quickly though. De Valera and Collins are not set up directly against each other, as the following scene, depicting the two giving contrasting speeches on their positions, shows. Dev is all fire and brimstone, famously calling upon his supporters to “wade through Irish blood” to insure the Treaty’s defeat, the kind of surprising warmongering we don’t really expect from him. The GPO, keeping the memory of that grand doomed struggle alive, still looms in the background. Back in the same place he gave that memorable speech earlier in the film (the scene even features the same score), Collins finds himself drowned out by interruptions and attempts to break up the meeting. Somewhat crazily, it is Kitty that intervenes, holding a gun to the head of a man firing bullets in the air. It’s a rapid and poorly effective scene, with Jordan clearly starting to run short on time.
Poor Kitty is the one who has to suffer because of it though. Her role in the last half hour or so is painfully reduced, largely to a succession of “enters scene, says something affectionate to Collins, end”. Here, mirroring their first meeting in the same location well over an hour ago, Collins finally proposes. It’s a nice moment, one of the last ones Michael Collins will have, but is let down slightly by Roberts’ accent, which is at its worst in this scene.
The happiness can’t last. Even as the majority of the country seems prepared to stand by the Treaty, the rest are taking up arms, as plain clothes IRA members seize the Four Courts, in a movement and sequence full of foreboding. Jordan’s framing cannot be clearer, both in the, again, unnecessary text and in what follows: the anti-Treaty IRA is depicted as undemocratic, unreasonable and bordering on villainous. Collins’ confrontation of the Four Courts garrison is still pretty great. Sauntering up, notably in civilian clothes, he angrily pushes aside a “little runt” who tries to block his path. His conversation with Rory O’Connor is futile and hostile, a way of showing clearly how bad the situation has become: violence is the only answer now (the symmetry with earlier is here too, as Collins first met him after meeting Kitty). There is a somewhat simplistic attempt to recreate what happened in those mad pre Civil War days – the split was a much more elongated affair, and De Valera was in no way commanding the anti-Treaty military decisions – but it serves its purpose. Friends have turned against friends, and they aren’t listening to Collins anymore. He arrives at the Four Courts full of bluster, but leaves without making any headway.
Next, people are actively trying to kill Collins, though he brushes it off with a non-caring that is a bit lame really. Kitty enters another room for a brief conversation with Collins, and nearly gets killed for her trouble – though, at this point, her dying might be the only thing left for the character to do that might be in any way notable. Her response to her brush with death is weird – “They can’t kill us Mick” – and serves more as a bit of clumsy foreshadowing. The stuff with Kitty has rapidly become an unamusing sideshow.
The real drama continues to be with the approaching Civil War. The new leader of the pro-Treaty side is Arthur Griffith, giving a grim and desperate sounding run down on how bad the situation is getting. “It’s anarchy out there!” he proclaims, to which Collins responds “Better anarchy than civil war!” I’m not really sure that’s true. The situation can’t last, and Griffith has a grim warning for Collins, that the British might decide the Treaty is a doomed arrangement and step in themselves: as they came alarmingly close to doing in real life. If nothing else will push Collins to the fateful moment, maybe that will: the possibility that his chance at peace will be replaced by an unwinnable war where everything they have gained thus far will be lost. Collins is conflicted, but the final decision isn’t that far off anymore.
There is one more chance that the coming disaster can be averted though. At night, with the shadow and memory of the GPO still looming over everything, Michael convinces Harry to give him one last conference, in the same hotel room they previously wrestled in over Kitty. The mood is so drastically different now, even in lighting. Harry haltingly offers congratulations on Michael and Kitty’s engagement, but there is no power in it. When Collins notes this, Boland is left with only a “I’m trying!”. The anger is palpable: Harry never expected to lose that race, and the pain of it, and their political sundering is too much. Harry seems compelled to be the nice guy still, but he just can’t pull it off.
Collins is scared, claiming that he is on the verge of stepping back into a role he wanted to leave aside, where he will have to carry out more bloody and terrible deeds. Jordan is at pains to paint Collins as a man of peace constantly, but there comes a point where maybe that rings increasingly hollow – though maybe deliberately so, with Collins meant to be portrayed as a hypocrite.
In the end, this final conference is pointless. Neither side and neither man will back down from their political position. Collins’ final appeal is one tinged with ridiculousness, suggesting “they fight, we don’t”, as if he and Harry can both walk away from what is happening. Voices are raised and a physical confrontation begins, with Collins suddenly threatened by a young, armed volunteer. Collins’ fragile mental state is laid bare as he encourages the young man to shoot, expressing a death wish that we can actually buy after the last twenty minutes or so. Boland defuses the situation, just about, and he and Collins part, for the very last time, acrimoniously, with nothing resolved, and more heartbreak to come.
Opposite the Four Courts Collins, back in the stiff and unnatural looking military uniform, orders his soldiers to open fire with artillery. The connection being drawn between the new pro-Treaty armed forces and the British is clear: similar uniforms, the same artillery pieces that were used in the opening, the same kind of activity, the same armoured cars that were used in the Bloody Sunday scene. It’s a nice touch that Collins jumps when the artillery goes off, clearly unused to being so close to such devices. His very order to begin the attack is a curt and angry “Do it”, before he walks away, disgusted with himself. The masonry of the Four Courts starts to crumble as Collins bitterly asks Joe O’Reilly “How would you like a new boss?”
The resulting fighting in Dublin is depicted really well I always thought, a short but excellently choreographed and planned visualisation of the conflict that took place in 1922. It’s all chaos and random gunfire, people screaming, explosions, glass shattering, bullets whizzing. The pro-Treaty side advances, but even they are fighting like amateurs, advancing in rushes and falling in droves. Sinead O’Connor’s contribution to the score, a track simply dubbed “Civil War” is wonderful, a piercing wail that grows to a crescendo of keening, which adds to the effect of making the fighting as tragic as possible. There are no good guys and bad guys in these mad frantic moments. You want the fighting to stop, because there is no greater tragedy for a nation, especially a new one, than to be torn apart in this manner. And still, ever present, the shadow of the GPO continues to overlook the action, the starting point for everything that came after.
Jordan is careful to make the personal touch. As the scene ends, Harry Boland makes his own decision, picks a target off screen and fires. He’s momentarily shocked by what he has just done, irremovably joining the ranks of the anti-Treaty side once and for all. It’s a regretful action, and one he will pay for.
A night time scene follows, the aftermath of the fighting, where the blown apart buildings and fire mix with wounded soldiers and captured prisoners. Collins and O’Reilly arrive, seeking Boland, Collins unable to give up on him just yet. Already the civil war divide is becoming set, as Joe refers to the anti-Treaty forces as “them”. Collins goes off on a desperate chase, trying to stop Boland from being killed by his own forces.
Boland is being hunted in the catacombs that the cabinet previously met in, by soldiers who do not seem predisposed to taking prisoners. Wounded, he staggers on, through light after light, with Collins racing to the same location. This can all only end in one way, and the juxtaposition of the locations previous use in the film with what is happening there now makes it all the more sad.
Harry gets shot dead in horrible circumstances, floundering in the Liffey and easily picked off from above (in reality, he was shot in a hotel room, dying several days later, when his arrest was attempted, the exact circumstances remaining murky to this day). His retrieval is an undignified spectacle, hoisted from the river by a crane, left dangling in the straps. Collins is more stunned than saddened, and talks to his dead friend – “Who closed your eyes?” – before angrily turning on the soldier who gleefully takes credit: “I plugged him”. The soldier is an anonymous nobody, previously looking very cool and menacing as he shot Boland, throwing a cigarette away before he did so, but now he takes on the persona of a terrified child as Collins turns on him. “He was one of them” the soldier cries, and Collins, frustrated with how the split has become manifest, can only offer an empty denial that this was so. Suddenly aware of the embarrassment he is causing the nearby soldiers, he limply orders them back to their posts, his tone one of disgust with himself for even uttering the words. All that’s left is for Kitty to find a mourning Collins in the same hotel once more, despairing overt the media treatment of what’s happened: “The papers said his last words were ‘Have they got Mick Collins yet?’”.
Things have gone too far already, and Collins is ready to seek peace: Jordan clearly implies that the death of Harry is the defining thing, as opposed to the larger conflagration. O’Reilly is in the intermediary, meeting several armed members of the other side in the same pub Collins, Boland and O’Reilly were in earlier: the last act of Michael Collins really is meant to act as a mirror of the first. One of the anti-Treaty men is played by Don Wycherley, in a small but menacing role: he represents the first of what he dubs the “new boys”, a new iteration of the IRA that aren’t, and never were, under Collins’ thumb. It’s a late introduction in the film, but they are a deadly threat in their every word and action. The suggestion that peace is only possible if Collins meets De Valera in West Cork is barely even a veiled threat. We don’t need Joe to point out later that this is the only area where the Irregulars are still present (a gross simplification of the real Civil War). A plot’s in the offing, and it will be the tragic dénouement of Michael Collins.
Strangely enough, the character of Joe O’Reilly becomes far more pro-active in these final 20 or so minutes, perhaps to justify his presence in that bookend moment that will close Michael Collins. He accompanies Michael everywhere of course, but now he’s taking the lead in organising peace initiative, briefing Collins about it, and even accompanying him down to Cork, despite his misgivings. It’s late in the game to be giving O’Reilly a greater role, but might be a natural side-effect of Boland’s death: Joe steps into the Boland role now, and stays there for the final part of the film. Collins agrees to head south. O’Reilly comes with, forever loyal: “Ah sure, if you’re going down I’m going down with you”. The line is said jokingly, but there is obvious foreboding in it.
The transition is quick, as we join the convoy moving through the sunny countryside of Cork. They pass a ruined homestead, Collins’ birthplace. Destroyed by the Tan’s, we might think back to Collins’ rendition of “Skibereen” earlier, which involved a man taking up arms against the British because they destroyed his home. In fact, Collins will be singing it again in a minute, as if the point needed any more making. A ceili breaks out in the pub Collins decides to wander into, momentarily basking in some of the traditional favour he was used to.
But there are still enemies about, as we are introduced to the films last major player: a very young Jonathan Rhys Myers in a role dubbed only “Collins’ Assassin” (Collins asks him his name at one point, and no answer is given). The character is a real enigma. Presumably one of the aforementioned “new boys”, he demonstrates both sympathy and contempt for Collins, reasonableness and creepy bravado. His motives for all that follow go unrecorded. I’m not sure what Jordan was going for with the assassin, it all seems very confused.
Confused too, to a much more infamous extent, is the treatment of De Valera in his final scenes. Dev is sickly, almost bent over with pain in these moments, with the assassin supporting him as well as prodding him towards a certain course. Collins remonstrates with his future killer, who remains aloof and arrogantly bitter towards him, but soon turns his attention to De Valera, making his last appeal and a last testament. It’s a moving call for the fighting to stop, for Boland’s memory to be honoured and for the former comrades to build with what they have, as opposed to dreaming for something they just can’t.
But it’s De Valera’s reaction that is very vague, I’m guessing a deliberate choice by the director. Michael Collins needs its villain, but Jordan can’t bring himself to pull the trigger on Dev completely, and so this frustratingly obtuse moment. Dev, with the audience unsure whether his wheezing is from physical or emotional pain, hears Collins’ words and merely replies “Jesus Michael…God forgive us Harry…” before stumbling away, ignoring the assassin’s requests for instructions. What did Dev mean? Is he bowled over by Collins’ words, and begging Boland for forgiveness for helping the civil war to happen? Is the assassin then moving ahead with the ambush of his own volition? Or is Dev asking Harry to forgive his part in the coming attack, his lack of answer to the assassin a go ahead? Only Jordan knows I guess. Its terrible history – Dev probably was in the general area when Collins was killed but, as stated, was in no position to be ordering such attacks – and always seemed rather cowardly in a way to me: if you’re going to paint Dev as the bad guy, just come out and do it properly. It’s like Jordan wanted some space to say “Oh, well, you could interpret this scene many ways” but that’s not good enough in my eyes, when dealing with such a character and such a moment.
The Beal na mBlath ambush, that seminal moment in Irish history, is probably the film’s most well remembered and critically acclaimed sequence. The attack is juxtaposed with Kitty going wedding dress shopping in Dublin, while Sinead O’Connor gives her last contribution to the score, through her amazing rendition of “She Moved Through The Fair”, the song’s usage coming full circle from Kitty’s previous recitation. Jordan is still leaving out the more sombre lines, but the tone of the song leaves for no error in what it means.
Kitty’s shopping paints her one last time as a romantic figure for Collins, and as an innocent victim of all that has transpired, dressed in virginal white even as her lover is shot in the head. Dublin is recovering from the war all around her, the world already moving on from Collins.
In Cork, a wonderful high shot shows the assassin’s column rapidly moving into position, even as Michael and Joe share their last moments of humour down below. The actual shooting is brief but memorable: the opening shots, O’Reilly letting loose with the machine gun, and even Collins’ last line: “Christ, they’re trying to fuckin kill me…”. The music, the dress shopping, the sounds of gun fire, they all reach a gradual climax, ending with the shot that enters Collins’ skull, killing him instantly.
Joe O’Reilly’s anguish at this moment, breaking down, pleading for Michael to not leave, is heartbreaking, and makes the point of what a giant Collins was for the men that followed him. Joe’s pain is not just that he has failed to save Collins, but that he has lost a good friend. ‘”I have a journey sir, shortly to go, my master calls me, I must not say no.” In Dublin, Kitty is informed, and breaks down in tears also, the destruction of her planned life with Collins occurring right before her eyes. The entire sequence is brilliantly tragic, and intensely emotive, capturing perfectly the grandeur of Collins in how his death immediately affected those closest to him, long before we get any inkling of what it meant for the country at large.
The later bookend closes the production, the return of Joe and Kitty in the darkened bedroom. Joe opens the curtains and essentially demands that Kitty stop her mourning and societal retreat, as Collins would not have wanted such a thing. O’Reilly has recovered faster, but Kitty isn’t far behind. There is some emptiness in Joe’s (and the films) final words: “No regrets Kitty, that’s what he’d say. No regrets”. If anything, I’d say Collins had many, as he spent the last third of the film regretting everything he was obliged to do. Kitty and Joe stand hand in hand against the light of the window as the film’s actual action ends, facing into an uncertain future together. It’s odd framing really: one cannot help but take a romantic implication from this last shot, which is certainly not true to history, and in no way necessary.
The film plays out its last moments as Goldenthal’s wonderful “Coda” ramps up, eventually reaching its booming height as the credits roll. Over real Pathe footage of Collins’ funeral, Jordan throws in text. Its standard for biopics, but the problem is that these are terribly worded, and leave a bad taste in the mouth. Jordan says that, after Collins’ death, “both sides of the conflict, British and Irish, were momentarily united in grief”. I’m not sure the British really grieved Collins’ loss – they might have regretted losing a prominent pro-Treaty politician certainly – and I suspect Jordan meant to say “pro and anti-Treaty”. Collins is described as negotiating Ireland’s first “Treaty of Independence” with Britain. This is patently untrue. And Jordan cheesily describes Collins’ death as a paradox, latching onto the peace negotiations idea, which is far from certain as an historical reality.
Perhaps more bizarrely, the last word is given to De Valera, quoted in 1966 when he was President of Ireland. “It is my considered opinion that history will record the greatness of Michael Collins, and it will be recorded at my expense”. What is Jordan’s intention with this final quote? It seems almost like the most childish kind of justification for his treatment of De Valera in the film, like the director is trying to say “Look, Dev predicted this, I’m just following through!” I can’t really see any other meaning. It’s certainly not Dev praising Collins, merely suggesting that his popular memory will be positive.
So ends Michael Collins. But not this mini-series, as I’ll put together some general thoughts next time.