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MICHAEL COLLINS.  127 minutes, Certificate 15.

Liam Neeson as Michael Collins.  DVD coverDirector: Neil Jordan.   Stars: Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea, Alan Rickman and Julia Roberts.

Neil Jordan has made a career out of films with an Irish theme. His last film was The Crying Game which starred Stephen Rea as an IRA man haunted by the memory of a British soldier whom he had held hostage and later killed. That was a piece of straight fiction set against a background of the Ulster troubles. Jordan now feels that the time has come to tell a `true' story of one on the most neglected figures in Irish history - Michael Collins.  

Collins' neglect was not accidental. He argued that the Treaty with Great Britain gave the Irish people the `freedom to achieve freedom' and that the Irish Free State was a stepping stone to a republic. History has largely vindicated that viewpoint

Eamon DeValera, his great rival, soon took political power. He dominated Éire's political life for almost four decades, eventually ending up as president of the independent Irish state. As the state and its 1937 constitution was fashioned in Dev's image so Collins' role in it initial establishment was downplayed. Indeed the anniversary of the Free State's foundation is always ignored by the Leinster House establishment.

Another reason for the general neglect of Colllins is the apparent message that properly applied political violence can work. This message was not lost on Yitzak Shamir, the leader of LEHI, the Zionist Stern Gang, who took the code name Michael in Collins' honour. (Shamir was more effective, though.)

Collins was in his lifetime a very controversial figure, so it's no surprise that the launch of this biopic has stirred up a lot of hostility from several quarters in Great Britain and in the Republic, although criticism in Ulster has been very muted. Jordan himself has taken full advantage of the publicity to claim in a two-page spread in The Guardian that he is the victim of a smear campaign. Such controversy, of course does no harm. In fact it may well even improve box-office takings as people flock to the cinemas to see what all the fuss was about.

Few will be disappointed. No efforts have bee spared to recreate Dublin in the 1920s. The set of the GPO building and the surrounding Sackville Street where the 1916 Easter Rising was launched was magnificent. There were even cobblestones and tramlines! A lot of people must have pored over dozens of old photographs just to get everything just right.

Liam Neeson was perfectly cast as Collins. He fully deserved his prize for the best actor at the Venice film Festival. Although many critics panned Julian Roberts' portrayal of Collins' fiancee, Kitty Keirnan - and her accent did slip occasionally I thought that she did a reasonably good job. She avoided the embarrassing Hollywood 'Oirish' paddywhackery that must forever haunt Petula Clark from the time she starred in Finian's Rainbow. Kitty's place in this film appears to be to show that Collins and his men were not single-minded fanatical zealots but warm people capable of love and affection as well as bloody slaughter.

In Jordan's vision the Irish are invariable happy-go-lucky laughing, singing and dancing people who just want to be left in peace after 700 years of English oppression. Ireland is described in simplistic terms as an English 'colony'. In actual fact Ireland was a full part of the United Kingdom with generous representation in the Westminster parliament. Collins and his men are reluctant to fight at all but do so with a heavy heart and a sense of duty. It's 'very rough' but the members of Collins' squad do allow their victims the opportunity to say their prayers before killing them. On the other hand the British authorities are invariably nasty, brutish and sadistic; lacking in any compassion. One Brit even had the treacherous effrontery to fire back at an IRA squad member who chivalrously allowed his intended victim's wife to leave the room, but he didn't get away with it.

Charles Dance was superb as the head of British intelligence at Dublin Castle. He may fear being forever typecast as an English villain but at least he'll never be out of work. There was an all-too-short cameo form Ian McIlhenny as a menacing Belfast RIC man who wanted to bring a bit of 'Belfast efficiency' to Dublin Castle's efforts against Collins. This was the only brief suggestion that there were any 'Irishmen' - i.e. Ulsterfolk - who did not want to cut their ties with the British Empire. In any case, they were soon dealt with - he and his colleagues were blown up in a car bomb. For me this symbolises Jordan's pan-Irish national chauvinist attitude to the prods as just an obstacle to be ignored or blown out of the way!

The one Irishman who is not like the rest is Eamon DeValera. Alan Rickman plays him as a cold, scheming, vain fanatic. When Collins and his best friend and comrade Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn) spring him from an English prison he insists on going to America to seek recognition for the Irish Republic from President Wilson. He takes Boland with him - in Collins' view to split them up. It seems to work too. In Harry's absence Kitty transfers her affection over to Mick which cools down their previous friendship.

Dev also disapproves of Collins' guerrilla tactics. He wants good old-fashioned battles and orders an assault on the Dublin Customs House. naturally, they suffer heavy casualties and get nowhere. This only annoys Dev more, so when the British ask for talks he sends Collins to negotiate, knowing that the British can never concede a full-blown Irish Republic.

Collins returns with a Twenty-Six County Irish Free State with an oath of allegiance to the English king; i.e. the same political status held by Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. DeValera scorns the Treaty and raises opposition to it throughout the country. Sinn Féin and the IRA split. In a vote in Dáil Éireann, which confusingly seems to have sprung fully-formed out of nowhere, the Treaty is accepted by 64 vote to 57. Dev and his deputies - including Collins' friend Harry Boland - walk out, thus setting the scene for civil war. Boland is killed by Free Staters and Collins meets his death in an ambush at Beal na mBlath in his home county of Cork.

It's a great film but there were some glaring historical errors. The British auxiliaries and 'Black and Tans' on the original Bloody Sunday, (November 21st 1920) did not retaliate for the assassination of eleven British agents by driving an armoured car into Croke Park and machine-gunning a football crowd in a rerun of the Amritsar massacre. If it had really happened that way the casualties would have been much higher than the thirteen who actually did die.

Stephen Rea played Eamonn 'Ned' Broy, a civil servant who became Collins' spy in Dublin Castle. In the film his treachery was discovered by the British and he suffered hideous torture before his broken body was dumped in the street. In fact Broy was arrested but no action was taken against him. He was released during the Truce of 1921. He actually accompanied Collins and Arthur Griffith to the treaty talks in London. Ironically, he took DeValera's side in the Civil War and went on to become the Commissioner of the Garda Siochana from 1933-38 when his 'Broy Harriers' were used to smash the threat from the fascist Blueshirts. He died a peaceful death in 1972.

There is no evidence that Harry Boland parted company from Collins over Kitty Keirnan as the film suggests. Their dispute appears to have been entirely over the acceptability of the treaty settlement. Boland's death did greatly affect Collins but it took place in less dramatic circumstances than the film makes out.

Finally, there is no evidence that DeValera connived at Collins' ambush and killing. There are good reasons to doubt his motives for sending Collins and Griffith to London instead of going there himself. In his book The Path of Freedom, reviewed in Ulster Nation issue 11, Collins was scathing of DeValera's stance. to Collins, Dev's supporters didn't know a victory when they saw it. Dev pursued his abstract republic while Collins recognised that "Those who are left in possession of the battlefield have won." The result was a bloody and bitter civil war which poisoned public life in the Twenty-Six County State for generations.

The only consolation for Ulsterfolk was that the internecine bloodletting in the Free State allowed Ulster a breathing space to consolidate itself.

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