25 years ago, Neil Jordan was coming off directing The Crying Game and Interview with the Vampire. He had two box office hits and a screenplay Oscar under his belt. So, naturally, he spent his Hollywood cache on a biopic about Irish republican Michael Collins.
The result occupies a peculiar place in film history and Irish culture. Despite being a major studio release, it faded from the consciousness of the international film community more or less immediately. But in Ireland, it remains a cornerstone of both pop culture and popular history: We’ve all seen it, probably lots of times, so it’s a big part of how we understand our nation and its history. For me, and I’m sure millions more, when I picture some of the most significant figures in Irish history they look like Liam Neeson or Alan Rickman.
Michael Collins begins with the Easter 1916 uprising before following Collins (Liam Neeson)—Michael, Mick, the big fellow—through the Irish War of Independence, where he leads the Irish Republican Army in a guerrilla war against the British state. Mick is charismatic, funny and endlessly passionate about Ireland’s freedom. Neeson is electric, playing Mick as a clear-eyed strategist even as he lets us glimpse the toll it takes on his soul to send young Irish men—boys, really—out with rifles in their hands.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty, which falls short of creating an Irish Republic, brings the War of Independence to an end but leads to the Civil War between those who support and oppose the treaty. Mick is pro-treaty, opposite to many of the men he’s been fighting alongside. There’s president Éamon de Valera (Alan Rickman), who frequently clashed with Mick on matters as substantial as military tactics and as ephemeral as personality, and there’s Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn), Mick’s dearest, dearest friend. It seems like the only person who he hasn’t lost is Kitty Kiernan (Julia Roberts), a sweet girl both he and Harry were in love with.
There’d been idle consideration of making a film about Michael Collins for a while—at one point, Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter) was going to direct Gabriel Byrne in the role; at another, Kevin Costner was interested—but Jordan must have pitched the hell out of it, because Michael Collins is a big film, full of movie stars, with the kind of Hollywood sheen that comes with Hollywood budgets. It’s 1996, and you’ve got Liam Neeson, Julia Roberts, Aidan Quinn and Alan Rickman as the leads. I imagine that Jordan convinced Warner Bros. it might even make them some money.
In most of the world, it flopped. It got some minor Oscar nominations—score and cinematography—and even won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, but largely didn’t make much of a ripple, critically or commercially. But if to the rest of the world it’s a vaguely remembered, decidedly minor work, the opposite is true in Ireland.
Michael Collins was the highest-grossing film of all time in Ireland when it was released, grossing four million Irish pounds. Though it was rated R in the U.S. and 15 in Britain, it was released here with a PG certificate, with the Irish Film Censor stating, “because of the subject matter, parents should have the option of making their own decision as to whether their children should see the film or not.” That historical importance is a big part of its popularity, of course: It’s a part of Irish history that we all know intimately, perhaps more so than any other piece of our history. But on top of that, at a time when Ireland’s film industry had hardly begun to develop—only three years after the re-establishment of the Irish Film Board—Michael Collins was the biggest film ever produced here. And unlike the legion of stage-Irish top-of-the-morning rubbish that had passed for Ireland in American films, Michael Collins wasn’t plastic or inauthentic. While I love, say, The Quiet Man—John Ford’s 1952 film starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, made in Cong, Co. Mayo—I am keenly aware that it’s not “for” me. It’s for Americans and the false, romantic Ireland of their imaginations. Michael Collins doesn’t feel that way for a single second.
It’s remained a key fixture in Irish culture in the 25 years since. I’ve seen it dozens of times, minimum every Christmas for as long as I can remember. I’ve seen it re-released on the big screen for the centenary of the Easter Rising. I own a paperback copy of the screenplay for no particular reason. I was shown it in school many, many times. (My history textbook had a big yellow box saying that one of the film’s most notorious deviations from reality—it implies Éamon de Valera was involved in Collins’ death—has no historical basis.) Stephen Rea-as-Ned Broy writing in his notebook is the definitive meme of Irish Twitter, the go-to response to any and all West Brit-ery.
And so Michael Collins ends up falling between two stools: Outside of Ireland, it’s too insignificant for much consideration; inside Ireland, it’s so significant that it becomes hard to think about as a movie, to separate out from everything that surrounds it. Talking about Michael Collins means talking about how we imagine our own history, quickly devolving into arguments about historical accuracy or the quality of non-Irish actors’ accents. (For the record, it’s become a bit of a truism that Julia Roberts does a bad Irish accent, but to my ear, she sounds so much like Sinéad O’Connor that the O’Connor songs included in the film feel like Kitty Kiernan is singing them.) It’s a shame, because it really is a great film, worth taking on its own terms.
Michael Collins is about violence—about what it means to suffer and inflict it, about the violence of empire, resistance and war. De Valera dislikes Collins’ guerrilla tactics—wants them to be like a “real army” instead of a scrappy band of rebels—but Collins knows that ambushes from the hills and murders in the streets are the only chance they’ve got against the might of the British Empire. This knowledge doesn’t make it easy, though. In one of the film’s best sequences, a series of assassinations of British agents are intercut with Mick and Kitty in bed together, mirroring the baptism scene in The Godfather. In response, a tank drives into Croke Park during a Gaelic football match: A hush descends, interrupted by cheers when a footballer takes a shot at goal. That’s when the tank opens fire on the players and the crowd. It’s horrific, stomach-churning stuff. If the Republican violence is brutal, the film suggests, its perpetrators have spent the time agonizing over its necessity; the British state’s violence is thoughtless, indiscriminate and overwhelming.
The film’s depiction of Mick and Harry’s relationship is especially moving. When they’re fighting together during the War of Independence, they’re an echo of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Notorious outlaws with grins on their faces, each other’s constant companion and right hand. “I can’t do it without ya,” Mick says more than once. Befitting a Neil Jordan film, there’s a definite gay subtext there.
“I’ve known the two of you for four years,” Kitty says. “You slept together, lived together, fought together.” She means sleeping cramped together top-to-tail, but the choice of words seems significant. In one of the first scenes, Mick sees a bridal party at the train station and says to Harry, “Maybe we should settle down.”
“Ah, just the two of us?” Harry replies, and it’s a joke, sure, but it’s hard to imagine them without each other. They both fall in love with Kitty, and date her simultaneously: It’s supposedly a competition for her affections—“I’ll wrestle ya for her,” Mick says—but it feels more like a happy polyamorous triad. De Valera brings Harry to America to drum up support for Irish independence, and Harry tells Mick to look after Kitty while he’s away.
“He’s leaving me, Mick,” Kitty says.
“Ah, I thought he was leaving me,” Mick responds.
The relationship between the three mirrors the Ireland flashbacks in Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker! Though a Western set in the Mexican Revolution, Duck, You Sucker!’s heart is the flashbacks to Fenian Seán’s (James Coburn) life back in Ireland. Seán and his best friend were both in love with the same girl, she’s in love with both of them, and they’re more than half in love with each other: She kisses Seán, then kisses his friend and the three of them seem so happy together. And, like in Michael Collins, what tears them apart is political betrayal. When Harry compares their competition for Kitty’s affections to a race, Kitty corrects him: “You without him, him without you. I can’t imagine it.”
But that’s what happens. While Mick leads the pro-treaty side that takes over the newly created Irish Free State—trading his pinstripe suits for a soldier’s uniform—Harry is with the anti-treaty forces. It’s a perfect dramatization of the pain of civil war: That these men who love each other so dearly are torn apart. If they were Butch and Sundance before, they’ve become Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: Former partners who, in a way that seems senseless and arbitrary, have ended up on either side of a line. And that line decides who’ll end up killing you.
A Free State soldier shoots Harry dead, and Mick shows up as his body is hauled from the river. He takes Harry’s face in his hands, asking softly, “Who closed your eyes?” It’s one of the best pieces of acting Neeson has ever done, extraordinarily pure and delicate. Then a soldier starts to explain what happened, Mick says, “I didn’t ask you, I asked him.” Then he freaks out, grabbing the soldier by the lapels and shaking him. But he was one of them, the soldier explains. “No, son, you don’t understand,” Mick says, “He was one of us.”
That shifting definition of “us” is part of why Michael Collins remains important all these years later. History is always unfolding and Ireland has changed immeasurably in those 25 years, but no matter how the boundaries and definitions of “us” have bent and expanded and reshaped themselves, Michael Collins still feels like a film for us, not for the versions of Ireland that exist in other people’s heads.
Ciara Moloney is a film and TV critic based in Dublin, who has written for Fangoria, Current Affairs and Crooked Marquee. She is a co-founder of pop culture blog The Sundae, and co-hosts The Sundae Presents podcast. Follow her on Twitter @_ciaramoloney if you enjoy musings on 2000s pop punk. She shares a birthday with Bob Mortimer.