Rebel with a cause

With Angel and The Crying Game, filmmaker Neil Jordan stirred up controversy over his portrayal of the Irish situation. Now he gets to the roots of the conflict in Michael Collins, a historical drama based on the Nationalist hero. Nigel Floyd is impressed by the film’s honesty.

iven the current, volatile situation in Ireland, with the peace process on hold and sporadic eruptions of violence and bombing, the reluctance of Warner Bros Film Distributors to preview Neil Jordan’s stirring historical epic about Irish Nationalist Michael Collins may seem understandable. However, their cowardly response to an ill-informed campaign of right-wing press vilification does a grave disservice to the powerful, honest film that won the Best Film and Best Actor awards at this year’s Venice Film Festival.

A recent leader article in The Daily Telegraph, presumably written by its unbiased Unionist editor Charles Moore, demanded that Warner Bros ‘withdraw this inflammatory film from circulation - forthwith’. Yet in striking contrast to the mostly speculative criticism that has appeared in The Times, Telegraph and Daily Mail in the past few months, there is room for argument and contradiction in Michael Collins’s portrayal ofa ragged. bloody conflict between a determined British imperial power and the idealistic Irish Nationalists determined to shrug off colonial rule.

From its explosive opening, with the abortive attack on the Dublin General Post Office during the I9l6 Easter Uprising, through the brutal violence of the ensuing guerilla war, to the negotiation of the controversial Irish Free State treaty and the internal republican struggles that followed, Jordan’s film plays like an American action picture. Defining character through action and communicating ideas through concrete human relationships rather than abstract speechifying, it encourages the audience to experience the conflict and engage with the issues.

Raised on stories of famine years and fired with a belief in the Irish Nationalist cause, the charismatic Collins is a man of the people, with a gut feeling for how to win their hearts and minds. As Jordan remarks in Michael Collins: Film Diary and Screenplay, ‘Through this single character, Michael Collins, one could tell the story of the most pivotal period in Irish history . . . all the contradictions of the period could be conveyed through his story. There was a potential for drama here that was huge in its scale. sulphurous in its implications and yet intimate in its scope.’

With a fairness and balance . typical of the British right-wing press, the first newspaper article condemning Jordan’s film appeared in The Sunday Times five days after its first private preview screening in America. Penned by a journalist (sic) who had not seen the film. with supporting quotations from a slew of Irish academics who were equally ignorant of its form and content. the article was headlined ‘Controversial Film Revives Hero Of Irish Terrorism’.

It accused Jordan of clouding the peace process and compiled a list of supposed historical inaccuracies a favourite strategy of those unwilling to engage with the actual (and in this case, unknown) political content of a film. Although Jordan had anticipated these politically motivated attacks and spurious contemporary comparisons, this was, according to his film diary, ‘the first time I’ve been thrashed for a movie I’ve not even finished’.

‘Through this single character, one could tell the story of the most pivotal period in

Irish history.’

Neil Jordan


Now that the film finally has been seen, at least by a select few, it is possible for the first time to comment upon the image of Collins that emerges from Jordan’s film. Above all, Liam Neeson’s character emerges as a charismatic pragmatist, a man of action dedicated to violence only as a means to a short-term end, after which he will give up his post as ‘Minister for Mayhem’ and dedicate himself to negociating an honourable peace with the British Government.

‘What Collins did,’ writes Jordan, ‘was to take the traditional pieties of Irish Nationalism and turn them into realistic aims. What he did was to say, if this is our aim, independence from Britain, here is how it can practically be achieved.’ However, the film never soft peddles on the methods by which these aims were achieved: although slightly distanced by Jordan’s decision to draw upon the conventions of the gangster movie, the brutality of the Nationalist’s urban

a terrorism is never glossed over. ._ Witness Jordan's portrayal of

. the cold-blooded assassinations of alleged British Intelligence officers on Bloody Sunday. Having asked the officer whether he wants to say a last prayer, the Irish Nationalist gunmen shoot him in the head before he has finished making his peace with God. Yet it is through his unflinching depiction of this cruel, distorted concept of mercy that Jordan tests the audience’s tolerance for ‘justifiable’ 'violence.

In his film diary, the director

acknowledges the doubts he had during filming: ‘For the first time I wonder about the moral perspectives of what we’re doing. The scene is so brutal and pitiless. The prayer gives the officer an inescapable dignity. Then I realise that it has to be that way. The only way to make it less disturbing would be to cast the officer in a villainous light, the ultimate dishonesty. It must have been that brutal. And the presentation of it should make an audience question its moral parameters.’ Michael Collins goes on general release on Fri 8 Nov. Michael Collins: Film Diary and Screenplay by Neil Jordan is published by Vintage at £7.99.

Alan lllckntan, llam lleoson and Alden uulnn (lctt to right) lace up to the British In Michael Collins

The List l-l4 Nov 199619