Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (1996) The Irish Fight For Independence

Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins is a UK/US/Ireland co-production. International productions guarantee an international cast which can be nice but in this case, I would say, it did prevent the movie from being great. There is no drama teacher in the world who will achieve to make Julia Roberts or Aidan Quinn sound Irish. Liam Neeson as Michael Collins, Alan Rickman as De Valera and a very young Johnathan Rhys Meyers, striking the fatal blow, are well-chosen.

Michael Collins was probably one of the most controversial and tragic figures of Irish history. A charismatic man who knew how to convince those who followed him. A man who wouldn’t shy away from killing yet didn’t take it lightly.

The movie starts with the Easter Rising in 1916 with Michael Collins rallying the masses against the British occupation. It would take another three years until this initial movement lead to the Irish war of Independence. It is a fierce and bloody war. A the end of the war stands the treaty, something that was unthinkable for 700 years. The British government allowed the Irish Free State but kept the Northern Provinces and wanted the Free State to swear allegiance to the king. Michael Collins considered this to be the best he could achieve and wanted to sign the treaty but the men around the future president de Valera wanted a completely free Ireland and this is where the movement for Independence split into two sections who would fight each other fiercly.

The movie shows us a Michael Collins who is tired of fighting and bloodshed and longs for peace. He is sure, if the treaty isn’t signed the bloodshed will be endless.

An important part of the movie is dedicated to the friendship between Michael Collins and his best friend Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn). For four years they are also caught up in some sort of love triangle as both men love Kitty (Julia Roberts). It takes a while until she confesses that she loves Collins. Her confession is not the only thing that drives the men apart. Politically they are not on the same page anymore. Best friends become enemies.

Michael Collins is shot in 1922 by one of de Valera’s men. This is the beginning of the Irish Civil War.

I liked the movie despite its flaws, one being, as already stated, the choice of American actors, the other being quite a few historical inaccuracies. Apparently Neil Jordan had good reasons for altering the facts. I am not sufficiently familiar with the details to point out what is correct or not. There is one particularly awful scene in which a British tank opens fire on a the players in a sports game. In reality this was much more horrible.

Michael Collins is a fascinating character and I could very well see myself read a biography in the future. He was a leader and an adept fighter. His fighting tactics seem to have inspired quite a few future struggles. The group around him was constantly hunted by British secret agents and policemen. Michael Collins’ tactic was to know more about the agents than they knew about them and then to hunt them down. There are a lot of executions to be seen as they operated according to the dictum “who is not with me is against me”. At times the movie reminded me of movies about the resistance. Torture, execution, changing of sleeping quarters etc.

A while back I reviewed another movie on the Irish War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War, The Wind that Shakes the Barely. Michael Collins is never seen but constantly spoken of in the movie so I was really curious to see this. Comparing the two movies I’m afraid I must say, The Wind that Shakes the Barley feels more authentic, it is a truly outstanding movie.

Despite its flaws Michael Collins being a Neil Jordan film offers a lot and is beautifully filmed. It is as much a character portrait, as the story of a friendship and a romance. I enjoyed it and would recommend it.

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The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006) or Two Brothers Torn Apart by the Irish Civil War

The Wind that Shakes the Barley opens on a group of young men joyfully playing a game of hurling. After the game has ended we watch them return home to their modest houses. Some are still standing  together smoking and  talking, when all of a sudden a group of British soldiers approaches out of nowhere confronting them with the fact that they did break the law.  Meetings are strictly forbidden and even a game of hurling is considered to be an assemly and thus a possible act of rebellion. The scene heats up immediately when the young men answer in Gaelic upon being asked their names. The episode ends in a blood bath, one of the young men being beaten to a pulp and dead.

This is shocking. One can hardly believe one’s eyes since this is no invention. The British subjugated the Irish fiercely and anything resembling rebellion from their side ended in severe punishment.

Ken Loach´s movie The Wind that Skakes the Barley (the title is taken from an Irish Ballad)  embraces both moments in Irish history, first The Irish War of Independence and then The Irish Civil War. At the core of the story that is set in county Cork are the two O´Donovan  brothers, Damien (Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Pádraic Delaney). At the onset of the war Damien is about to leave his native Ireland for  London where a position as a doctor at a hospital is waiting for him. Seeing the brutality and the cruelty his people face and knowing that his brother will be leading a guerilla party, he stays to join them. At that time the British government sent the  so-called “Black and Tans” to brutally reinforce their power. The old IRA started to strike back.

After long months of heavy fighting they were asked to sign a treaty which would guarantee the Irish their own government and established the Irish Free State. However six Northern counties would stay within the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland.  This is the moment when the Civil War erupts and Pro Free State (headed by Michael Collins) troops fought the Anti-treaty forces. In the movie the tragedy unfolds as the brothers go different ways. Teddy accepts and supports the Free State  while Damien wants to fight until all of Ireland is  free. He believes that they have fought in vain if they give up now. It is unbelievable but the Civil War cost finally more lives than the War of Independence.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley was as  hard to watch and as depressing as L´armée des ombres. The methods applied resemble those applied by the French Resistance. They wouldn’t even shy away from killing their own in the event of betrayal. We also see people being shot and people being tortured.

This movie is also hard to watch since it reveals a really ugly aspect of the British Empire. If you are British this will be hard to accept, if you like the British it will be equally hard and if you are Irish this will truly infuriate you. One can simply not understand why the Empire had to make  the already impoverished, famished and sick Irish suffer so much. I read that this part of their history  is not really taught in English schools. I think many English people would be shocked and astonished when they see this and might understand a lot better what was ultimately behind the Troubles.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley is very intense. The pictures of the beautiful, lush green countryside contrast starkly with the brutalities depicted. The story of the two brothers who end up torn apart by their conflicting ideals is very tragic. and both actors do a great job

There is no doubt that this movie deserved the Palme d´ Or it won in 2006. Even though I am sure the movie could not cover all the aspects and the whole complexity of the Wars, it raises the awareness. It´s simply stated a brilliant movie. But it is not entertaining for one second. Harsh but recommended viewing really.