Bullet-Riddled/Star-Studded History:
Neil Jordan's Michael Collins

Review by

Maria Pramaggiore

North Carolina State University

Copyright (c) 1997 by Maria Pramaggiore, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author and the notification of the editors.

Review of:

Neil Jordan, Michael Collins


  1. A much remarked-upon scene in Neil Jordan's biopic Michael Collins which won the Golden Lion for best film at its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in August, features Liam Neeson as Collins and Julia Roberts as his fiancee Kitty Kiernan discussing love, death and honor in a Dublin hotel room. Jordan crosscuts these tender moments with shots of Collins's volunteers assassinating British officers, thereby reinscribing a long-standing analogy between the IRA and American gangster culture. Jordan rebirths Collins, the revered quasi-folkloric "Big Fella" of Irish republicanism, as Michael Corleone, upstart mafia don. The melodramatic manner in which the sacred underwrites the profane for Jordan in this scene and for Coppola in The Godfather 's baptism scene signifies the films' depoliticizing and romanticizing strategies. In both cases, violence is abhorrent but necessary, justified by the values it supposedly protects: religion and domestic harmony. In both cases, the men responsible for ordering the hits are tragic/heroic manifestations of, and ultimately pay the price for, their inherently violent cultures.

  2. In his discussion of Irish film, John Hill notes that Irish people have been characterized as innately violent from at least the time of Elizabethan England. "Violence," Hill writes, "was not to be accounted for in terms of a response to political and economic conditions but simply as a manifestation of the Irish 'national character' . . . the proclivity for violence was simply an inherent characteristic in the 'nature', if not the blood, of the Irish natives." [1] These notions of a barbaric Irish national character persist in more and less subtle comparisons to cultures of violence such as the Mafia, suggesting only a few of the complexities of addressing and representing Irish subjects on film in an international context. These are subjects who, in Luke Gibbons's provocative terminology, inhabit "a First World Country, but with a Third World memory." [2] And the importance of memory to Irish history cannot be underestimated; take, for example, the 1996 protests, riots and deaths associated with the annual Orangeman March, an event which commemorates a 17th-century Protestant victory (Battle of the Boyne, 1690).

  3. But memories are both individual and community-based. A tension inheres in bringing to film postcolonial histories in which group politics and organization are as important as, but less visually and commercially captivating than, individual heroes, tragic or otherwise. In films depicting the Irish Republican Army from Carroll Reed's Odd Man Out (1947) to Jordan's The Crying Game (1993), it is precisely the odd man, the uncertain or reluctant (read human) volunteer around whom the narrative revolves, while the sidelines are reserved for the fanatical and bloodthirsty IRA leadership who reassert the inherently bloodthirsty nature of Irishness. The context of the struggle for Irish independence in the early part of this century cannot be the history of one man, yet the generic limitations of films aimed at a mainstream audience--in other words, the perceived limitations of that audience--make films which reconstruct armed anti-colonial struggle without resorting to biographies of great men extremely difficult to finance, produce and distribute.

  4. If Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers (1966) balances the dynamic between individuals and mass movements most successfully, it does so by relying upon a semi-documentary, neorealist aesthetic. Most filmmakers who dramatize historical events have done so by appeasing an audience trained to understand history as the rise and fall of "great" men, an audience which then retains a palimpsest of images of "great" actors (Henry Fonda as Abe Lincoln; Warren Beatty as John Reed; Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon) instead of social, political and economic relations of exchange and domination.

  5. And on this count, Michael Collins offers up one pleasure of the text, that is, the superstar as text. Historical context translates into well-built sets and expertly designed costumes, and characterization relies upon the perfect congruence of actor and role. The film purges any historical indigestibilities (the importance of the network of volunteers Collins amassed, for example, or Collins's relationships with several women) by substituting the pabulum of star personas. The characters in the film are surprisingly familiar, but not because the film's audience knows Irish history. These figures are reincarnations of the actors' other roles: Neeson's Oskar Schindler, heroic yet fun-loving; just about any villain Alan Rickman has played, reprised to underscore deValera's perfidy; Stephen Rea's righteous and wronged comrade; Julia Roberts's Pretty Woman , (perhaps the only role she will ever do justice); and Aidan Quinn's fresh-faced boyish sidekick.

  6. Certainly, Jordan presents events surrounding Irish independence to an audience in the U.S. and abroad that is woefully unaware of the many histories of anti-colonial struggles around the world and that would probably venture farther afield than Ireland if hard-pressed to name a British colony. Ireland is, as Gibbons points out, a First World/Third World nexus whose peculiar status as alien/insider in Europe and the U.S. belies its position as an archetypal site for the recurring violence produced by colonialism, partition, and military occupation. Jordan's film entertains and informs, but personalizes at the expense of the political. Futhermore, Michael Collins is not Michael Corleone; to compare the two rather than explore a new cinematic mode for Collins's story unfairly imposes the generic formula of the gangster film as well as the requirements of big-budget commercial cinema on Irish history.

Works Cited

  1. John Hill, "Images of Violence," in Cinema and Ireland , edited by Kevin Rockett, Luke Gibbons and John Hill (Syracuse: Syracuse U P, 1988), 149.Back

  2. Luke Gibbons, "Introduction: Culture, History and Irish Identity," Transformations in Irish Culture (Cork: Cork UP, 1996), 3.Back

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