Lost in the Movies: Michael Collins: Taking Liberties with History

Michael Collins: Taking Liberties with History

From time to time, I will be sharing unpublished movie reviews or analyses written before this blog existed. As this past week was quite busy and I did not have time to prepare a new piece for Monday, it seemed like a good time to start! This essay, which examines historical accuracy in Neil Jordan's Michael Collins (1996) is a bit of a departure in style and subject for the site, but I think it might still be of interest - the topic of how, ethically, filmmakers should represent real-life incidents in their films is an evergreen issue. Share your own thoughts, on this film or on the broader subject, below.

When Neil Jordan defended his treatment of Michael Collins’ life in the film of the same name, he claimed, “It’s not a work of history, it’s not a historical document.” But then he went on to say, “The film is as accurate a dramatic reconstruction as I could make it.” The first statement is meant to defuse any potential critics, eagerly nitpicking at the film’s version of history. And it also clears the way for the second statement, hinting that Michael Collins may not be history, but it’s pretty damn close. Maybe it’s just me, but Jordan’s comments seem to suggest that details may be inaccurate, but the big picture’s all right. For this to be true, the details would have to be small enough not to impinge on the picture’s credibility. So any criticism of Jordan’s film as historical record (which he claims it’s not supposed to be, while hinting that it’s not far off) will have to be two-pronged. One is to examine the proverbial devil in the details, most essentially deciding which changes are important and which are relatively inconsequential. The second approach should focus on the “big picture,” the spirit of the film and the message it’s trying to convey. It’s certainly true that Michael Collins is not a work of history or a historical document, but is it true that it’s as accurate as Jordan can make it? That’s the claim that will have to be judged.

In his diary, Jordan admits from the outset that he will have to change many aspects of the film, though he always points out it’s for cinematic purposes rather than any revisionist or ideological tendency. To tell a story from the jumble of history, one has to condense, abbreviate, and simplify and Jordan realizes this. What’s questionable are his choices of what to change. Changing history in a film will usually only upset the professional historians in the audience…unless the change is somehow offensive to a group of people, suggesting something they believe to wrong and perhaps even slanderous. So when Jordan merged the characters of Joe O’Reilly and Emmet Dalton together for narrative clarity, few people (if anyone) complained. But his interpretation of Collins’ death, which in history is very ambiguous, was much more controversial. Particularly because he seemed to show DeValera in charge, having the assassin meet with Dev before killing Collins, with Dev trying to arrange a meeting with Collins. One particularly incensed reviewer complained that this was “absolute fiction.” Ironically it was never Jordan’s intention to make Dev seem culpable for Collins’ death, or in command of the anti-Treaty forces at the time. Quite the opposite in fact. Jordan states in his diary that the death scene makes three assumptions, among them that “de Valera was basically powerless at the time,” and he also makes it clear that the assassin plans Collins death without Dev’s approval or even knowledge. Though this scene may be confusing in the film, its supposed offensiveness to the historical record is negated if we are to take Jordan at his word. He goes on to state that the scene is “a fiction, based on historical surmise…[that] says something…about the broader truth” and one is inclined to agree with the conclusion’s validity as educated guess, even if one doesn’t agree with the suggestions of said guess.

There was also some consternation about Jordan’s decision to combine the character of Ned Broy, a detective who collaborated with the IRA, with the three Volunteers killed on the eve of Bloody Sunday. Particularly because Broy lived well into old age, playing an important part in the civil war period. This was taken as evidence that Jordan was distorting the historical record to make the Brits appear far more cruel than they were. One could effectively counter this argument by pointing out that Jordan chose to show one death rather than three. However, the point remains that the director killed off a character who lived in real life, even if it was for dramatic rather than ideological purposes. In my humble opinion (all I’m qualified to offer), this is a fairly gratuitous distortion of reality, because whatever Jordan’s intention the implication is that Ned Broy died at the hands of British soldiers for his patriotism; and this quite simply is not the case. Showing one death rather than three may seem to be charitable, but not when that one death is a character the audience is engaged with. To play devil’s advocate to Jordan, Broy is one of many prominent characters killed by the British; whereas every British character who’s killed is either introduced in the scene where they die or portrayed as a villain. Jordan’s response to these anticipated critiques was that he was telling the story from one particular point of view; the film is not omniscient, it takes “the perspectives of the [Irish] participants themselves…to show them in all their confusions, divisions, hopes and disillusions.”

Essentially, the film is a subjective look at history. But one scene in the film where subjectivism lapses into the realm of fantasy is its treatment of the Bloody Sunday massacre at Croke Park. On November 21, 1920, British troops stormed the field where a football match was being played between Tipperary and Dublin. Chaos reigned and accounts vary as to who shot first, though it appears the British soldiers may have discharged initially, into the air. When the proverbial smoke cleared, fourteen civilians had been killed, including a woman, a fourteen-year-old, and one of the Tipperary players. A horrifying event all in all, which makes Jordan’s decision to distort it into fiction all the more perplexing. In his version a tank rolls into the center of the field and, after being mocked by one of the players, fires a machine gun directly at him. The Brits than open random fire on the crowd. In fact, it is believed that the British and IRC were targeting specific individuals in the crowd. No doubt the whole affair showed the British to be either incompetent or entirely inconsiderate of human life in their pursuit of the volunteers they believed to be in the crowd. But Jordan’s version destroys the complexity and confusion of the situation, making the Brits' cruelty clear-cut, and invites criticism for its completely over-the-top reinvention of history. Worse, Jordan doesn’t discuss it in his diary. Elsewhere, he says displaying the actual events as they happened would have taken too much screen time and been confusing. Given that his version is more elaborate and that his repeated aim for the film is to display the complexity of history, and the events as they happened, this excuse doesn’t wash. It’s the one example in the film where his tendency to simplify for narrative purposes goes too far.

So what about the big picture? As the Bloody Sunday massacre shows, Jordan has a tendency to elevate horrifying violence to an almost mythically tragic status. Appropriately, he mutes this desire when showing Collins’ death in all its simplicity. But elsewhere the mythmaking tendency obscures historical accuracy. Where this is forgivable and where it isn’t is a matter of personal opinion. And what of Jordan’s “message,” if there is one? Throughout his diary, Jordan repeats the mantra that he wants to show history in all its complexity, that the violence necessary to overthrow the British was horrible and ambiguous. But his decision to make Collins so purely sympathetic and his repeatedly emphasized single POV approach tends to blur the complexities of the situation (at least until the Irish fight each other in civil war) in favor of a more conventional “good guy vs. bad guy” story. Nonetheless, Michael Collins does not stray too far from the historical record, and when it does it sticks out like a sore thumb. My contention is that when Jordan did so, it was usually for narrative or artistic purposes rather than political reasons. A certain political outlook was inherent in his approach to the film, however, and this does show through on occasion and imbue the whole movie with a certain gradation. While not exactly a hagiography, there’s no doubt that Michael Collins is infatuated with Michael Collins, and the hero-worship pushes the film in a certain direction much of the time.

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Tyler said...

I recall the first time I saw Micheal Collins and while I was thoroughly entertained with Jordan's depiction of the mythic Collins I remember being skeptical of several scenes. The Bloody Sunday massacre sticks out as being the worst. With no real knowledge of the history (at the time) the scene was so contrived that I began to question some of the smaller historical details throughout the movie. The idea that British troops would roll into a public gathering (no probable cause for their presence is given in the film) and begin to fire on civilians unprovoked was too much for anyone to buy. I still watch the movie from time to time (every few years) but for a more accurate depiction of the "struggles" I would recommend Bloody Sunday (2002) or The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006). My personal favorite for dead on historical accuracy and an overall objective view on the Northern Ireland Conflict has to be Alan Pakula's The Devil's Own.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Tyler - I still haven't seen either of those. To me, Michael Collins is fun as historical pageantry but definitely not very useful as history. Funny, I remembered Devil's Own as a fun action movie but not much about its representation of the historical context. I'll have to see it again, particularly as I really love Pakula's 70s work and didn't realized he'd directed that film.

Anonymous said...

My sister (who is doing a video review of the film) pointed me here. Interesting post and some good points about the dilemma of portraying history in film.

While I agree that the portrayal of Bloody Sunday is ridiculous, I don't think there's any evidence that it was anything other than a deliberate terrorist atrocity. The comparison to Amritsar was made recently. Of course the British justified it on the grounds that they were looking for certain people, but then they tried to persuade the world that the IRA burned Cork down.

I'm of the opinion that Jordan's rationale of the portrayal of de Valera's involvement in Collins's death is somewhat disingenuous. De Valera is the main villain in the film, not the British - some cardboard cut-out Auxies and Tans function as prefunctory bad guys, but their political masters never take the blame, and, conveniently, are never seen. By the time of the treaty, the British have disappeared as a factor altogether, and de Valera is the main disruptive, psychopathic force in Ireland. It is this context, as well as the circumstances surrounding Collins's death, which lead to the heavy implication that he wanted Collins out of the way.

I agree that the film aligns closely with the Tim Pat Coogan version of Irish history, and, oddly enough, revisionist history, but how closely aligned that is with the truth is another thing. The object is to create parallels between the Provisional IRA and the Old IRA, which process will of necessity discredit the latter. Compromise is good, as long as the terms are dictated by Westminster. The First Dáil was a pitiful farce, not a functioning administrative reality. Collins ran the whole War of Independence - local leaders and a pre-1916 infrastructure had nothing to do with it. And so on. As one historian pointed out, to regard the film as being any way in favour of nationalism is completely mistaken. As far as I see it, Jordan's artistic objective was subservient to his politics, to the detriment of the film as art and as history.

Joel Bocko said...

This is a great response, nighearain - one I can't add much to because it's been years since I watched the movie or researched its background (every month or two I put up something I've written before but never published - this was part of a college course on Irish cinema & history from back in 2004). Your sentiments align with the impression I had at the time, except I'm not sure what Jordan's politics are - is he on record

I would love to see your sister's video review; please feel free to post a link here when it's up. Will it be at the blog your s/n links to? Thanks again for dropping by.

Joel Bocko said...

should say *is he on record with his political opinions, or are you surmising from what he presents in the film and what he's written about it elsewhere?

Anonymous said...

MovieMan, thank you for your comments, and sorry for the delay.

I'm really extrapolating from the politics on display in the film, but as far as I remember, Jordan's comments in the introduction to the published screenplay bear this out. I'm always struck how the lack of sophistication of the politics in the film is obscured by the heavy detail.

The videos (the review is in two parts) are up on the blog, but the link to the first one is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zor3VvE9vD8M

Anonymous said...

While I enjoyed your review I think it is important to remember that art and history are two different things. For entertainment reasons alone and taking into account that the film was also funded by US money, a production such as this one will never be historically accurate. People should rather enjoy a film for what it is than worry about historical accuracy (as this is not its aim). But still, thank you for sharing your thoughts!

Joel Bocko said...

Well, context-wise this is that rare post that was actually written before I began blogging and posted years later to fill a gap in a schedule. So it should probably be taken more as a historical analysis than a typical review. That said, I do think some complications arise when a film presents itself as a historical document as well as a work of art or entertainment, but it's a thorny subject for sure and even then the historical criticisms should be made fairly distinct from aesthetic criticisms (except where they overlap). Glad you came across the piece though, and shared your thoughts!

Movies are fun said...

I haven't watched Michael Collins in many years. We just got back from Ireland and wanted to watch it again. We had it in our library of movies. The writer of the article says that it is very subjective, but honestly isn't all of history subjective? Whoever is doing the writing will always have a point of view and want to tell history from a perspective more in line with their own beliefs. It is extremely apparent in today's news channels and what their version of what the news is. As far as the inconsistencies in history, I was impressed with how few there actually were. Looking at modern movies, there are so many more changes of history put in for our "entertainment". No thank you. I'd rather see the real history and facts. This movie maker/producer was actually pretty consistent with history (for the most part) which is a lot more than I can say about what happens today in the movies. He also never claimed this to be a historical documentary.

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