Film Review from the December 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard
Michael Collins (15)
History is the story of what happened; economics is the story of why it happened. Rarely does popular history go beyond a look, invariably distorted by the perceptions of the historian, at what happened and, especially when the story is written for the Hollywood financial moguls, history is moulded to box office terms.
According to the historical flashes which introduce Michael Collins to its audience, the emergence of the IRA in 1916 and the subsequent guerrilla war of 1919-22, which was largely masterminded by Collins was the culmination of seven hundred years of struggle by the people of Ireland to throw off the yoke of British oppression. In fact much of the historical conflict in Ireland was an agrarian struggle and while this was aggravated by English rule and landlordism established by the English, often as a means of rewarding feudal military adventurers, the concept of nationhood, as we understand it today, was not invented until after the establishment of capitalism.
The idea of a republican state in fact was introduced into Ireland some two hundred years ago by a Dublin lawyer, Wolfe Tone, and was most coherently expressed by northern Protestants who saw national independence as an essential corollary of economic development.
The economics behind the history that is the Michael Collins story emerged in the latter part of the last century and was originally represented by Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party. Parnell, like Sinn Fein later, opposed British rule because it denied the political representatives of a nascent Irish middle class the power to legislate which they perceived to be essential to the development of a thriving southern-based native capitalism.
The film raised bile in the moronic patriots of the English gutter press and, of course, it has infuriated the diehard brigade of Ulster Unionism. It is argued that it gives solace and respectability to the IRA and will encourage young people to become involved with the present Provisional IRA. If there is truth in that assertion then it could be argued that most films, and especially war films, should be banned.
Those who condemn the film are not concerned with the futility it depicts; the futility of workers, many of them semi-destitute, taking up arms to fight for a class that was actively exploiting them and sought victory as the means of intensifying that exploitation. Instead they carp that the heroes shown are not their heroes or, with distinct animosity, that the pen of the screen writer has taken a few incidental liberties with fact in order to package his story within the time limits of a feature film.
Liam Neeson as Collins is well cast and his portrayal is close to the mark. Big and bawdy leader from the front who has worked out the essentials of guerrilla warfare and instils those essentials without pity in his ragtag followers.
Alan Rickman, as Eamon De Valera, presents a man who is piously soured, insular and duplicitous; the man, who more than any other, fabricated the legend in which the current breed of armed-struggle republicans find legitimacy - even though, when history respectablised him and he became Prime Minister of the Irish Free State, he had more republicans hanged than the Ulster Unionists. Rickman's presentation of De Valera is superb to the point where you begin to feel a loathing for the character he depicts.
This Hollywood version of an important phase in Irish history makes little effort to expose republican warts and is, therefore, dangerously simplistic history. Still, if you like an all-action drama with moments of tenderness and a little humour, Michael Collins is a safe bet.