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Ireland’s Heroes and the Politics of Terror

BY Jim Cosgrove

November 3-9, 1996 Issue | Posted 11/3/96 at 1:00 AM

 

REVOLUTIONS OFTEN devour their own. The skill and eagerness to kill that are necessary to overthrow a government creates a murderous momentum that's difficult to stop once victory is achieved.

The Irish Troubles are a prime example. The savagery required to end 700 years of brutal British oppression led to terrorism and civil war after independence, as former comrades in arms senselessly slaughtered each other. The legacy of this violence continues to this day.

MichaelCollins isabrilliantpieceofpartisan hagiography about one of the martyred leaders of that rebellion. But Irish writer-director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game and Interview with the Vampire) refuses to tackle many of the moral and psychological questions raised by his chosen subject.

The movie, which won the Golden Lion at this year's Venice Film Festival, begins with the Easter Rising of 1916 when the British army crushed the Irish rebels.Imprisonedafterthebattle,MichaelCollins (Liam Neeson) prophesies that next time“we won't play by their rules. We'll invent our own.“

Collins is true to his word. The British have been abletocheckmatetherevolutionaries' everymove because their elaborate network of spies has completely penetrated the resistance movement. Collins, minister of intelligence in the rebels' shadow cabinet, realizes that destruction of that intelligence apparatus is the key to victory.

Collins recruits a squad of teenage Dublin assassins who cold-bloodedly liquidate the fingered government agents, shooting them down without warning. Twice the British attempt to rebuild the network with personnel from Belfast and London, but each time Collins wipes them out. In the process, Collins devises a method of modernurbanterroragainstwhichanopponent's numerical and economic superiority has little effect.

The British are stymied by Collins' carefully calculated“bloody mayhem.”Much to everyone's surprise, they offer to negotiate. Collins is chosen to head the Irish delegation to the talks which include Winston Churchill on the other side. Collins returns with a treaty that establishes the Irish Free State but fails to win full independenceforhiscountry.Italsoagreestoapartition between the Protestant North and the Catholic South, a situation which still exists today.

The treaty is opposed by two of Collins'comrades in arms—theshifty-eyedEamonde Valera(Alan Rickman), commander-in-chief of the Irish forces, and big-hearted Harry Poland (Aidan Quinn), Collins' best friend and key lieutenant. But Collins is now as passionate for peace as he once was for war. He convincingly argues that the flawed agreement is the best deal that British are willing to cut at this time. The Irish people support his position by a wide margin in a national referendum. De Valera and Poland reject the results and start a civil war. Collins outguns his old allies but is killed in an ambush on the way to a meeting with de Valera.

Embellishing the historical record, Jordan makes de Valera the villain of the piece. It's suggested that the manipulativerebelchieftainknewthattheBritish would never accede to the demands his faction wanted. Consequently, Collins is duped into leading the negotiations so he will be the fall guy when they produce unsatisfactoryresults.Moresinisterly,themovie implies that de Valera is somehow complicit in Collins' assassination.

In reality, Collins was every bit as politically sophisticated as his opponents, and it's said that de Valera wept for an entire day when he learned of Collins' death. Jordan is forced to scapegoat de Valera because he's unwilling to probe too deeply into Collins'psyche. The guerrilla leader is depicted as a reluctant assassin, with plenty of boyish charm but no inner life or contradictions. When he's made to say of the British,“I hate them for making hate necessary,”it rings false.

In reality, Collins had a strange passion for fighting. Before the revolution, he used to take a bite out of the ears of his defeated wrestling opponents. But Jordan wants Collins to be a larger-than-life, epic folk hero, without the kind of interior tragic flaw that could bring his downfall. To achieve this goal, his death must be shown to be a martyrdom, caused by the stupidity and evil of others.

In all probability, only a person like Collins could have led the Irish to freedom. His emotional ruthlessness and propensity to violence enabled him to match the viciousness of British colonialism and outwit it. But these character traits also created a mechanism of terror which, once unleashed, even he couldn't control.

BecausethebloodshedcontinuesinNorthern Ireland, a movie on this subject must be more than a piece of glorious folk art. It must also offer us some kind of understanding of the horrors of the present. By thesestandards, MichaelCollins feelsincomplete despite its many moments of bravura filmmaking. It excessively romanticizes its hero and turns a blind eye to what makes modern political terrorists tick.

John Prizer is based in Los Angeles.