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Film / Michael Collins

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Michael Collins is a 1996 biopic about the eponymous Irish revolutionary. It was directed by Neil Jordan and stars Liam Neeson, Stephen Rea, Alan Rickman, Aidan Quinn, Charles Dance, and Julia Roberts.

Set between 1916 and 1922 the story follows Michael Collins (Neeson) as he builds the Irish Republican Army into a fighting force taking on the British Empire, and trying to achieve full independence for all Ireland. While he eventually succeeds in driving the British Government to the bargaining table, the compromises that must be made serve to drive Irish Nationalists apart, and Collins finds himself at war with his own former comrades and friends.

The film has a slightly undeserved reputation for historical inaccuracy; while it does take certain liberties and definitely conflates certain characters, it doesn't approach the level of Braveheart. It also doesn't pretend to be remotely objective.

A huge hit in Ireland where the real life Collins is a national hero for Irish Nationalists (and reviled by Irish Unionists as simply a terrorist godfather). It is, in fact, the most successful Irish-produced movie ever made. Helping was its being given the Irish equivalent of a PG rating (despite its highly violent content); the board decided that, due to its historical material, parents should be allowed to determine whether or not their children should see it.

Compare and contrast The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which covers the same period.

This film provides examples of:

  • All for Nothing: Collins is forced to sign the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty after Britain threatens a return to conflict, allowing six counties (Northern Ireland) to remain part of Britain in return for the other 26 counties (the Irish Free State) being granted a slightly larger degree of independence within the British Empire. De Valera, Boland and many others reject this as being far short of their dreams, no more than the Irish Parliamentary Party could have gained peacefully had they accepted the same terms as part of the Home Rule Bill passed by parliament in 1912 (Britain granting Ireland limited self-government within the Empire with progressive independence in the same way as Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc). A vicious civil war erupts resulting in the death of Collins, Boland and thousands of others.
  • Artistic License – History: Inevitable, of course. Of particular note is the film's depiction of the Croke Park massacre on Bloody Sunday 1920 (there have been several Bloody Sundays in Ireland), the death of Harry Boland, and the idea that De Valera was behind the assassination of Collins. Perhaps the most egregious are;
    • A wholly negative depiction of the Royal Irish Constabulary who in real life were described by Irish Secretary Augustine Birrell as "largely elderly men preoccupied with fishing". In the modern era the government of the Irish Republic has increasingly sought to honour the force, accepting they were decent men trapped in an impossible situation. The Irish Unionist viewpoint is also never addressed and the IRA's victims are wholly depicted negatively.
    • Bloody Sunday is depicted as a knockout blow against British intelligence in Dublin. However it only killed 7 of the most junior members of the "Cairo Gang" whose organisation was nearly 100 strong, one of its' members commenting in the long term it made virtually no difference. No British officer used a woman as a shield and gunned down 2 IRA members, instead his pregnant wife miscarried trying to protect him. No armoured car machine-gunned the crowds at Croke Park and Army search teams recovered over 50 pistols from the stadium afterwards. Broy was not beaten to death for his treason either but like many of Collins' other moles would survive to be rewarded with a high position in the Irish Free State, becoming head of its' new police force, the Gardaí.
    • That the disastrous raid of the Customs House was a turning point in the conflict. Whilst it was the most humiliating of the IRA's defeats the organisation was already in big trouble by 1921, the British government abandoning its' policy of appeasement and ending the repeated release of IRA prisoners. By mid 1921 they were desperately short of funds, arms and ammunition with over 4500 members in prison and hundreds more killed. Sir Ormonde Winter, the head of British intelligence actually considered Michael Collins himself his number one source of information, capturing so many of his documents that he had to create an entire department, the Raid Bureau, in order to read them all.
    • That the controversy over the Treaty was about Ireland being partitioned and Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK. Actually Northern Ireland was barely discussed, already up and running for 2 years with little the IRA could do about it, the controversy was over the rest of Ireland remaining within the British Empire but with a slightly increased form of self government in return for the split. The pro-Treaty faction did not believe in it but argued a return to conflict would spell inevitable defeat, the anti-Treaty argued it was nothing more than the Irish Parliamentary Party could have obtained peacefully if they had accepted partition, meaning all the death and violence was for nothing.
    • The ambush that killed Collins was some sort of conspiracy by De Valera. There is nothing to suggest it was anything but a regular ambush by only 5 men against Collins' massively more powerful convoy. During the debates over the Treaty Collins had been goaded by his political enemies that he had never himself fired a shot during the conflict, sending teenagers out to murder people in their beds whilst remaining safely behind his desk. Rather than simply driving through Collins insisted on stopping to fight, exposed himself to fire on the fleeing enemy and was killed by one of the last shots fired.

  • The Big Guy: Collins' nickname is "the big fella" due to his status in the revolution and the fact that he was quite tall at 5'11 and heavily built. This is even more pronounced in the film where he's played by Liam Neeson who is 6'4" and towers over the rest of the cast, except for Charles Dance (Soames) who is 6'3". At one point Collins asks Soames for a light so he can get a look at him. Soames has no idea he is face to face with Collins.
  • Black-and-Grey Morality: The British occupation is treated as brutal and oppressive but the Irish Republican Army is not portrayed as wholly righteous either, resorting to targeted assassination of informants and those who work with the British, even if they are simply following directives.
  • Boom, Headshot!: Collins' cause of death, as was the case in real life.
  • Casting Gag: Brendan Gleeson plays Liam Tobin. He had played Michael Collins himself in a film called The Treaty.
  • Combat Pragmatist: The IRA. Use of an Improvised Weapon? Check. Creeping up and assassinating officials? Check. Car bombs? Check. Collins himself pioneered this "urban guerrilla warfare" which was taken up by movements from Israel to China from the 1930s onward. In truth though this was a strategy which had a long history and the car bomb was an invention of the script.
  • Composite Character: The film version of Ned Broy is a mix of the real life Broy (who actually survived the war, becoming chief of the Irish police force), David Neligan (who never got caught), and others.
  • Cool Car: Collins' official state car had been a yellow Leyland Eight. Out of which just 18 were made and none survived in original form, only one is still extant, assembled from spares in 1929 with a short chassis and roadster bodywork. So the car got played in the film by another gem from The Roaring '20s, a Lanchester 40.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Collins big time, Broy and Boland to lesser extents.
  • Disguised in Drag: Collins gets de Valera through the streets when breaking him out of prison by dressing him up in a prostitute's fur coat and hat.
  • Elites Are More Glamorous: "The Squad" in the IRA. Also known as "The Twelve Apostles."
  • Fake-Out Make-Out: Collins does this to Kitty at a train station after some British soldiers ask to see her papers ("Can a man not say goodbye to his wife in peace?"). Kitty is rather unimpressed, accusing him of "taking liberties".
  • A Father to His Men: Collins, who takes Crazy-Prepared measures to keep his men alive during Bloody Sunday and is almost tearful when he realizes that Broy has been arrested and is most likely doomed.
  • Firing Squad: What the leaders of the Easter Rising get to face, including Connolly, who was near death from wounds sustained in the fighting anyway. De Valera doesn't since he was born in America, and the British government can't risk alienating the US as an ally in World War I.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The film starts with Joe O'Reilly consoling Kitty over the death of Collins.
  • Full-Name Basis: De Valera always calls Collins Michael rather than the nickname Mick which Harry and others call him. The only time he uses the nickname is when agonizing over his assassination.
  • General Failure: Éamon de Valera is portrayed as this as every major decision made by him (usually over Collins' protests) almost always fails, backfires, and generally makes things worse.
  • Great Escape: A minor one based on Real Life allowing De Valera to escape by using a wax mold of the prison key from Lincoln Gaol in Lincoln, England (now HMP Lincoln).
  • Grey-and-Grey Morality: After the British leave war breaks out between Collins' faction and the hard-line republicans. The film sympathises with Collins but his Irish opponents aren't totally demonized either.
  • Historical Domain Character: Practically everyone (through Composite Character in some cases).
  • Historical Beauty Update: The real-life Collins and de Valera weren't as handsome as Liam Neeson and Alan Rickman.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Éamon de Valera.
    • In part, this is due to poor communication; many interpret the film as falsely suggesting that De Valera was responsible for the assassination of Michael Collins, which was never the director's intent. In fact it showed De Valera being not at all aware of the plan to assassinate Collins-rather, extremely upset by the divide which occurred between them. Collins' assassin even seems to take advantage of his being too distraught to give a reply so he can organize an ambush. In real life it was a simple ambush, Collins having been goaded by his political enemies that he had never fired a single shot or risked his life in any way during the conflict, exposing himself to fire in the fleeing enemy and being killed by one of the final shots fired in his first actual combat.
    • The British authorities and the Black & Tans (predictably enough). While the latters' conduct was by no means admirable, their actions in Croke Park were greatly amped up for the sake of drama.note  Neil Jordan himself admitted that, by exaggerating the atrocities, he essentially wanted to make the subject matter Lighter and Softer.

  • Improvised Weapon: Collins' use of a flaming sod of turf and some empty rifles in order to obtain weapons from the RIC.
  • In Medias Res: The film begins when Kitty finds out that Michael is killed. It then flashes back six years.
  • Love Triangle: Between Michael, his best friend Boland, and Kitty. It happened in Real Life too, and helped to drive them apart.
  • Meaningful Funeral: Collins' actual funeral and the fact that it was attended to by 500,000 people, 1/5th of the population of Ireland.
  • More Dakka:
    • Collins tells his IRA subordinates to account for every bullet they use when engaging RIC officers. So an aversion. Collins was actually Finance Minister in the underground Sinn Féin government of Ireland at the time, and had been an accountant with the Royal Mail before, giving him a head for those matters.
    • A minor one occurs with the killing of an RIC detective. When reading the papers about the incident which say he was "riddled with bullets", Collins calls his men out on it, telling them that bullets don't grow on trees and that "[they] did well, but go easy on the riddlin'." In truth British intelligence used Collins' captured files to restrict the IRA's arms supply until they were virtually out of ammunition by the summer of 1921.
  • Off on a Technicality: Dev being born in America and subsequently a U.S. citizen is the only reason he wasn't executed. This is how it happened in real life as well.
  • Oireland: Thoroughly averted as Ireland is shown as a country with it's own culture, traditions and shady past. It undoubtedly helped that the director and most of the cast members were Irish.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping:
    • The eponymous male lead was played quite well by Northern Irish actor Liam Neeson, but not with the appropriate Cork accent.
    • Roberts' accent is infamously bad. The common consensus is that Aidan Quinn's accent is also patchy at best, but you don't notice it because Roberts' is so much worse.
    • Rickman's occasionally slips too, if only slightly.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Collins' realization that the duplicate prison key broke.
    • A major one after the Bloody Sunday operation against the Cairo gang is conducted. Collins is happy until he hears Broy is missing.
  • Protagonist-Centered Morality: The film consistently depicts the morality of the IRA's terrorist/guerrilla war against the UK largely in terms of what side Collins is on. When Collins is for revolution, revolution is the answer; when Collins decides that the revolution is over and turns his forces against those who want to keep the war going, that's that.
  • Refuge in Audacity:
    • The above mentioned moment when Collins asks Soames for a light. Because obviously the real Collins is the last person who would walk up to the man trying to catch him.
    • One of the most wanted men in Ireland doesn't even bother with disguises while blithely cycling around Dublin. Truth in Television. This is because Collins went to great pains to ensure that his face was never photographed, hence the British literally had no idea who they were looking for. He finally revealed himself at the treaty negotiations.
    • In the film, the government agents are frustrated by the fact that the only photograph they have of him is from behind, with only half his face showing.
    • At least one government agent is killed by simply walking up and shooting him in broad daylight, although his assassins make a quick escape using bicycles.
  • La Résistance: The IRA fighting against the British Empire for the independence of Ireland. Until the Anglo-Irish Treaty is signed, Collins is always a member or leader of the Resistance.
  • Rousing Speech: Collins stumps for a candidate, turning the crowd to his side (even when though he says the man they would be voting for is in prison), gets attacked by the police and persuades Broy to switch allegiances.
  • Sadistic Choice: As Ireland slides ever closer to civil war due to growing tension between supporters and opponents of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Collins is left with one; either lead the Irish Free State's army against the anti-Treaty IRA (many of who are former comrades or men he trained during the War of Independence or ex-British soldiers/police officers) or the British Army will be sent in to do it (with the tacit implication the British government will also revoke Ireland's free state status).
  • Smug Snake: The Belfast Detective who comes to Dublin Castle with his colleagues to sort out these troublesome rebels for good and all. He and his mates make it as far as their car which then explodes, killing them all, making him a Big Bad Wannabe.
    Belfast Detective: There's a new regime in here! And it's startin' now! Good day, Mr. Broy. [to his colleagues] Bit of Belfast efficiency is what they need. [He gets into the car and slams the door. Cue External Combustion.]
  • The Spook: Invoked by Collins. He goes to great pains to protect his identity, to the point that the British authorities don't even have a real picture of him.
  • Stiff Upper Lip: A rare villainous example-the intelligence agent in the park who is given a chance to say a prayer before being shot.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Vilified
  • Weapon for Intimidation: In an early scene, the IRA hold up an RIC barracks using a flaming sod of turf and some empty rifles in order to get loaded guns.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: The heart of the controversy surrounding the film. Irish Unionists regarded the IRA as pure terrorists, using violence for political ends within a free and democratic society, pointing out there was not a single freedom they could point to which they would lack as part of Britain. In fact many rights (contraception, divorce etc) would be taken away by the Irish Free State which was universally regarded as a "Catholic State for a Catholic People".