25 years later, Michael Collins movie has stood the test of time, but did they go too easy on Dev?

It's 25 years since the movie Michael Collins aired. John Dolan says it was the greatest Irish film ever made
25 years later, Michael Collins movie has stood the test of time, but did they go too easy on Dev?

Alan Rickman as Eamon de Valera and Liam Neeson as Michael Collins in the film, Michael Collins

CLOSE your eyes and imagine Kevin Costner playing Michael Collins.

I know, it makes me shudder too.

But that shocking scenario almost came to pass during Costner’s Dances With Wolves heyday in the early 1990s, when he was perhaps Hollywood’s No.1 leading man.

The American showed interest in making a film about the life of The Big Fella, and apparently even visited Béal na mBláth, the scene of Collins’s death 99 years ago in his native West Cork.

We can only hope that Costner didn’t have the main role in mind, and be grateful that the task of making a biopic on the great man eventually fell to our own Neil Jordan.

His masterpiece, Michael Collins, had its premiere 25 years ago next month and became that rarity: an instant classic. A generation later, and few would quibble if I boldly stated it is the greatest Irish film ever made.

Given Ireland and its oft-divided history, to say that about a film depicting a man who had a murderous streak when it came to republicanism, and who was arguably primarily responsible for the partition of his beloved island, that speaks volumes about Jordan’s work, and that of his cast and crew back in 1996.

Of course, the movie took liberties with some of the facts, but its storytelling arc, the performances from all the main actors (bar Julia Roberts), its capturing of the mood of the time, the dialogue, and the mood of dread that builds as the film wears on, all make it stand out a quarter of a century later.

Actor Liam Neeson as Michael Collins.
Actor Liam Neeson as Michael Collins.

There was some talk of Gabriel Byre playing Collins in the movie, but the decision to choose Liam Neeson was a masterstroke.

We didn’t need a smouldering star, but a man of stature and action, who ruled by sheer force of personality and charisma - and that was what Neeson brought.

Fresh from his breakthrough role as Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List, the man from Ballymena was in his early 40s at the time, and still fresh-faced enough to play a man who was 31 years old when he was killed by an assassin, played by Cork actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the film.

The inspired casting included Aidan Quinn, brilliant as Collins’ friend Harry Boland, Stephen Rea, Ian Hart, and, of course, Alan Rickman as Éamon de Valera.

The scene when Collins helps break out Dev from prison, while the latter is in drag and chuckling away at the madness of it all, was a stand-out moment for me.

Interestingly, although the film was met by almost universal acclaim upon its release in November, 1991, the character of Dev was the most problematic for many viewers.

If Collins was to successfully be viewed as a hero, the film needed a counterpoint, and the British, despite a villainous role for Charles Dance as the leader of the Cairo Gang, couldn’t quite cut it; Dev was cast as the bad guy who turned on his old comrade.

Rickman, no stranger to playing panto villains in Die Hard and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, reined in his thespian relish somewhat for his role as Dev, but still portrayed him as a pale shadow of the Big Fella; an accountant-type and political fixer who shrinks beside the might of the action man soldier.

The film even falsely portrays Dev as having a hand in Collins’ death, while its famous closing remark by Dev that history would vindicate Collins at his expense, was shown in the film as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The late American Roger Ebert, who became the first film critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize, alluded to this demonisation of Dev, when he lavished praise on the movie on its release.

Referring to that famous quote, Ebert wrote: “Even Dev could hardly have imagined this film biography of Collins, which portrays de Valera as a weak, mannered, snivelling prima donna whose grandstanding led to decades of unnecessary bloodshed in, and over, Ireland.”

Few would argue with that assessment of the film, and even Rickman, in 2009, indicated he was a little uneasy about how his portrayal of Dev appeared on screen. He claimed: “Scenes that we shot did not end up in the movie. I think ultimately those would have altered the tone of the film.”

Rickman, who passed away in 2016, said director Neil Jordan was trying to tell a huge story that probably would have been better served in a 16-week TV series. 

“To do what he did in two hours was pretty amazing,” he added.

Understandably, the image of Dev in the film has not gone down well with his descendants.

A few years after its release, then Minister Éamon Ó Cuív lambasted members of his own Fianna Fáil party for failing to do more to correct the portrayal of his grandfather. More recently, he felt the film failed to show “the vibrancy” of his grandfather, adding: “In terms of personal characterisation, there was no life in that de Valera, no energy.”

It’s interesting to note that de Valera was known as The Long Fellow because he stood at 6ft 3in - the same height as Liam Neeson, coincidentally - while Collins wasn’t quite 6ft; yet the film visibly shrinks Dev and puts Collins on a pedestal.

It was a theme Ó Cuív returned to in 2016, when he described the portrayal of Dev in RTÉ’s Rebellion as an “embarrassment”.

It has been a difficult time of late for defenders of de Valera, whose persona bestrode 20th century Ireland.

When the Michael Collins film came out in 1996, his legacy as a founder and pivotal person in the foundation of the state appeared secure, but in the past 25 years, and especially in the last decade, as a more liberal Ireland has emerged, he has become seen as a figure firmly from the past.

Dev is squarely blamed for turning the new republic into a Church state, and many of the religious scandals of the past 50 years have been laid at his door.

Furthermore, his decision to turn inwards economically was disastrous for generations, and completely at odds with the outward-looking, EU-loving modern Ireland.

As the world faces a climate breakdown, Dev’s decision to scrap the extensive railway network appears a particularly mindless folly.

While the image of Collins as a young man with fire in his belly is fixed in our minds, images of Dev conjured up invariably show him in his dotage as he neared the end of his long life of 92 years.

Some would call this a fair reassessment using a modern lens; others dismiss it as revisionism.

Whatever your take, it means Dev is unlikely to be viewed sympathetically for some time to come. Indeed, it could well be that future generations take the view that the Michael Collins film goes easy on him.

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