“It’s Saturday night and you need something to watch. Never fear, Hidden Netflix Gems is a weekly feature designed to help you decide just what it should be, and all without having to scroll through endless pages of crap or even leave the house. Each choice will be available for streaming on Netflix Instant, and the link below will take you to its page on the site. Look for a new suggestion here every Saturday.
This week’s Hidden Netflix Gem: “Michael Collins” (1996)
“Michael Collins” is a 1996 historical biopic starring Liam Neeson as the titular Irish revolutionary. Written and directed by Academy Award winner Neil Jordan, the film won the Golden Lion, the highest prize at the Venice Film Festival, and became the highest-grossing picture of all-time in Ireland upon its release. The high profile cast includes Alan Rickman (Éamon de Valera), Stephen Rea (Ned Broy), Brendan Gleeson (Liam Tobin), and Julia Roberts (Kitty Kiernan).
For those who don’t know, Michael Collins was an Irish revolutionary, military, and political leader who made the liberation of his homeland from its British colonial overlords his life’s work. In the now 90 years since his death (and well before it), his actions made him a folk hero, “The Big Fellah,” the single most important figure in the fight for Irish freedom. As such, “Michael Collins” begins with the following opening crawl:
At the turn of the century Britain was the foremost world power and the British Empire stretched over two-thirds of the globe.
Despite the extent of its power, its most troublesome colony had always been the one closest to it, Ireland.
For seven hundred years Britain’s rule over Ireland had been resisted by attempts at rebellion and revolution, all of which ended in failure.
Then, in 1916, a rebellion began, to be followed by a guerilla war which would change the nature of that rule forever.
The mastermind behind that war was Michael Collins.
His life and death defined the period in its triumph, terror and tragedy.
This is his story.
Although the film depicts historical events, it is first and foremost a character piece. As such, I don’t consider it a spoiler to discuss the real-life developments of nearly a hundred years ago (aka the film’s “plot”). Even still, I won’t get into too much of the nitty gritty.
“Michael Collins” depicts its main character as the heroic leader of the songs. All at once he’s a brilliant military strategist and leader of men, but unafraid of getting his hands dirty. He’s the brilliant public speaker, the ideological inventor of guerrilla warfare, and ultimately the pragmatic diplomat who signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty when he believed any further violence would be for naught but its own sake.
The IRA had been backed into a corner when the British unexpectedly called for a cease fire and offers were made to begin peace negotiations. Collins signed the aforementioned treaty, calling it “the best we can hope for at this moment in time.” The truce established an Irish Free State only nominally attached to the British government, but fell short of the independent republic the IRA had dreamed of and preserved the separation of Northern Ireland. Collins felt that the best method moving forward was further negotiations from the “inside,” with the hope that they could someday achieve those goals without further bloodshed.
Rickman’s de Valera is pitted against Collins to various degrees throughout the film, but never more so than in the treaty’s wake. His refusal to accept its terms led (indirectly) to the Irish Civil War, Collins’ assassination, and even the violence that continues to shake Northern Ireland to this day.
In 1966, de Valera, then the Irish president, was quoted as saying, “It is my considered opinion that in the fullness of time history will record the greatness of Michael Collins, and it will be recorded at my expense.” I don’t think even he could have predicted just how right he would be, and “Michael Collins” is a shining example. The film seems to both run with the idea by, as Roger Ebert put it, portraying Dev as “a weak, mannered, sniveling prima donna whose grandstanding led to decades of unnecessary bloodshed” and concede it as an inherent flaw by including the quote in the picture’s end. In the film, Dev is the Judas to Collins’ Christ, characterizing the former’s refusal to support the treaty as indirectly leading to the assassination of the latter, and perhaps even hinting that Dev knew the attempt on Collins’ life was coming.
But as Neil Jordan has pointed out, it wold be impossible to, in a mere two hours, portray an entirely accurate account of events to an audience that (for the most part) would know nothing of the minutiae of Irish history. That said, “Michael Collins” gets a lot more right than it gets wrong. At the end of the day, the fact remains that it is a movie first and a biography second. For the movie to be both commercially and artistically successful, it required a villain outside of the faceless evil of the British Empire. Thus the role of tangible, human antagonist fell into de Valera’s lap. And let’s face it, if there wasn’t a hint of truth in the idea, Dev would never have made that quote.
Sometimes the (near) truth is stranger or more exciting than fiction, and there are few better examples than the life of Michael Collins. Whether or not you’re a history buff, “Michael Collins” is satisfying film that combines biography, war, and political intrigue without getting too intense with any of them (although the romantic subplot can seem out of place). And hey, for once you can tell people you learned something from a film rife with explosions.
Check out the trailer below and follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman.
Tags: Alan Rickman, Anglo-Irish Treaty, Biopic, Brendan Gleeson, Éamon de Valera, Hidden Netflix Gems, IRA, Ireland, Irish Civil War, Julia Roberts, Kitty Kiernan, Liam Neeson, Liam Tobin, Michael Collins, Nate Kreichman, Ned Broy, Neil Jordan, Northern Ireland, Stphen Rea