“Nothing is politically right,” said the grandfather of Irish independence, Daniel O’Connell, “that is morally wrong.” The history of Ireland, though, might be seen as a war between politics and morals.
Michael Collins is the undisputed hero of Ireland’s liberation from Britain. To many Irish who were appalled by his signing the treaty that partitioned the country and left Northern Ireland under British rule, he was Ireland’s greatest traitor.
From the opening frame, Neil Jordan’s 1996 133-minute epic Michael Collins places us in the maelstrom of modern Ireland’s birth: the failed, bloody 1916 Easter Uprising, immortalized in verse by W. B. Yeats and in drama by Sean O’Casey.
Amidst the rubble of the Dublin post office, Irish rebel prisoners are being executed by British soldiers. Luckily for history, the two most important, Liam Neeson’s Michael Collins—who was, in the words of biographer Tim Pat Coogan, “the man who made Ireland”—and Alan Rickman’s Eamon de Valera—the future president of the Irish Republic—are spared. Seconds after cheating death, the two heatedly argue about how best to maintain the struggle against Britain.
The politician de Valera favors opposition through traditional set-piece battles. Collins, a man of action, knows by instinct that such strategy is doomed. “Next time,” he says, “we won’t play by their rules. We’ll invent our own.” The new rules dictate urban guerrilla warfare, a “flying column”—as the Irish called it—of fighters who strike without warning and disappear into crowds.
Collins’ methods would become a virtual textbook for revolutionists—earning approval from such future rebels as Menachem Begin and Che Guevara. As they fight, Collins discovers his own talent and taste for violence. “You’re good at it,” says Aidan Quinn’s Harry Boland, Collins’s closest friend and later bitter enemy. “Bloody mayhem.”
The terrible beauty of period Dublin is evoked by cinematographer Chris Menges as a city of smoke and shadows where darkness meshes with daylight. Rebel gunmen dressed in suits and fedoras move swiftly through city streets on stolen bicycles then hide in plain sight. British agents move furtively through alleys, glancing over their shoulders. Death is sudden, savage, startling.
Michael Collins is a story about the birth of a nation, and nothing is beautiful at birth. With the possible exception of Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2007) with Cillian Murphy, no film succeeds so well at portraying the euphoria of the Irish after winning the horrific centuries-long war for independence from Britain. Their euphoria is followed by the soul-wrenching bitterness which erupted into brother-against-brother civil war after the treaty with Britain divided the country. One hundred years later the revolution and civil war still echo in Irish culture.
Jordan, who had dealt with Ireland’s modern troubles in his 1992 film The Crying Game (for which he won an Academy Award for best screenplay) beat several potential films on the life of Michael Collins into production, with Gabriel Byrne scheduled to play the lead and yet another with Kevin Costner. (Praise the Lord we were spared Costner’s Irish accent.)
He assembled a superb cast which, in addition to Neeson, Rickman and Quinn, features Julia Roberts as Collins’s fiancée Kitty Kiernan, Stephen Rea as the rebel spy Ned Broy, English actor Charles Dance as a British intelligence officer, Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Collins’ assassin, and, as one of Collins gunmen, Brendan Gleeson, who would later portray Collins in a 2001 TV film, The Treaty.
Jordan based his script for Michael Collins partially on Michael Collins: A Biography (1990) by Tim Pat Coogan and also on The Big Fellow (1937) by Frank O’Connor, the acclaimed short story writer who during the civil war actually fought against Collins’ faction.
In writing his screenplay, Jordan took a few liberties with the historical record, such as composing characters who are composites of real-life figures. He defended his decisions in a television interview after the film’s release by saying he could not give an entirely accurate account of the complex characters and events of the Irish rebellion and civil war in a two-hour film—as he told a British interviewer, “You could scarcely do it in a twelve-hour mini-series.” Today a streaming series would be the likely format for the story.
Such inaccuracies are defensible. Others, most notably the film’s implication that Eamon de Valera knew of and perhaps even approved Collins’ assassination, are less defensible. Alan Rickman claimed that a scene was cut from the original script which absolved de Valera of involvement in Collins’ death; the scene must have been cut by the studio rather than the director as Jordan made clear that he never meant to suggest that de Valera wanted Collins’ death.
Any film on the life of Collins could not, by definition, be without controversy. In his lifetime, Collins was regarded by most Irish as a national hero, even by many who fought against him in the civil war. But some of Collins’ countrymen sided with Winston Churchill, who viewed him as the most ruthless Irish terrorist. (During the revolution the British government put a staggering 10,000-pound price tag on Collins’ head.) It is said, though, that Churchill changed his opinion of Collins somewhat after finally meeting him at the 1921 treaty negotiations.
Collins’ epitaph is perhaps best offered by a character near the end of the film, “He was the man the times demanded.”
Michael Collins is being screened at 19 Omnoplex theaters in Ireland for St. Patrick’s Day, the first nationwide showing since its released 26 years ago.
Michael Collins is available on TUBI, free with ads, also available to rent on Amazon for $2.99.
The San Patricios
“One man’s hero,” says Tom Berenger’s John Riley to an arrogant U.S. Army officer, “is another man’s traitor.” These words could stand as an epitaph for many an Irish leader.
There are volumes to be written about the emigres of the Irish diaspora and their impact on lands far from the country of their birth. Every Irishman knows the name of Michael Collins, scarcely any know the name John Riley of the San Patricios.
“It’s the only major motion picture ever made about the Mexican-American war.”
The American conflict with Mexico in 1846-1848 was opposed by Abraham Lincoln, John Quincy Adams, and many other politicians. The war was naked American aggression fueled by greed for land—the U.S. would acquire nearly 60 percent of Mexico, including California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming and eventually Texas—and an unwavering sense of racial superiority, masked by the grandiloquent phrase “manifest destiny.”
The movie, based on the true story of the U.S. Army’s Irish Brigade—the St. Patrick’s or San Patricios as they came to be called by the Mexicans—sat around for years waiting for John Wayne to make up his mind about whether he would play the unit’s star-crossed leader, Riley. Wayne was finally dissuaded by friends who convinced him that playing a man convicted of disloyalty to the United States wouldn’t fit his screen image.
Released under the title The San Patricios outside the U.S., the film, made by Orion Pictures, was scheduled for release in the fall of 1998. Its distribution is a catalogue of everything that’s wrong with the American movie business.
Orion was bought by MGM, which shelved the film for more than a year. On August 2, 1999, it premiered at the West Belfast Film Festival and was received with cheers by a mixed Irish and British audience. But MGM didn’t know what to do with it until a letter-writing campaign persuaded them to release it in the United States under the new title One Man’s Hero. Unfortunately, the studio’s idea of release was to dump it on the market without support or even an American premiere.
It’s the only major motion picture ever made about the Mexican-American war.
The men of the St. Patrick’s Brigade were dispatched to Mexico where they were caught between the fierce resistance of the Mexicans and the disgraceful anti-Catholic bigotry of their own officers. They quickly began to wonder what it was they were supposed to be fighting for.
The film’s two heroes are both fighting for lost causes. Veteran Mexican actor Joaquim de Almeida plays a rebel leader whose political sentiments anticipate the coming Juárez revolution. Berenger is John Riley, who is forced into the unwanted role of commander of Irish troops chafing under the brutal treatment from their officers. (Some are flogged for going AWOL to attend mass at a Mexican chapel.)
Riley, a sergeant in the U.S. Army raised to the rank of captain by the Mexicans, is a figure whose tragedy is worthy of a Verdi opera. He was a natural leader. As their grievances became intolerable, the soldiers of the St. Patrick’s were driven in sympathy to join the Mexicans they had been sent to kill.
He knew that their struggle was futile; they joined what was to be the losing side and were branded as traitors by the Americans. Those not killed in the fighting were captured when Mexico surrendered and were hanged near Chapultepec in Mexico City, saluting the U.S. flag and calling out “God bless America!” before they died.
Riley was not executed but whipped and tortured—branded on one cheek with a D for deserter. After his release he joined the Mexican Army and died of yellow fever in Vera Cruz in 1859.
Patricios/Hero has a devastating dramatic punch, marked by harrowing battle scenes (per capita, the Mexican-American war was the deadliest in U.S. history). It’s by no means a great movie, but it remains the sole screen testament to a tragic footnote in the history of three countries.
Recommended reading: Shamrock and Sword: The Saint Patrick’s Battalion in the U.S.-Mexican War (1989) by Robert Ryal Miller
Worth seeking out is the documentary The San Patricios by Mark R. Day, available on YouTube.
One Man’s Hero streams on Tubi (free with commercials) and can be rented on Amazon Prime.
John Riley Lives:
A bust of John Riley can be found at Plaza San Jacinto, San Angel, Mexico City, and a sculpture dedicated to him is in his birthplace of Clifden, Ireland.
This post was originally published on Daily Beast