Michael Collins: A fun but misleading piece of pseudohistory

In 1996, Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire) directed Michael Collins, a biopic focusing on the life of the titular Irish revolutionary. This film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and remains a much-loved depiction of an influential time in history. As a stickler for biopics, I personally adore this film, as I have a fondness for films from this particular era of Irish history. Liam Neeson does a wonderful job portraying Collins, with Aiden Quinn, Stephen Rea, Alan Rickman and Julia Roberts all being excellent supporting actors. The story, music and directing captures the mood of revolution, which would turn any pacifist into a militant republican after just a single viewing. The film is a piece of art, as it is able to manage the audience’s feelings about a truly turbulent time in Irish history.

But this is also a problem.

Michael Collins, despite being a fantastic piece of cinema, is also one of the worst movies for historical accuracy in recent times, maybe beaten only just by Braveheart. Numerous historical inaccuracies plague the movie, including its depiction of Bloody Sunday, showing an armoured British tank opening fire on a crowd at a Gaelic football match, and associating political leader Eamon De Valera as a snivelling, manipulative and stubborn individual, in complete contrast to the stoic, insightful, heroic figure of Collins (both through his characterisation and Alan Rickman’s, who known for playing villainous characters).

These changes to historical fact might appear minor and insignificant, but for the average viewer it heightens the atrocities of the war and manipulates the viewer into believing the film’s political agenda. Although the British did commit horrific atrocities and did fire unjustly into the crowd during the 1920 Bloody Sunday, the creation of false events gives an inaccurate representation of the events of the Irish War of Independence. Similarly, the controversial portrayal of De Valera also misrepresents history, as De Valera was a positive figure in the fight for Irish independence, and his relationship with Collins was not as hostile as the film suggests.      

Playing with the facts in a movie like Michael Collins is a dangerous game. The political issues surrounding Irish independence are still relevant today, even after the Good Friday Agreement, and have become especially applicable given the recent border issues surrounding the Brexit negotiations (recently, Conservative MP and professionally detached fop Jacob Rees-Mogg claimed that it would not be such a bad thing to go back to the border situation of ‘the Troubles’).

Misinformation about Irish history is already an issue, not helped by films like Michael Collins that promote myths that lead to people like Mr. Rees-Mogg – who peddles his own version of Irish history – seeing the destructive nature of past Anglo-Irish relations as the ‘good old days’. He also fails to account for the violence and terror that characterised Anglo-Irish relations between 1916 and 1998, and severely disrespects the thousands who died during this time as a result. Films like Michael Collins, whilst certainly good fun, serve to spread ignorance about an incredibly relevant part of history, and this could have serious ramifications for future Anglo-Irish relations.

I am not suggesting that filmmakers have to craft films that reflect reality perfectly, however, there must be a conscious effort made by the producers and advertisers of films like Michael Collins to distinguish between fact and fiction. Cate Blanchett, when asked about the inaccuracies of Elizabeth: The Golden Age, said that ‘It’s terrifying that we are […] being taught that film is fact, when in fact it’s invention.’ This very much represents the problems with historical movies: people are going to see films like Michael Collins expecting a history lesson. What you will get instead is an entertaining but misleading piece of pseudohistory – which can and should be enjoyed – but must not be taken as gospel or historical fact. If you want to learn about the history of Ireland, pick up a book or find a journal article online. Do not rely on movies like Michael Collins to tell you what happened during the Irish War of Independence. There are enough issues with Irish historiography as it is, and we do not need Hollywood throwing in their lot as well. 

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Dylan Bailey

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January 2022
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