SUBJECTS — Biography; World/Ireland;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Courage in War; Breaking Out; Peace/Peacemakers; Rebellion;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Respect.
AGE: 14+; MPAA Rating — R (for violence and language);
Drama; 1996; 138 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
This film traces the public career of Michael Collins, the Irish patriot, from his imprisonment after the 1916 Easter Uprising, through his organization of a bloody resistance movement, continuing with his participation in the peace talks that led to home rule without full independence from Great Britain, and concluding with his assassination in the civil war that followed.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
Selected Awards: 1996 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards: Best Cinematography; 1996 Venice Film Festival: Golden Lion (Jordan) and Volpi Award (Neeson); 1996 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Cinematography and Best Original Score; 1997 Golden Globe Awards Nominations: Best Actor (Neeson) and Best Original Score.
Featured Actors: Liam Neeson, Julia Roberts, Aiden Quinn, Alan Rickman.
Director: Neil Jordan.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
“Michael Collins” shows a man’s use of violence to obtain freedom for his country and his rejection of violence when a substantial portion of his goals, but not a complete victory, can be obtained by negotiation. The film will help to explain how Ireland won freedom from British control after hundreds of years of oppression. But, the movie is useful as a learning tool only if its historical distortions are explained. See the Helpful Background Section. “Michael Collins”, when compared to Gandhi, can lead to fascinating discussions about the use and abuse of violence by oppressed peoples.
This film also demonstrates how dramatic devices distort historical accuracy. A discussion of this topic will build critical viewing skills and is necessary to correct a misimpression left by the film. Eamon De Valera serves the dramatic structure of the story as the villain. The truth is not nearly so clear and the characterization is inaccurate. There is no evidence that De Valera plotted to have Collins killed. The film’s rejection of De Valera’s position, that nothing short of full independence would justify peace, is never explained or justified. Nor is it shown that years later De Valera came round and served with distinction as President of the Irish Free State before full independence was attained. The need for a villain in the film overpowered historical accuracy and the film is misleading in its characterization of De Valera.
Describe for your child how dramatic devices distort historical accuracy in this film. See the Benefits section. Describe how the film charts the path of Michael Collins from terrorism to negotiation. Point out that his terrorism was directed at the occupying police force and not innocent civilians. And then ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Question.
In Roman times and the Middle Ages, Ireland was inhabited by Celtic tribes. In the 5th century, Saint Patrick sought to convert the entire island to Christianity. Although Patrick was not successful in his lifetime, by the 6th century Christianity had triumphed. The Anglo-Normans first invaded Ireland in the 12th century. Over several hundred years the entire island was subdued. It was thereafter ruled from England in a manner that was often callous and inhumane. The Irish rebelled frequently. The laws imposed by the British discriminated against Catholics, a group which comprised the vast majority of the inhabitants of the island. The laws favored Protestants which included the English landlords, police and others sent from England to help subdue the island. Still, the periodic rebellions continued. In an effort to secure peace in Ireland, Parliament passed the Act of Union in 1800, incorporating Ireland into Great Britain and removing the laws favoring Protestants. The leaders of Parliament sought to combine Union with Catholic emancipation. But largely due to the opposition of the King, Catholic emancipation did not materialize for another 30 years. The periodic revolts and struggles for independence and home rule continued.
Before the Potato Famine (1845 – 1849) the population of Ireland was estimated to be about eight million people. Most of them relied on the potato for nutrition, which had been brought over from South America. The Potato Famine, was the result of a fungus which caused the potato plants to turn black and rot in the fields. It reduced the population (through starvation and emigration) by about 2.5 million. All during the Potato Famine the wealthy, and mostly English landlords, continued to export grain to England. The English government did not take effective steps to ameliorate the famine. Instead, many of its policies made the situation worse, such as the export of grain from Ireland to England. Emigration by Irish people seeking better economic opportunities continued after the famine, to the present day. The present population of Ireland is estimated to be 3.5 million people, less than half the 1840 figure.
The Easter Rebellion of 1916 was a turning point in Anglo/Irish relations. Before that time, the Irish (including most groups that advocated independence) had largely supported England in the First World War. A splinter faction of the independence groups (including Collins and De Valera) attempted an armed revolt seizing the Dublin Post Office and various other locations. But the rebellion was never supported by the Irish people and the rebels knew when they began that they had no chance of winning. The British imprisoned the participants and executed 15 leaders. This overreaction aroused public indignation. In 1917, the British further inflamed public opinion by threatening to impose conscription to fill the ranks of the British army during the First World War. Sinn Fein, which had been a little known group supporting a separate Irish parliament but retaining the English monarch as the king (or queen) of Ireland, changed its position to support full independence. It swept the 1918 parliamentary elections and Eamon De Valera was chosen to lead a shadow government. Sinn Fein waged war against the British occupation from 1919 – 1921. Its violence was directed almost exclusively to the British occupying forces. Michael Collins was the Finance Minister and led the armed resistance, developing a network of informants and waging the first modern urban guerilla war. Collins’ guerilla warfare tactics were studied and adopted by such disparate leaders as Mao Zedong (China) and Yitzhak Shamir (Israel).
In 1921, Collins was selected to lead a delegation to peace talks with the British. The delegation obtained an agreement for home rule but Britain would not concede full independence. This compromise was unacceptable to many in the Sinn Fein, including De Valera. A plebiscite was held and the Irish people voted overwhelmingly in favor of home rule and the Irish Free State. The dissidents began a civil war and Collins was appointed commander in chief of the Irish Free State forces. He was assassinated on August 22, 1922, by members of Sinn Fein who were opposed to the peace treaty. The war went on for two years and ultimately the Irish Free State prevailed. It continued in existence, despite resistance from Sinn Fein until full independence was attained in 1949 with the establishment of the Republic of Ireland.
After watching this film, the children in our family became very passionate in their admiration for Collins. The parents took the position that the Irish would probably have won their independence through civil disobedience. Since all the killing might have been avoided, they argued, Michael Collins bore responsibility for many murders and was not as admirable as, for example, Mahatma Gandhi. The parents argued that considering the prejudices against people with brown skin that prevailed in the first half of the 20th century if South Africa and the British Empire eventually capitulated to Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaign, the British would have been even more responsive to civil disobedience by the Irish. After all, the Irish are white Europeans who practiced a Christian religion (Catholicism) whereas the Indians were a dark-skinned people from a different religious and cultural heritage. (See Learning Guide to “Gandhi”.) The children attempted to rebut this argument by asserting that the British, at the time, considered the Irish to be less worthy of consideration than the Indians, who had a complex and ancient civilization. The children also argued that people can be judged only in relation to their society and their times. They questioned whether civil disobedience played a major role in the granting of Indian independence. The parents countered by stating that not only did civil disobedience play a central role in forcing the British to relinquish control of India but that it made the process more peaceful. The parents reminded their children that taking a life, even the life of an oppressor, is such a terrible thing that people should be called to account for killing if there is any way to avoid it. These points, and many more, provoked very spirited (and educationally beneficial) debates.
Civil disobedience and its power were not unknown to the Irish in the early 20th century. Before Michael Collins’ campaign of violence against the British occupying forces, Irish prisoners brought the British to their knees and obtained release from prison through hunger strikes.
Should Michael Collins and the IRA of the 1920s be condemned as terrorists? The historical record shows that it was the British occupiers who used indiscriminate violence. The incident at the soccer game portrayed in the film is a reasonably accurate portrayal of an historical event. At other times, the British made the decision that their troops should not worry about innocents who may be killed in a cross fire. The British destroyed homes to punish communities for harboring IRA men. The Irish, on the other hand, focused their death squads and flying columns on the British intelligence forces and the occupying troops. Some in the IRA proposed a plan to take a machine gun to England and shoot up a line waiting for a movie, but this was rejected, with Michael Collins being one of the primary opponents of the plan. The Irish resisters did burn warehouses in England. However, the Irish resistance led by Michael Collins was very different from the terrorists of today who attempt to gain their ends by the murder of innocent civilians.
More Historical Inaccuracies: The film does not fully describe Collins’ true triumph over the British. Historically, the British had used informers and a powerful secret police to maintain power in Ireland. Most of the Irish independence movements were infiltrated with British agents. Michael Collins turned this around on the British and infiltrated the “Castle” (the seat of the British military government) at all levels, not just through one person, as is shown in the film. It was said that when a British Officer drafted an order, Collins had a copy before it was received by the subordinate for whom the order was intended.
The portrait of De Valera is inaccurate. Many historians disagree with the idea that De Valera manipulated Collins into attending the peace conference. There is no evidence that De Valera was complicit in Collins’ murder. It was reported that he wept for the entire day after it occurred.
Michael Collins and Harry Boland competed for the hand of Kitty Tiernan.
Eamon De Valera was an American of Irish descent who returned to Ireland for college and stayed. De Valera reversed his opposition to the Irish Free State in 1927 and in 1932 was elected its President. He also served as prime minister of the Republic of Ireland for two terms. He was elected President of the Republic of Ireland from 1959 to 1973. De Valera is said to have remarked that “History will record the greatness of Michael Collins, and it will be recorded at my expense.” This film is part of that process. The portrait of De Valera in the film is apparently incorrect and unreasonably negative. It is a dramatic device to heighten the image of Collins as a hero.
QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION:
Michael Collins is credited with inventing urban guerilla warfare. Mahatma Gandhi is credited with inventing nonviolent civil disobedience as a strategy to force political and social change. Compare the two.
A good answer will note that nonviolent civil disobedience, also called nonviolent mass action, is an expression of the highest and best moral impulses of mankind. Terrorism is a continuation of our penchant for fratricide and gives reign to the most violent aspects of human nature. Whether successful or unsuccessful, a movement of mass nonviolent action raises the moral and ethical standards for everyone in the society and in the world community. A campaign of terrorism does just the opposite.
A good answer will compare the victories of guerilla war with the victories of nonviolent mass action. Non-violent civil disobedience has resulted in the following: (1) independence for India in 1948, now the most populous democracy in the world; (2) the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s; (3) the collapse of the Soviet Union, a superpower, in 1991; (4) the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos, dictator of the Philippines in 1985 and the installation of a democratic government in that country; (5) the relinquishment of power by the apartheid government of South Africa in 1994; (6) a general strike that forced the El Salvadoran dictator General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez to relinquish power in 1944; (7) the protests of “Los Madres” (the mothers of the “disappeared”) which grew into massive street demonstrations that forced the Argentinean military dictatorship to relinquish power, 1977 – 1983; (8) the “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia that drove the Communists from power in 1989; (9) The pro-Western “Orange Revolution” in the Ukraine which installed Viktor Yushchenko as President in 2004; (10) the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia in 2003 which installed the populist regime of President Mikhail Saakashvili. See Learning Guide to “A Force More Powerful”.
There are a number of changes in government in which guerilla warfare has played a major role. These include the Irish Revolution (partial success, obtained home rule in 1922); the Cuban Revolution (ending in 1959); the Vietnam War (ending in 1975); the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation ending in 1989; Israeli resistance to British rule in Palestine culminating in the independence of Israel in 1948. There are probably many more.
When these are compared, nonviolent mass action has been shown to have had a broader impact on world history than guerilla warfare. The development of nonviolent mass action will be remembered as one of the 20th century’s key contributions to politics and government.
2. Did you agree with Michael Collins that limited self-rule was better than continued fighting, or did you agree with De Valera, that the fighting could only stop when the British gave Ireland complete independence? De Valera eventually ceased his opposition to the Irish Free State and became its President in 1932. What does this say about Collins and the position that he took on the 1921 peace treaty? On the other hand, given the fact that the British gave independence to Ireland in 1947, how much longer could they have held out against the guerrilla war had the Irish continued to resist after 1921? Doesn’t this mean that De Valera’s position had some validity? What do you think?
3. Michael Collins’ brother Patrick, had emigrated to the U.S. and repeatedly asked Michael to join him in Chicago. What would have happened in Ireland had Michael Collins accepted his brother’s invitation? How has emigration changed the history of Ireland?
4. The 1916 Easter Rebellion was an attempted rebellion through conventional war, i.e., pitched battles over territory. The British so thoroughly and easily crushed the Easter Rebellion that they thought they had convinced the Irish of the futility of armed revolt. What was the result of the British victory in the conventional battle? What does this tell us about the flow of history?
COURAGE IN WAR
1. The terrorism that is shown in the film always targeted the instruments of English oppression. We know of no random violence in which noncombatants were targets. Compare this type of terrorism to the World Trade Center bombing of September 11, 2001, and suicide bombings directed towards civilians.
2. At some point, Michael Collins outgrew his fellow terrorists and realized that peace with Britain without full independence was acceptable. In this, he was supported by the vast majority of the Irish people. Trace the growth of Michael Collins’ attitudes towards terrorism as a strategy.
3. Would civil disobedience have worked against the British in Ireland in the early 1900s?
4. Who had more impact on the world, Mahatma Gandhi or Michael Collins? Can you think of any revolutions that proceeded by civil disobedience?
Russia (1991); Philippines (1986)
5. What revolutions have recently succeeded through warfare?
6. What would have happened in the U.S. had black Americans resorted to urban guerilla warfare rather than civil disobedience?
7. Given the proven effectiveness of civil disobedience, are there any occasions in which violent revolution is a justifiable tactic? If your answer is yes, describe the situation when the violent revolution would be morally acceptable. In either case, justify your answer.
8. Compare and contrast Michael Collins and Mahatma Gandhi describing the situations they faced, their response to the situations, how their response to the situations changed over time, and the political/religious theory they applied. See Learning Guide to “Gandhi“.
9. Compare and contrast the careers of Michael Collins and Dr. Martin Luther King describing the situations they faced, their response to the situations, how their response to the situations changed over time, and the political/religious theory they applied.
10. Compare and contrast Michael Collins and the Dalai Lama describing the situations they faced, their response to the situations, how their response to the situations changed over time, and the political/religious theory they applied. See Learning Guide to “Kundun“.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends, and country)
1. After the Irish people overwhelmingly voted for home rule and against the demand for full independence, did any group seeking to continue the war for full independence through violent means have any legitimacy whatsoever?
(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)
2. How did the Irish justify terrorism against the British? Would you have come to the same conclusion using the Josephson Institute Decision-Making Model?
In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:
- The Man Who Made Ireland: The Life and Death of Michael Collins by Tim Pat Coogan, 1992, Roberts Rinehart Publishers, Niwot, Colorado; and
- a Review of the Film by Richard Schickel in Time Magazine, 10/14/96, Vol 148 No. 18.