The Man, the Myth, the Movie Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins at 25

Neil Jordan directing extras. Image Source RTÉ

B.J. Quinn

Much like crisp sandwiches, a game of slaps or defacing school property with a pointy “S”, for a lot of my generation, Michael Collins (1996) was a childhood staple. An absent school teacher? Not to worry, here comes the wide-eyed substitute, wheeling in a heap of a television. What’s on today’s programme? As if you had to ask; it’s always Michael Collins. Because if anyone can keep schoolkids quiet for a double-free Geography, it’s “The Big Fella” himself.
In the 25 years since premiering the film has gone on to become – for better or worse – a classic of Irish cinema, even topping The Independent’s list of Top 50 Irish Films You Must See Before You…you know. However, looking back, there’s no doubt the film is somewhat of an anomaly: an Irish production, made with Hollywood money and a bona fide Hollywood star in Julia Roberts, and all the while telling a very specific Irish story. You won’t be surprised to learn that about a fifth of the film’s global box-office sales came from these shores.
“It was a unique opportunity,” Neil Jordan, the film’s director and one of Ireland’s most esteemed filmmakers, told The Irish Times in 2016. Jordan has always been a storyteller, in fact most people don’t know that he was a writer long before he was a filmmaker, having published his first short story collection, Night in Tunisia, at the age of 29. He came on to the film scene through director John Boorman, who, while directing Excalibur in 1980, brought Jordan on board as a creative associate. It was also Boorman who facilitated Jordan’s first directorial feature, Angel, which Time Out magazine called “a stunning debut” upon its release, “carrying subtle echoes of Buñuel and the early Scorsese films.”
As Jordan tells it, it was after the moderate success of Angel that producer Lord David Puttnam (the man behind such classics as Midnight Express and Chariots of Fire) asked him to write a script about Michael Collins. However, Puttnam claims it was 1987 when he commissioned the screenplay – a year which saw Jordan enjoying the success of Mona Lisa, which, in 1986, proved an international breakthrough for the Irish director. Regardless, Warner Bros. read the script and didn’t want to make it, and so it disappeared into the vaults.
Jordan forged on, cementing himself as a bankable and critically lauded filmmaker. The two films that catapulted him into the Hollywood big leagues were The Crying Game and Interview with the Vampire, released in 1992 and 1994, respectively. Although the latter didn’t perform as well as Warners would have hoped, it did prove the director was more than capable of managing a big-budgeted, star-studded production – Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Antonio Banderas and Christian Slater all on the same screen, lord have mercy! “After I made Interview with a Vampire [Warners] asked me, ‘What do you want to do next?’ And I said, ‘You have a script I wrote years ago.’”
The script in question wasn’t easy to write. Finding it hard to identify with Collins, Jordan dialed in on the drama of the man’s life, a life that encompassed all the contradictions of Irish politics: its hope, ambition, as well as its naivety and brutality. “I read all the biographies, and I didn’t share this guy’s politics, I didn’t share this hagiographical admiration for him that so many of the writers seemed to have,” the director told the Irish Examiner in 2016. “But, during his very short life, he was right at the centre of every piece of drama from 1916 to 1922. That’s why I thought it would be a good movie.”
Warner Bros. were more than willing to entertain Jordan’s project. Strangely enough, Hollywood had been toying around with the notion of a Collins biopic for some time. In the early 1990s, legendary filmmaker Michael Cimino proposed the idea, with Gabriel Byrne attached to play the lead. Even Kevin Costner was interested in developing a film centered around the rebel hero, as noted in Jordan’s book Michael Collins: Screenplay and Film Diary, and was so committed, in fact, that he moved to Ireland to research Collins’ life. But it was Jordan who got the green light in the end, securing a budget of $30m from Warners, which, 20 years ago, was a hefty sum.
For “The Big Fella,” Jordan chose Liam Neeson, an actor straight off the back of his Oscar nominated performance in Steven Speilberg’s Schindler’s List. The timing couldn’t have been better. Not only was the Ballymena man a fresh bankable star, he was an actor Jordan had known since he was in the Project Arts Centre in Dublin and, when writing the script, had promised Neeson the role if it ever got picked up. 
Eamon de Valera proved a trickier part to cast; many actors auditioned for the part but most failed to impress. American actor John Turturro, known for his comedic turns in The Big Lebowski and Barton Fink, was in advanced talks to play the role, but, as he told the Irish Times in 2009, “a play came along and I couldn’t do it.” The part was then offered to Alan Rickman, who “accepted the role without question because he thought the film was important,” Jordan told the Independent in 2016. 
Now for the most eyebrow-raising addition to the cast – no, not a bewigged Gerard McSorley. In the 1990s, Julia Roberts was one of the world’s biggest stars. Already established as Hollywood’s rom-com queen, Roberts was looking to take on more dramatic roles. Soon came thrillers (The Pelican Brief), family dramas (Something to Talk About) and horror flicks (Mary O’Reilly) for Roberts to strike off her to-do list. But something was missing: an historical epic – a film about courage, with old-timey hats and unfamiliar accents. 
“If I hadn’t got big stars, I wouldn’t have been able to make this film,” Jordan told the Irish Examiner. “She was passionate about the project … she had read all the history” and even approached Jordan for the role of Kitty Kiernan, Michael Collins’s fiancée. Neeson, too, was impressed with the actress’s enthusiasm, telling the Irish Times during filming, “[Roberts] was dying to do the film. Ironically, she first heard about Michael Collins from me, ten years ago.”
But enough about its stars; for most Dubliners, the film became their chance to step into the limelight. Chances are, everyone knows someone who claims to have been an extra on the set of Michael Collins, and if you don’t, it’s probably you! Maybe you were one of the 5,000 called upon to recreate Bloody Sunday (filmed at the Carlisle Grounds in Bray). Or perhaps you were standing on a rebuilt O’Connell Street (a set which took 80 Irish craftsmen and 17 weeks to build at a cost of £1.5m) listening to Rickman’s de Valera give a rallying speech to a crowd of 4,000. 
Sadly, and rather shocking by today’s standards, the film’s extras were unpaid, as covering such large numbers would have crippled the budget. But in fairness to them, the production did find creative ways to keep the masses entertained, including live music, comedians, raffles and, according to one casting notice, “Lady’s Prize for Best Male Costume: One Year Free Rental from Xtravision.”
In the grand scheme of things, keeping extras happy was the least of their problems. Even before the cameras started rolling, the production was mired in controversy. Collins himself was and still remains a divisive figure, undoubtedly the most incendiary person in Irish politics. “The minute it was announced, everybody began arguing … historians were commenting,” Jordan noted (The Independent). “It was almost like I’d been commissioned to make a national monument.”
During the shoot, the atmosphere only worsened. At a time when the Northern Irish ceasefires were in a state of temporary breakdown, the film’s seeming sympathy for the Republican cause was seen as a potential liability. “There was almost a re-enactment of the same process that Collins went through: decommissioning, getting rid of violence and seeing that the IRA entered the political arena,” says Jordan (The Irish Examiner). In fact, It’s widely understood that the Irish director re-jigged the script, focusing more on the emotional triangle that comprised Kiernan, Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn) and Collins, as a way of defusing the tensions surrounding the film.
The script, in-turn, has remained a source of contention with cinema goers and historians since the film’s release. It’s a movie rife with historical inaccuracies: ramping up the casualties suffered during Bloody Sunday; strongly implying that De Valera was behind Collins’s assassination; and, on top of that, Neeson is playing a man nearly half his age. But for the director, taking these liberties was essential. Jordan never set out to make a historical drama; he was making a gangster film the whole time. “I can’t tell the story of the Irish War of Independence,” he stated. “But I can tell the story of one man’s engagement with violent action, and how he tried to quell the beast that had arisen, and how it kind-of killed him.” (The Irish Examiner)  
Michael Collins came at a time when the Irish film industry was changing. The 1980s, despite appearances, were a fruitful time for our national cinema. Irish directors such as Bob Quinn, Pat Murphy and Cathal Black represented a new independent wave, releasing pictures – Poitín (1978), Maeve (1981), Pigs (1984) – that favoured artistic merit and social commentary over commercial potential.  
However, with the international success of My Left Foot (1989) and The Commitments (1991) and a reorganisation of the Irish tax laws, the re-emerging Irish Film Board (Ireland’s largest state development agency for film) racked focus: from micro to macro. Hoping to attract a global audience by aping commercial output, the experimental cinema of Ireland’s “new wave” was left by the wayside.
In the face of cultural globalisation and new technology, the 90s saw an unprecedented number of Irish film releases. The international perception was that Ireland was going through a Golden Age. But with that commercial success came an erosion of our cultural identity. As Hugh Linehan noted in the Irish Times in 1996, leading up to the release of the Collins biopic: “We must start by being Irish in our point of view, and when our work is finished it must be of such a character that there will be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the result attained is all the time Irish.” 
For Neil Jordan’s part, he did try to tell an Irish story for Irish people, albeit with American money. And the Irish people loved it, so much so that upon release Michael Collins pipped Independence Day (the biggest global blockbuster of 1996) at the national box office on its opening weekend – hoovering up some £948,000 from 85 screens across the island. It took more than £4 million during its theatrical run, a record until James Cameron’s Titanic ploughed through the box office a year later. 
According to economist Jim Power, Michael Collins proved himself to be an original thinker when it came to Ireland’s economic development. During Collins’ time as The Minister for Finance [1919-1922], Power told The Irish Times in 2019, “he was writing about the need to develop our natural resources … the need to develop export markets and create a sort of a clearing house in Dublin to facilitate Irish trade.” 
By a curious twist of fate, Jordan’s epic would inspire a flurry of exports – Bloody Sunday (2002) The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) and Black 47 (2018) – but failed to capture a global audience as was hoped. “Its release capped the period of intense interest in Irish cinema and Irish issues abroad,” Dr. Harvey O’Brien states in his book, The Identity of an Irish Cinema. “By 1997, the sense of anticipation and excitement generated by Irish film-makers abroad seemed to have ended.” 
Looking back, I’d argue that Michael Collins was an experimental film if anything, representing an unlikely fusion of historical Irish concerns and a mainstream Hollywood style. It even remains something of an outlier among Jordan’s filmography – at odds with his directorial style and curiosity. Just a year after its release, as if to cleanse his palate, Jordan would go on to adapt Patrick McCabe’s novel The Butcher Boy. With a budget of just £1 million, the film showcases the filmmaker’s humour and artistry, enduring as a more accessible and thought-provoking revisioning of Ireland’s sense of its own identity.