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COVER STORY : A Heroic Effort : The life--and death--of Irish revolutionary Michael Collins has intrigued many a Hollywood filmmaker, but it took native lads Neil Jordan and Liam Neeson to bring it off.

December 03, 1995|David Gritten | David Gritten, based in London, is a frequent contributor to Calendar

DUBLIN, Ireland — For four decades, filmmakers have been intrigued by the idea of committing the life story of Irish republican hero Michael Collins to the big screen. The legendary directors John Ford and John Huston--two men with Irish blood coursing through their veins--toyed with the idea. Robert Redford considered making a Collins movie. In the 1980s, Michael Cimino and Kevin Costner separately visited Ireland to eye locations, armed with drafts of scripts based on Collins' life.

None of those attempts ever got off the ground, but at last a Collins film is on its way: The Irish director Neil Jordan, best known for "The Crying Game" and "Interview With the Vampire," completed a 14-week shoot here in early October, working from his own script. Yet Jordan himself is hardly a newcomer to the long saga of getting a Collins film made: He was first commissioned to write a script about him in 1982.

Collins, whose name is not well known outside Ireland, was the Irish Republican Army's commander-in-chief, ran intelligence for the IRA and was a crucial figure in Ireland's war of independence, which began in 1919. He was a leading negotiator of the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1922, in which Irish rebels agreed with Britain on the partition of Ireland. The arrangement has survived to this day, with the southern part of the country governing itself and Northern Ireland remaining part of Britain.

But the treaty sharply divided the Irish, and supporters of future Irish President Eamon De Valera wanted northern and southern Ireland to unite, independent of Britain. Civil war soon broke out, and later in 1922, Collins was ambushed and murdered by opponents of partition. He was just 31.

"He was like Robin Hood, Che Guevara, Gandhi, the Scarlet Pimpernel--all the characters you can imagine, historical or fictional, who meant a lot to a country," said producer Stephen Woolley, who is making the film for David Geffen and Warner Bros. "The significance of Michael Collins' memory, the state of Ireland now, the importance of that treaty, the peace with Britain and the size of this project--all these things mean so much to the Irish people."

Of course, you'd expect a producer to talk up his movie. But there is a strong case for Woolley's claims. Film sets are always a focus of community interest during shooting, but that interest is usually confined to the immediate vicinity. By contrast, most of Ireland seems riveted by the Michael Collins film; public and media interest is so high it's off the scale.

The best example of this occurred in September after shooting was completed on a spectacular set that re-created Dublin's city center circa 1916. Built on the grounds of a hospital in the Grangegorman district, it is the biggest film set ever constructed in Ireland. As a goodwill gesture to the people of Dublin, Woolley agreed to open it up to the public on two weekend days; admission was free, but people were invited to make donations to three local charities.

More than 1,000 people were waiting patiently in line an hour before the set was opened. Over two days an astonishing 40,000 Dubliners donated some $26,000 and filed in to see the set, 150 yards long, featuring mock-ups of pubs, shops, a hotel, the historic Mansion House and the General Post Office building--site of the aborted Easter 1916 rebel uprising.

Then there was the open call for extras who would play the audience in a scene where De Valera addresses a public meeting. The film's producers desperately hoped that they would manage to get as many as 2,000 people; 4,500 turned up, some from as far away as Northern Ireland, and more than half had to be turned away.

Bronze busts of Collins are advertised in Ireland's newspapers for 85 pounds ($130), an offer clearly made timely by the brouhaha surrounding the film. When shooting started, there were articles and features on the film in all Irish national papers every day for a week.

"It was absurd," Woolley said. "It's like we're performing some service. We've been given this ticket, this key to the city. Because it's Michael Collins, whatever we do seems OK. People just want to feel they're a small part of it. I can't tell you how exciting this is to the people of Ireland."

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To the rest of the world, it's perhaps less exciting at this stage, mainly because Collins is such an obscure figure. At this stage its working title is simply "Michael Collins." But, said co-producer Redmond Morris, "Warners are testing some titles at the moment, and I expect it'll have a main title, with the subtitle 'The Michael Collins Story.' "

In fairness to Woolley, the film is an intriguing project. Not only is it the first movie about Collins, it is also easily the biggest film made by an Irishman in Ireland, with 84 locations and an estimated budget of $25 million.

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