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Not Just a New Movie Opening

History: The premiere of 'Michael Collins' in England and Ireland has fueled a debate over accuracy.


LONDON — Given the subject matter of Neil Jordan's film "Michael Collins," it was inevitable that its opening Friday in Britain and Ireland would arouse fierce passions. And indeed a heated debate about the Warner Bros. film, and its accuracy in portraying a particular slice of Irish history, has been raging in the media here.

Historians, political commentators and film critics have entered the fray, offering a wide spectrum of views. The historians have pinpointed scenes where Jordan's accuracy is open to question, and conservative commentators have found it sympathetic to the Irish Republican Army and a glorification of Collins. Yet the film generally impressed critics.

Collins was a founder-member of the IRA, a participant in the doomed 1916 Easter Rising of Irish republicans against the occupying British, a leading exponent of guerrilla warfare aimed at driving the British out of Ireland--and negotiator of a peace treaty with the British that divided Ireland in two and remains controversial today. He was murdered at age 31 in 1922 by IRA operatives who opposed his treaty.

Jordan's film was shot last year in and around Dublin at the time of a cease-fire in Northern Ireland between Catholic republicans and Protestant Unionists (who wish to retain ties with Britain).

But since the film wrapped, several terrorist incidents have threatened the lengthy peace process between the opposing factions--notably two IRA bomb attacks last month on the British Army's Northern Ireland headquarters.

Jordan has stressed that "Michael Collins" has no relevance to current events. "The film is about then," he said. "It is not about now."

Film critics were the first among Britain's media to see "Michael Collins," when it was shown at the Venice International Film Festival and won two prizes (best film and best actor for Liam Neeson, who plays Collins). Reviewers for two British conservative papers praised it.

David Robinson of the Times of London noted: "Dealing with an inevitably inflammatory subject, Jordan offers what seems a creditably objective view of this complicated piece of history."

And Quentin Curtis of the Daily Telegraph called it "an intelligent, stirring and noble movie. To infer as some have already done that 'Michael Collins' is a pro-IRA film is an absurd leap."

But op-ed writers and commentators for these papers were at odds with their critics. The Times ran a piece asserting that "right-wingers have accused Jordan of making an anti-British travesty."

The Telegraph went further, devoting several articles to what it called the "distortions" in Jordan's film. Paul Bew, a Cambridge University academic from Northern Ireland, wrote a critical commentary headlined "History It Ain't." And the paper carried two long analytical pieces questioning the film's accuracy.


The Telegraph's rage against "Michael Collins" culminated in an editorial concluding: "Withdraw this inflammatory film from circulation--forthwith." It sought to draw an astonishing parallel: "Imagine, if you can, a leading Hollywood film company giving 20 million [$30 million] to a foreign film director with anti-Semitic beliefs. This director then proceeds to make a historical movie that vilifies Jews. Such a film, rightly, would never see the light of day. Yet has Warner Bros. done so very differently in releasing Neil Jordan's 'Michael Collins'?"

The editorial complained that in the film "Britons are either arrogant, cruel, snobbish or stupid."

Another conservative paper, the Daily Express, worried that "Michael Collins" would mislead U.S. audiences into giving moral and financial support for the IRA. Unwitting American aid for terrorism has long been a concern across a wide spectrum of British and Irish opinion.

In his native Ireland, Jordan has also been assailed by what he calls "revisionist" journalists and critics who doubt the authenticity of his film. One such opponent is journalist Eoghan Harris, who once worked for Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, but has since become anti-Republican.

Harris' case against Jordan is considerably weakened because he himself wrote several drafts of a screenplay about the life of Collins, called "Mick." (Directors Michael Cimino and Kevin Costner were interested in Harris' script, but it has not been filmed.) Last week in the Irish Times, Jordan hit back with a long, often hilarious analysis of Harris' script, stressing its own inaccuracy.


In the midst of these heated disputes, Warner Bros. will open "Michael Collins" in 125 theaters in Britain and Ireland on Friday, gradually increasing the number to some 170. (This is a typical number for a thoughtful American-made drama like "Michael Collins"; Hollywood mega-hits open on more than 300 screens.)

Some film industry observers here feel that the film will not suffer from the adverse comment because it peaked more than a week before its British opening. It also obviously helps that the political situation in Northern Ireland, while uneasy, is far short of full-scale violence.

"We're opening it like a normal film," said a London-based Warner Bros. spokesman. "We felt that what we had to do is treat it like any other movie."

"Michael Collins" will have two Irish premieres--one in Cork, the largest town near where Collins was born, and Dublin. Proceeds from both events will go to the Michael Collins Foundation, which provides schooling for disadvantaged children.

Despite the volatile political climate, no special security measures are being planned around the film's opening. "For the Dublin premiere, the police will probably close off roads [surrounding the theater]," the Warner spokesman said, "but that's only doing what they normally do when there's a gathering of over 1,000 people."

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