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'Michael Collins' tackles more than Irish history

scene from movie

November 8, 1996
Web posted at: 5:45 a.m. EST

From Correspondent Margaret Lowrie

LONDON (CNN) -- Even in advance of its premiere in Britain, the movie "Michael Collins" generated enormous press coverage and touched off heated debate about how such films portray Irish history.

"Michael Collins" tells the story of the Irish activist from the 1916 Easter uprising against the British to his assassination by fellow Republicans six years later.

The film cuts to the heart of Irish history, as the epic struggle of Collins' Irish Volunteers encompasses not only the triumph of a free Irish Republic but also the tragedy of Northern Ireland, where bloody battles continue today.

Film critic Derek Malcolm, however, believes no one could make a film about Irish history without controversy.

"There is so much argument about Ireland that it would not be possible for any filmmaker, whether he was Irish or not, to make a historical film that didn't cause a great deal of fuss," Malcolm says.

scene from movie

Still, critics say the film should come with a "cultural health warning."

"What's missing from this film is pretty massive," says peace activist Gary Kent. "There's no mention, for instance, of constitutional nationalism. There's no mention in reality of the problem or the existence of Northern Ireland and the majority of the people there who didn't want to be part of an independent Ireland."

But while Kent says the film distorts history, Thaddeus O'Sullivan says it's all interpretation.

"I think there's a certain impartiality which can be achieved. Which can explain maybe emotionally to an audience what to see in a history. But historians no more get it right than artists do," says O'Sullivan, who directed the film "Nothing Personal," which focuses on loyalist paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland.

"The events that I portrayed in the film not only happened, but were still happening up to the point when the cease-fire was declared last year," he says. "What I have done is try to explode some of the complexity behind all of that."

Then there are the claims that such films romanticize violence.


"The further you get away from the epicenter of terrorism in Europe and elsewhere, the more likely it is that more gullible people who are fooled by this romantic and naive versions of history might be fooled into donating money, putting money into the coffers of terrorism," says Kent.

"I believe all the filmmakers, whether they're good, bad or indifferent, are desperate to make films that are actually anti-violence. They may not be particularly pro-British, but they're certainly anti-violence," says Malcolm.

Still others say the debate is much ado about nothing.

"I think the impact is minimal and superficial. I don't believe films such as 'Michael Collins' change people's views. I think it's possible that they reinforce existing positions and prejudices. But I don't believe that they have a major political impact," says Andrew Hunter, British Parliament member of the Select Committee for Northern Ireland Affairs.

That, in turn, could determine the film's box office impact. After all, cinematic epics are not just about explaining history, but making it entertaining.


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