The killing game Movies: With 'Michael Collins,' director Neil Jordan brings the original terrorist's life and death into broad daylight.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If Michael Collins didn't invent the Munich Olympics, the Lockerbie explosion and half a thousand other atrocities that shocked and revolted the world, then he invented their theories, at least. He could be said to be the father of modern terrorism. For it was Michael Collins, the glam Irish terrorist, who largely devised the classic strategy by which a struggling colonial nation could make war upon a superpower that governed it.

Collins waged a secret battle against the masters of the land: He sent his boys out into the Dublin night in the late teens and early '20s, where they got up close to high British officials, put their gun muzzles against head or chest, pulled the triggers and disappeared down alleyways back into the 'hood. It was so personal: war by assassination, war by terror, war by specific, rather than generalized, fear. And it was the only way, because no Irish Army could stand in the field against the conquerors of the German empire.

"I hated that," says Neil Jordan, who's made the film that will most likely turn the obscure Irishman into a world hero. "At first, his violence sickened me. No doubt, he was a killer. He invented an alternative form of warfare, a series of attacks that made empire impossible. His theory was formed by the heat of events.

"But what is inspirational about Collins is the way he grew and how, having mastered the violence, he mastered himself and became a different man. He learned to work through political means instead of violent means. His transition from terrorist to statesman is the most surprising thing about him. That is the source of his heroism. He came back to Ireland and tried to change the terms of the argument."

And so it was that Michael Collins -- men named Begin and Arafat would later follow the same pattern -- became a diplomat and negotiated the first peace between the bitter mother country and the unruly progeny country; and so it was that he came back to Ireland and tried to sell the Irish on the peace he had won; and so it was that, having won one war against the English, he had to reluctantly fight another one, against his own brethren, the more obscure but more violent Irish Civil War. And so it was, finally, that he caught a bullet in the head. He was 31.

Acclaim and alarm

The film, with smoldering Liam Neeson as Collins, Julia Roberts as his fiance Kitty Kiernan, and Aidan Quinn and Alan Rickman as Harry Boland and Eamon De Valera, compatriots who become enemies, has just opened to acclaim and alarm.

The British, quite naturally, hate it, for it makes a hero of a man many regard as a traitor and murderer; the Irish see one of their own sons removed from obscurity to the proper role he deserves; they still call him "the man who won the war." Yet some of the Irish themselves will hate it, for it carries the clear implication that Collins was killed at the behest of De Valera, the former compatriot who turned against him after the treaty and went on to become the leading Irish politician-statesman of the century.

So incendiary, in fact, is this situation, that Jordan has affixed a "statement" to the press kit of the film, denying any attempt to incite further Irish violence against the British, proclaiming his commitment to truth even if admitting the right to dramatic license, and generally defending himself against any and all comers.

Roughened contours

For example, he cheerfully admits that he somewhat roughened the contours of Collins for the film.

"The one word that describes him is efficient. He'd spent 10 years in London as a law clerk, where he'd mastered absolutely the laws of bureaucracy that made him so effective in the war, and made him exactly the man for running spy networks. I chose not to show that, but to focus instead on his leadership and his rhetorical abilities and his private life."

Jordan has opened the film up to show Collins' engagement (probably chaste) to Kitty Kiernan; he was slated to marry on the day he was killed. The relationship is based on their letters, later collected in a book.

But the most controversial aspect of the film is his allegation that De Valera was a kind of puppet master behind Collins' career: It is De Valera who appoints him minister of war and encourages him to unleash his terror; it is De Valera who sends him to negotiate, knowing what he'll be forced to accept and therefore making him a kind of exile to the army he himself invented and led, almost a necessary sacrificial lamb. And, most controversially, it is De Valera himself who is involved in the assassination.

Jordan is very careful not to make it a Kennedy conspiracy type of argument, but he does portray the murder as a kind of inevitable occurrence, created by the will and political necessity of the involved characters, similar to Henry II's involvement in the murder of Thomas a Beckett. As Jordan writes in his statement: "With regard to the murky circumstances surrounding Collins' death, I have made several assumptions. One was that Eamon De Valera was in the vicinity at the time, which is true. Two, that Collins was trying to arrange some conciliatory meeting with those on the opposing side of the Civil War, which is also true. Three, that Collins was ambushed and shot by a renegade band on his way to a meeting, which I believe to be true. Out of this, I have constructed a drama of the last 10 minutes -- Collins' attempts to meet De Valera, De Valera's inability to deal with the issues, and the young nameless go-between, who sets up the ambush on his own initiative and becomes Collins' assassin."

And now he sits in the midst of this storm on the cusp of yet another re-invented career, as a kind of latter-day David Lean of the Emerald Isle. This was, after all, the man who became world famous with "Mona Lisa," failed fabulously on the American film "We're No Angels" ("I'm no good at just being the director," he confesses), and went back to Ireland to lick his wounds. But then he directed another little number called "The Crying Game," and got famous all over again. He followed this one up with the American smash "Interview With the Vampire."

The payoff

Thus, in some sense, "Michael Collins" is the payoff film for the big b.o. on "Vampire," a movie of revolutionary heroism and martyrdom financed by Tom Cruise's incisors and Anne Rice's id.

"I'd actually written it in 1983," says Jordan. "It took a bit of time to get it made. And I wanted Liam to play the part then, too. He's always been the only one for it. Warners finally gave us the go-ahead, on the promise that we would keep the budget under $28 million, which we did."

Jordan, dark-haired and intense and somewhat shaggy and anti-slick, crouches warily in a Washington hotel as if he expects boyos from MI-6 to arrest him, take him out to Dublin Castle and pound info about tomorrow night's bombing out of him. He could be a suspect in that other Irish film, "In the Name of the Father." A black turtleneck plays up the urban guerrilla look. No grenades are visible on the belt, though; "Michael Collins" is his only grenade.

Yet possibly for any Irishman, the "troubles," as the relationship with Great Britain is called, never, ever go away, a fact of life as passionately inescapable for an Irishman as being a black is for an African-American. In "Crying Game," Jordan took another look at the "troubles," in the tale of an IRA assassin who kills a British soldier, then goes back to experience his life (out of guilt) and learns he got everything wrong about him. Every single thing.

In that way, people are still getting things wrong about Michael Collins.

"Really, he came up with the Free State," he says. "The IRA still hate him, because he negotiated and endorsed the treaty that partitioned the country and cut the North off from the rest. So in a sense the troubles never ended. But he had a longer-term vision; he knew the empire would change eventually and that he had to define the most positive relationship with it possible.

"In the end, he was not a man of war. During the Civil War, he was the most reluctant general in history. He finally had to act, and he acted weeks after everyone said he should. He knew exactly what he had to do -- blast the rebels out of a fortification they held -- but he held off until the very end. He wasn't a bloody-minded killer at the end. But when at last he was forced to act, he acted with his sublime efficiency and finished the war in two weeks. He was tremendously efficient as a soldier.

"My intention," he says finally, "is to show the evil as it occurred and overwhelmed these people, and how one of them tried to rise above it. But the tragedy of Ireland, and of the movie, is that once you begin to solve political problems with a gun, you can never get the gun out of the argument. And it's still going on."

Pub Date: 10/27/96

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