Monday, 9 July 2012

A tale of two films / a tale of two wars: Michael Collins and The Wind That Shakes The Barley

Continuing with the history theme, I thought I'd leave sticky subjects alone for a bit and turn to a nice, uncontentious area, which will definitely not piss anyone off: the Irish Civil War. Yeah, that'll do it.

Please note I have tried to make this as accessible as possible to people who are not as geekily fascinated with this period as I am. Unfortunately I'm really bad at judging where the line between 'giving enough background information' and 'just being really patronising' is, so forgive me if I've gone too far either way. Feedback super-welcome!

Michael Collins gives us the story of the Irish War of Independence and the ensuing Civil War from the point of view of its eponymous hero. It's centred on Dublin, the Dáil, the centres of power. The Wind That Shakes The Barley is set in an unnamed Cork town and tells the same story from a different side: Damien and Teddy, two brothers in the IRA, who split over whether to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty (which established the Irish Free State, partitioned the country - leaving Northern Ireland part of the UK - and required the Irish government to swear allegiance to the British crown), and over what kind of society should follow independence: over collectivisation of industry and agriculture, redistribution of wealth, "all that radical shit" as Teddy, the more conservative brother, so succinctly puts it.

Michael Collins isn't ideologically simplistic as much as its vision is limited, dealing only with the nationalist aspect of the struggle. TWTSTB has a wider scope, analysing not only the question of 1. How to get the British out, but also 2. What kind of society do we build then? Not forgetting 3. How do we achieve 1. without compromising 2. This is encapsulated in a scene in a Dáil Court, arbitrating a dispute between an elderly woman and a wealthy businessman to whom she owes money. The court decrees that he is charging an extortionate amount of interest and orders him to pay her compensation. But the money he gives to the IRA is essential to financing the war effort, and so Teddy reaches a handshake agreement with him in the pub. He's undermined the authority of the fledgling court, sided with the rich over the destitute - but without the landowners' money, how can they get the chance to establish this free, socialist Ireland? The film doesn't answer these questions, but it does show you the scope of the problem. "It's one thing to know what you are against," Dan The Union Man says, "quite another to know what you are fighting for."

Michael Collins espouses the Great Man theory of history: it resolves all the complex political and military and philosophical debates of the period into three men, and suggests that history can turn on their whims; a well-timed action, a polished speech. There are some wonderful lines in TWTSTB too ("If we accept this treaty, all that will change is the accents of the powerful and the colour of the flag"), but the characters choke on them, stumble over the words. Collins was one of the greatest orators of modern times: these are just ordinary people, unused to rhetoric and speechifying but trying desperately to express ideas that are vitally important to them.

Being a biopic, and so almost contractually obliged to stray a little into hagiography, Michael Collins pitches its hero as an open, honest man, thwarted only by tricksy De Valera and his canny political conniving. De Valera is all about grand gestures, propaganda, "the great heroic ethic of failure"; Collins is just into getting stuff done. Collins is played by big handsome swashbuckling Liam Neeson; De Valera is played by Severus Snape, evilly stroking a sinister cat spinning bicycle wheels while outlining his latest dastardly plan. (Skip to 1.34. Seriously. EVIL.) It's shorthand, a quick way of telling the audience that Collins is Good and De Valera is Sinister. Because a ten minute scene discussing The Issues At Stake would be boring, and lose the audience? Except that TWTSTB is the second-highest grossing independent Irish film ever made, so I guess I'm not the only one into films-as-history-lessons.

After Damien executes Chris Reilly for giving information to the British, he breaks the news to Reilly's mother. She tells him that she never wants to see him again. This is echoed in the last scene: after his brother's execution Teddy brings Damien's last letter and his St Christopher's medal to Sinéad, who pummels him helplessly with her fists, orders him off her land, and says that she never wants to see him again. This is not a film which patronises women: it shows Sinéad and other members of the Cumann na mBa (the women's auxiliary group) actively participating in the wars, delivering messages and weapons, presiding over the Dáil Court. But this repeated line, and Sinéad's furious, desolate wails, demonstrate the powerlessness of women whose lives are battered by men's wars.

By the end, our two heroes have both undergone transformations, turned by the times into men they never expected to become. Collins is weary, sickened by the violence and losing hope of ever getting to marry his fiancée and enjoy the Ireland he's fought so hard for. Damien is calm on his last night before execution, almost exultant; in a letter to his lover he says that he now knows what he is fighting for and draws strength from this knowledge. His face is blank, an emotionless mask of complete ideological certainty. Rewatching the film last night I realised its message is not as straightforward as it first seems: although politically it comes down on the anti-Treaty side, and in favour of the social revolution proposed by Damien and Sinéad, it doesn't shrink from showing us what such unbending conviction does to a person. Damien looks barely human that night, a Lucifer demanding a new heaven and a new earth. It's only the morning after that he falls back to earth, fighting back tears as his brother gives the order for his execution.

They are both spectacularly good films. It's only because I've watched them back to back that what I see as the deficiencies of Michael Collins are at the forefront of my mind - and not everyone would agree that a fictionalised lecture on class politics makes for good entertainment. But I admire TWTSTB for being a film that doesn't give you easy answers, that combines complex political questions with lush visions of a bleak landscape, that makes you root for both the hero and his antagonist even after they've both become exactly what they most despise. And both of them leaving you bubbling over with questions, not satisfied that you now know all the answers, which is exactly what a historical film should do.

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