History of the World According to the Movies: Part 56 – Radicalism and Agitation in the Early 20th Century


Neil Jordan’s 1996 film Michael Collins is a movie about the Irish independence movement as well as the most successful Irish produced movie ever made. Of course, this movie does take liberties with the truth, but not to Braveheart levels. Not to mention, many of the actors including Liam Neeson’s title portrayal are much older than the characters. Still, perhaps the worst thing about this movie is probably Julia Roberts attempting to do an Irish accent or playing Michael Collins’ girlfriend for she kind of sucked. And no, Liam Neeson’s Michael Collins isn’t giving his rousing speech on his particular set of skills. Still, as bad of treatment that Eamon De Valera got in this film at least he’s played by the great Alan Rickman.

Yet, Russia wasn’t the only country where there was radical politics and agitation in the early 20th century. In the United States left wing movements weren’t uncommon among the masses, especially in organizations like labor unions which many businesses refused to recognize. You had activists like Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman as well as muckraking journalists like Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, and Jack Reed. Sure some of them may have been Reds but they did write stories about American life that needed to be told, especially when it came to things like mental institutions, the meat packing industry, and lynchings. In Europe, you have people like Rosa Luxemburg and her Spartacist movement in Germany. Yet, while some agitation was caused by radical politics in response to social problems in some countries, there were other areas also experiencing agitation for other reasons. In some places in the world it was to protest European imperial presence. In others it was to gain independence from a colonial power. But one of the most famous in this time was in Ireland in which Irish rebels would stage an all out revolt against their British overlords who had ruled them for centuries. And this time they would finally succeed, well, sort of. Of course, this aspect of history has its share of movies made containing a share of historical inaccuracies which I list.

Left Wing Politics in the United States:

Eugene O’Neill seduced Louise Bryant while Jack Reed was away. (Actually Louise Bryant seduced Eugene O’Neill, telling him untruthfully that Jack Reed was seriously ill and that they weren’t interested in a sexual relationship. Nevertheless, like in Reds, O’Neill did fall hopelessly in love with Bryant but unlike her Diane Keaton portrayal she was no ingénue. Still, while Jack Nicholson was practically playing himself in Reds, it really doesn’t make much difference in his Eugene O’Neill portrayal since the American playwright was a pretty quick witted but very messed up guy anyway. Still, I have to tell you that the witnesses seen in Reds as supposedly participating in the activities depicted on the film actually weren’t very reliable because most of them had nothing to do with Bryant and Reed, Greenwich Village, or the Lyrical Left. Only Bryant’s lover Andrew Dasburg comes anywhere close she had an affair with shortly before following Reed to Moscow.)

Jack Reed was a very attractive guy. (Uh, sorry but his photo reveals that he did not look like Warren Beatty. Nor did Louise Bryant look anywhere like Diane Keaton.)

Jack Reed was faithful to Louise Bryant during his time in the Soviet Union despite that communication between them was impossible. (Except that Reed had an affair with a Russian woman over there while he was corresponding with Bryant {though she wasn’t exactly faithful to him either}. Furthermore, when Bryant went to see him in the Soviet Union, he knew she was coming.)

Radical Europe:

Rosa Luxemburg was very supportive of the Russian Revolution. (Yes, but she turned against it when Vladimir Lenin and his Bolsheviks took over. She may have been a Communist but she was no fan of totalitarianism in any way, shape, or form. Her posthumous pamphlet of the Russian Revolution contained some of the most pungent criticisms of Communist Party dictatorship which was violently attacked by all Russian Communists. However, a lot of self-proclaimed Communists at the time would’ve agreed with her. Still, her devastating critique of Lenin’s theory of party dictatorship is one of the reasons why she’s so famous as a conscience of any revolution made in the name of freedom. Yet, her attack on Lenin goes unmentioned in the movie about her.)

The Irish War of Independence:

Irish soldiers did their drilling in English. (They do it in Irish, not English.)

1920’s Bloody Sunday at Croagh Park was a massacre with British firing machine guns from their armored tanks. (For one, only 14 civilians died at Croagh Park on Bloody Sunday. Second, the British and the Black and Tans did most of the shooting by hand with rifles. Third, there were never armored cars there firing machine guns or the body count would’ve been much higher {the armored cars were parked outside Croagh Park during the massacre}. Still, it’s greatly exaggerated on Michael Collins, perhaps to Michael Bay looneyness.)

John O’Reilly was with Michael Collins at Beal na mBlath on August 22, 1922 upon Michael Collins’ assassination. (He wasn’t there to cradle his dead leader.)

Thomas MacDonagh surrendered at the General Post Office garrison after the Easter Rising. (He surrendered at Jacob’s Factory and wasn’t present with GPO leaders Pearse, Clarke or Connolly when they surrendered at 16 Moore Street.)

Ned Broy was tortured and killed during the Irish Revolution. (He actually ended up as a Commissioner of the Garda Síochána {Irish police force} between 1933 and 1938. He died in 1972 at 85. Nevertheless, in Michael Collins, he’s a composite of the real Broy and Dick McKee who actually never got caught but was said to get shot at Dublin Castle while attempting to escape custody after his capture on Bloody Sunday.)

The British were nothing but thugs during Ireland’s fight for independence. (Yes, they did many horrendous things there but there were a few sympathetic British who were probably there just to get out of the trenches and a handsome paycheck. And the cold blooded executions of Irish rebels did push quite a few British people to sympathize with the Irish Republican cause. Still, both the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Dublin Metropolitan Police saw several defections to the IRA.)

Michael Collins:

Michael Collins was in his forties during the Easter Rising of 1916. (He was only 25 and was assassinated at 31. Yet, he’s played by a 44 year old Liam Neeson in Michael Collins, which makes him seem more like a behind-the-scenes manipulator than a fellow fighter. Still, his photographs make him look like an old timey gangster. Also, unlike her Julia Robert’s 30ish portrayal, his girlfriend Kitty Kiernan was between the ages of 23 to 29 when the events in the film took place. Eamon De Valera was in his between 33 and 39 at this time as well but he’s played by a much older Alan Rickman. Still, according to standards of the Irish rebels, Valera was considered an old man for many of his comrades were remarkably young.)

Michael Collins was clean shaven in 1921. (There’s a photograph of him sporting a mustache from that time.)

Michal Collins was a lieutenant in the Irish Volunteers during the Easter Rising. (He was a captain but Michael Collins shows him in a lieutenant uniform. Also, he was serving as an aid de camp to Joseph Plunkett who’s absent from the film.)

Michael Collins served in the Irish government as Minister of Intelligence. (He was actually Minister of Finance. However, he was the IRA’s Director of Intelligence.)

Eamon De Valera:

Eamon De Valera was behind Michael Collins’ assassination. (De Valera may have fought against Collins in the Irish Civil War that followed after Irish independence but he actually wanted to negotiate with him. Not to mention, he wasn’t involved in the ambush that killed him, he tried to stop it. However, though De Valera is heavily implied as being involved Collins’ assassination in the 1996 film, there’s overwhelming evidence he really had nothing to do with it and to suggest it insults the man. Still, great performance by Alan Rickman.)

Eamon De Valera was held prisoner at England’s Lincoln County jail and was rescued by Harry Boland and Michael Collins. (He was actually released so Boland and Collins’ efforts were probably unnecessary.)

Eamon De Valera surrendered with the General Post Office garrison after the Easter Rising. (He was actually the Commandant of the garrison at Bolland’s Mills which surrendered after the GPO upon receiving orders to stand downs. He was never at the GPO during the Rising.)

Eamon De Valera said that “only pure blood Irish” should be able participate in the Irish Republic. (He never said this nor believed it since his father was a Spanish Cuban, he was born in New York City, and knew that his political opponents would’ve used it against him if he did.)

Eamon De Valera was a dithering, manipulative, and despicable leader whose grandstanding led to decades of unnecessary bloodshed in and over Ireland. (De Valera’s family should sue for slander. Still, De Valera was in Irish politics for more than 50 years, which may attract critics but few would’ve said he was a weak man.)

Eamon De Valera wasn’t shot by a British firing squad because he was American. (Yes, but it wasn’t because the US was allied with Great Britain in World War I. It had more to do with Great Britain wanting the US to enter the war on their side.)

Harry Boland:

Harry Boland was shot by a British sentry while trying to swim the Liffey River. (He was actually shot in a skirmish with Irish Free State soldiers in the Grand Hotel at Skerries during the Battle of Dublin. However, when they filmed Michael Collins, the Grand Hotel had been demolished.)

Harry Boland was in Dublin when Michael Collins returned from the infamous treaty negotiations. (He was in the US at this time.)

The IRA:

The IRA existed in 1913. (It didn’t exist until 1919.)

The IRA used car bombs during the Irish War of Independence. (It wouldn’t use car bombs until the 1970s.)

IRA guerrillas killed with great reluctance and for very good reasons. (In their minds at least but this wasn’t always the case.)

IRA guerrillas killed their British adversaries in a fair fight. (Sometimes they’d just finish off their opponents after they’d surrender or lay wounded. In fact, most of their killings were straightforward assassinations of helpless, unarmed people.)

The IRA would attack police stations only to warn them to stop ill treating prisoners and would only kill informers if they were sure of their guilt yet they were allowed to bargain for their lives. (Actually the IRA killed hundreds of policemen, alleged spies, and suspected informers. Most of the time, there was no warning, no “trial,” and no attempt for the victims to bargain for their lives. Very few “informers” it seems, were guilty of anything at all. Other key IRA victims were vagrants, homeless men, supposed sexual deviants, and perhaps most disturbingly local Protestants.)

IRA members hesitated on those rare occasions when it came to “killing our own” which prompted profound soul searching. (The IRA had no problem killing fellow Irishmen and women since they made the the majority of their victims. It seems to me that The Wind that Shakes the Barley seems to be a love letter to the IRA doesn’t it?)

Irish Civil War:

Those who supported the Irish treaty for independence were traitors, social reactionaries, and all the people who shout. Those who were against it were true nationalists and socialists who believed in social justice. (The treaty schism that broke out the Irish Civil War was far more complex than what is shown in The Wind that Shakes the Barley. Sure there might’ve been a few Socialists in the Irish nationalist movement but they didn’t make up the majority. Yet, most people who were anti-treaty had little ideology behind what derived from a romantic, culturalist, separatist, and sometimes necrophiliac brand of nationalism. Also, those who were pro-treaty weren’t necessarily social reactionaries either nor were exactly happy with the partition. Rather, many of them were just plain sick of division and didn’t want a civil war in the first place until Eamon De Valera rejected it and walked out of the Irish Parliament. Still, it when it came to the Irish Civil War, it was the pro-treaty people who were the reluctant ones. Also, the Catholic Church in Ireland didn’t equate opposing the treaty with Communism because most of the Irish who opposed the treaty weren’t {also, Eamon De Valera was a devout Catholic who tried to cooperate with the Church}. If the Catholic Church in Ireland supported the treaty in any way, it was out of pacifism and probably saw the anti-treaty Irish nationalists as violent agitators stirring up trouble that’s going to get innocent people killed. The Catholic hierarchy in Rome had also opposed World War I out of a pacifist stance as well, which was a conflict many left-wing radicals didn’t like either. Also, most radical Socialists at the time didn’t care for nationalism anyway save maybe in Russia.)