From ........... U.S.NEWS & WORLD REPORT

OCTOBER 14, 1996

page 33


It was time. Fresh from his 1994 hit Interview With the Vampire, director Neil Jordan picked up a script that had languished in his desk drawer for a dozen years: the life of Michael Collins, founder of the Irish Republican Army.

A leader of a volunteer brigade, Collins forced the country's British occupiers to the negotiating tables in 1921 by waging a campaign of terrorist attacks. Armed with a treaty, he returned home to persuade his former allies to accept a free but divided Ireland.

That story has gripped filmmakers for decades. John Ford and John Huston, two Hollywood legends of Irish descent, contemplated a Collins project. So did Michael Cimino and Kevin Costner. But the prize went to Jordan, an Irish novelist-cum- director who snared an Oscar for the screenplay to The Crying Game.

In addition to a dynamic Liam Neeson in the title role, he had current events on his side: Last year's shoot came in the midst of the Ulster peace talks and followed a now abandoned cease-fire by the modern IRA.

Not that Michael Collins, which opens this month, shies from controversy. The brilliant and moving film harbors little sympathy for the British Black and Tans, who employed increasingly violent tactics on civilians in retaliation for Collins's attacks. But Jordan also turns a beloved Irish leader into a heavy: Former Prime Minister Eamon De Valera, played expertly by Alan Rickman, first mentors Collins and then bitterly rejects him and his treaty.

In scaling down his epic to feature length, Jordan used composite characters and selective editing. Liberties were taken. Challenged on his depiction of a British tank opening fire on a crowd at a football game, Jordan admits:

The Bloody Sunday massacre at Croke Park in 1920 left 14 dead and scores wounded.

Despite clear anti-British sympathies, Jordan is no shill for the modern IRA.

Collins was gunned down by Irish rebels at 31.

In many ways, Michael Collins plays like a Celtic version of Spike Lee's Malcolm X, a sympathetic portrait of an advocate of violence who was killed just as he embraced peaceful methods. But Jordan thinks Collins had a more tangible legacy as head of Ireland's provisional government.

The movie's legacy may be spotlighting a forgotten figure. Growing up in a middle-class enclave of northern Dublin Jordan never heard of Michael Collins. Only later did he learn of Collins's role in shaping modern Ireland— and that his own grandmother copied documents for the IRA leader, when they worked together in London's post office. Says Jordan,


NEIL JORDAN Birth. Feb. 25,1950, in Sligo, Ireland. Childhood. Raised in Dublin by a teacher father and painter mother. Early filmgoing. Recalls the first film he saw was Them!, a 1954 sci-fl pic. Career. Author of four fiction books. Director of nine films, including Danny Boy and Mona Lisa. [in sidebox]

IRISH FILM. Directed by Jordan [above], starring Liam Neeson [picture caption]