Movie Reviews by Mark Leeper

Michael Collins (1996) -- The Ghost and The Darkness (1996)

We still don't know much about Mark Leeper, but he writes a damn good review!

Michael Collins (1996)

Neil Jordan writes and directs a dark
epic film with heavy parallels to the current
Middle East. Liam Neeson stars as a terrorist and a
founder of the IRA, who later tried to bring peace
to his country in the late 1910s and early 1920s
Jordan borrows bits from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and
HE GODFATHER to create a magnetic epic film.
Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4)

Most political struggles have their romantic heroes and with a people as naturally poetic or as argumentative as the Irish, it is not surprising that the fight for independence spawned a great romantic, if controversial, hero. The great hero of the Irish struggle in this century was Michael Collins. And who better to play him than Liam Neeson, the Charleton Heston of the 1990s. Having played larger-than- life historical figures Oskar Schindler and Rob Roy, the Irish actor was an obvious choice to play Michael Collins, at least if audiences were willing to accept the forty-four-year-old Neeson playing a man who died at thirty-one.

The film--in good epic film style told in flashback just after the main character's death--begins with Collins in the 1916 Easter Rising of the Irish against British rule. He escapes immediate arrest only to be arrested later and receive a short term in prison. Many of those rebelling are executed, but Eamon de Valera, a major leader of the resistance (played by Alan Rickman), is given a lighter sentence of a term in prison. This is probably because of his multi-national background, having a Spanish father and being born in America. Collins begins setting about the sort of activities that will get him back in prison. His public speeches for independence win him an ally in the British police force, Ned Broy (Stephen Rea). At least by this account, Collins was impressed by the efficiency and efficacy of British Intelligence and sets about the task of modeling the new Irish Republican Army on it. Collins manages to break de Valera from prison, but de Valera is clearly envious of Collins's new-found power and the relationship between the two is strained. With the intelligence Collins is able to collect about his enemy he is able to outdo the British in the effectiveness of his attacks. He invents the sort of tactics that have become the trademark of the IRA. For two years he maintains an urban guerrilla war against the British. This creates a conflict with de Valera in which the latter wants more traditional warfare, Collins prefers his new terrorism. His struggle ends in the Truce of 1921 and de Valera sends Collins to England to negotiate for the Irish. Collins realizes that the British will make only limited concessions. He brings back a compromise treaty that allows for an Irish free state but partitions Ireland and requires an oath of allegiance to the British monarch. The free state is declared and almost immediately breaks into civil war with Collins defending the treaty and de Valera now on the side of terrorist war against the British and against a treaty that is dividing the country both politically and quite literally.

There is not much in the style of MICHAEL COLLINS but the combination of old elements. Through the war against the British the film draws heavily on the style of THE GODFATHER, particularly with back- and-forth cutting between some tension-producing scene of impending violence, to one more placid. This gives the effect of a much longer and more drawn-out tense scene. Another scene at a football match reminds one very much a similar scene in GANDHI. Where the film borrows, it seems to do it well in most instances. There is one James Bond-ish escape involving a seemingly nearly impossible athletic feat done in complete silence. Here Jordan, who wrote the script as well as directing, seriously damages the credibility of his story which elsewhere is reasonably well maintained. Other places his taste is considerably better. He has a love triangle that could have been a time-wasting plot cliche. He leaves it in for historical accuracy, but he wisely downplays before it can become a distraction. MICHAEL COLLINS is photographed by Chris Menges who won Oscars for his work on THE KILLING FIELDS (1984) and THE MISSION (1986). He creates a surprising amount of atmosphere with what he does not show. He frequently has smoke or fog in the frame. Often part of the frame is obscured by darkness or shadow. At least for me some of the dialogue was similarly obscured by the thick Irish accents. While Menges's images dominate the film, Elliot Goldenthal's score stays modestly in background coloring the film subtly but rarely getting noticed.

Liam Neeson is a big man and plays Collins as a big man, somewhat larger than the people around him. He sweeps into a scene with that large bulk of his and commands it. The one serious problem with the casting is that he never seems as young as Collins needs to be, a good fifteen years younger through much of the film. Aiden Quinn as friend and fellow revolutionary Harry Boland cuts a much less imposing figure. Julia Roberts is by no means the center of the show here and her acting appropriately is not either. She can smile and look appealing and even can master an Irish accent, but she makes little contribution to the film that a lessor-known actress could not have done, and very likely better. Alan Rickman needs a good director to keep him from chewing the scenery and he seems to have found a good director in Jordan. His acting is neat and precise. His de Valera seems to be thinking out each sentence and then delivering with the incisiveness of a scalpel. One may not like what he is saying, but it seems certain that it is precisely what de Valera means.

It is hard to judge the historical accuracy of MICHAEL COLLINS, since even the Irish are not sure of Collins's role in the fight for Independence. There are no obvious contradictions with anything I have found written about Collins's role in history, though it is relatively safe for a filmmaker to fill in some of the blanks about a man of mystery. It has been suggested that De Valera is shown a bit worse than the historical figure, but much of this is within the range of reasonable interpretation and opinion. And speaking of opinion, mine of this film is that it rates a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.

The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)

It has been a long while since we
have had a good African adventure picture. This
one, claiming to be an accurate account, is plotted
by William Goldman just a little too closely to
JAWS. Still, it is a tense and effective film of
a type we don't see much of any more. Beautiful
African photography recreating the late 19th
century is a definite plus and may even be worth
the price of admission all by itself.
Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4)

The story is basically true. At the turn of the century the British were anxious to consolidate their holdings in Africa and connect Kenya and Uganda together strategically with a railway that would allow them to move freight, probably ivory, and perhaps even troops easily. The rail was intended to get permanent lines of communication into Uganda and get it there ahead of the German rail line moving up north from the south. This was to be the Uganda Railway and Britain was racing with Germany and to a lesser extent France to complete it. In 1896, 32,000 workers were brought to Africa from India, principally from Gujarat and the Punjab, just to work on the railroad. In Kenya one river that blocked the way and that the British rail would have to cross was the Tsavo. Col. John Henry Patterson was selected to build the Tsavo Bridge. His experience told him that it would be a difficult task, but he did not know how difficult.

Patterson's biggest problem turned out to be not from workers but from the animal population. There were frequent attacks of at least two lions who would come at night and drag workers out of their tents. It fell to Patterson to kill the lions, and he had a hard time of it. Between understandable problems with his workers and the efforts to hunt the lions, building the bridge turned into something of a fiasco. However, Patterson was able to collect in his diaries information never available before on just how lions attack and even how they eat humans in the wild. (The sensitive may want to skip to the next paragraph at this point.) The screams and the crunching of bones frequently could be heard from the camps. The victim would be dragged off by the head, often mercifully breaking the neck in the process. The clothing and skin would be licked off by the lion's rough tongue and the blood sucked out. The trunk and legs, being meaty, were eaten next, and then the arms. The head and feet are not thought by lions to be worth the effort to eat.

Unarmed humans are extremely vulnerable to lions, but are usually safe from such attacks. That is because lions just do not want to bother with this unfamiliar prey that walks on two legs and behaves in ways unpredictable to lions. The Tsavo attacks could have been just an incident of elderly lions forced to attack easy prey in spite of the unfamiliarity. Or perhaps it may have been that the railroad workers had hunted out the lions' usual prey. While this film makes the lions out to be extremely large and powerful, doing the killing for the pure enjoyment, it is unlikely that they would have chosen human prey as anything but an act of desperation and a last resort. The lion attacks in the region lasted for ten months, though by some accounts there were several lions involved. Twenty-eight of the workers were killed and it is estimated that over a hundred other people were also killed. One lion even got so bold as to pull human victims off of trains. The lions were eventually killed in ambush and the Tsavo Bridge was finally completed under Patterson's direction. His later book about his experiences, THE MAN EATERS OF TSAVO, was a best- seller. (I have not read the book, incidentally and know only very little of its content from another reference. It is, however, still in print.) Now a somewhat fictionalized version of Patterson's adventures has been made into a movie. Early in the film Patterson, played by Val Kilmer, is given five months to complete the bridge. His employer is John Beaumont (Tom Wilkinson), characterized here as the world's worst manager. Patterson is experienced with what appear to be similar tasks in India, but has never been to Africa. He has, however, always dreamed of a job that would take him to that mysterious continent, so he takes the position. He and the audience are treated to the breath- taking East African landscape and animals as he travels to the Tsavo. Almost immediately there is a crisis with a man-eating lion. Patterson, however, makes short work of the lion and makes himself a hero in the eyes of the workers. But there are more lion problems to come. Also to come is Charles Remington, a Great White Hunter in the classic tradition, played by Michael Douglas. Remington will be hired to solve the lion problem. The screenplay for the story is by William Goldman who certainly knows how to write action from films like MARATHON MAN.

This is Val Kilmer's second role this year with intelligent animals. His performance is slightly more restrained than the one in THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. It is an odd piece of casting, but one that works reasonably well. Not so successful is Michael Douglas whose American Southern accent seems to come and go. He seems to take to his acting a little more casually than the role really called for. The producers clearly were going for something of a horror film feel for this historical film as director Stephen Hopkins is known for horror films like NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5 and PREDATOR 2 and action films like JUDGMENT NIGHT and BLOWN AWAY. Vilmos Zsigmond does as much for the film as any of the actors with his beautiful images of Kenya. Though the photography is generally straightforward, it is not really clear why he uses repeated images of brambles. Also slightly cliched is the use of a distorting lens to show the lions' point of view. There are a few other little cliches that the film could have done without, but to mention them would be spoiler. Jerry Goldsmith's score is decent, though one tends to expect more from his scores.

In general this is a good, old-fashioned African adventure with a fair amount of suspense. I give it a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.


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