Look up Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) in just about any guidebook to movies and somewhere in the review you’ll find the word “epic.” This undoubtedly has something to do with the film’s almost three-and-a-half-hour running time. An understandable error. How could you not call a 200-minute movie that spans five years, two continents, and one of the three most significant events of this century an epic? Well….quite easily as it turns out.
Aside from a handful of scenes of isolated figures wending their way across frozen wastes—scenes which critic Pauline Kael aptly labelled “Zhivagooey”—Reds is such a fine piece of work because it’s not larger than life. It’s an intimate drama revolving around the lives of four people whom we end up caring for quite a lot. The four people are John Reed, the American left-wing journalist who wrote the finest eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution (Ten Days in October)’, his lover, the journalist Louise Bryant; the great American playwright Eugene O’Neill; and Emma Goldman, anarchist and feminist. With a cast of characters such as this, one might have expected some over-the-top performances. Full of sound and fury, signifying Warren Beatty trying to be significant. A vanity project. Directed by Warren Beatty. Produced by Warren Beatty. Written by Warren Beatty. Starring Warren Beatty. The only reason I rented the movie was because I was looking for some flashy Russian Revolution footage I could use in one of my classes at school. I was hoping to fast-forward to some shots of Lenin and the Bolsheviks storming the Winter Palace.
Instead, I liked the people I met. The real-life John Reed was a dedicated journalist whose passion for the truth took him from his hometown of Portland, Oregon, into the eye of several historical hurricanes: Pancho Villa’s Mexican revolt in 1914; the Paterson, N.J. and Colorado coal strikes of 1913 & 1914; World War I in Eastern Europe from 1914-15; and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917. Caught up in the prevailing passions for social justice and revolution, he helped found the Communist Labor Party of America. Not surprisingly rejected by his homeland, Reed wound up working for the new Soviet government. Only thirty-seven years old, he died of typhus in Moscow in 1920.
A fascinating life, but what’s it like to be a part of it? Louise Bryant found out, and much of Reds is the story of two people trying to manage the almost impossible task of reconciling ideals of sexual freedom, intellectual independence, and political activism with a non-revolutionary affection for one another. A love which both are embarrassed to admit to because it smacks too much of the “bourgeois” values their Greenwich Village friends—people such as Goldman, O’Neill, Max Eastman, Isadora Duncan, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Lincoln Steffens, Margaret Sanger, Alfred Stieglitz— have rejected. As Reed heads out on yet another cross-country tour organizing labour for the “One Big Union [the I.W.W.]”, Louis Bryant ends up saying “The taxi’s waiting, Jack” one too many times.
Diane Keaton is excellent in the role of Bryant. Reds is as much her story as it is John Reed’s. How does a strong-willed, intelligent woman hang onto her own identity when she’s the companion of a man who lives in the center of a political whirlwind? How does a moderately-talented, not particularly political, person maintain a sense of self-esteem when all her acquaintances are passionately committed firebrands like Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger? These people keep asking her what she does. Her answer—”I write”-might have been good enough back in Portland but seems sadly inadequate in New York’s radical scene. When Reed first asks Louise to accompany him to New York, she asks him, “What as?” Mistress? Concubine? Girlfriend? It’s a trial by fire, and it takes her a long time to answer that question for herself. My favorite scenes are those between Louise and Emma; the latter absolutely clear in her convictions and the former still so hesitant. At first, Goldman savages her, dismissing her as another of John’s casual conquests. Later, during Goldman’s bitter years in Russia, the two women take a truer measure of one another. Maureen Stapleton is utterly convincing as Emma; I want to know more about this woman.
Bryant’s and Reed’s ambiguous ménage must have taken its toll on some of those around them. Jack Nicholson has one of his best roles as Eugene O’Neil, an embittered man whose brief affair with Bryant drives his bitterness even deeper. This is one of Nicholson’s most understated performances, and for those of us who love O’Neill’s plays it rings true. O’Neill’s daughter, Oona, paid her own tribute to Nicholson. Estranged from her father since her marriage at 17 to Charlie Chaplin, she wrote to Nicholson that “After a lifetime of acquired indifference, the inevitable finally happened. Thanks to you, dear Jack, I fell in love with my father.”
Beatty’s film provides one more bonus. It’s punctuated by very brief commentaries by some thirty of John Reed’s actual contemporaries. All men and women in their eighties and nineties, the “witnesses” include such interesting figures as novelists Henry Miller and Rebecca West, historian Will Durant, and comedian George Jessel.
Reds won three Academy Awards, and was nominated for more than a dozen. This is very strange. It is, after all, a sympathetic portrayal of communists. John Reed had to leave the U.S. in late 1919 when he was accused of sedition. Is he kosher now because he’s been dead for a long time? Why would several multinational corporations help Warren Beatty pay for a movie whose main characters believed that World War I was fought only to preserve those same industries’ corporate profits? Have communism and radical socialism been marginalized to the point of harmless insignificance? Will an American ever make a movie like this about Fidel Castro? Will Dow Chemical, General Motors, and Philip Morris pay for it? Stay tuned, comrades.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
As I write this, I’m of two minds about Reds. If I look at the film strictly as a biopic and a continent-spanning love story, I find it a splendid piece of work. The film has a stellar cast, meticulous research, ground-breaking cinematography, an effective musical score, and award-winning production & costume design. How could a team that included Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Maureen Stapleton, Edward Hermann, Jerzy Kozinski, Paul Sorvino, Stephen Sondheim, Vittorio Storaro, Richard Sylbert, Simon Holland, and Shirley Russell (among many others) not succeed in giving us something memorable? Reds garnered 12 Oscar nominations, and deserved every one of them. No one could question Warren Beatty’s passion for his subject matter, and there are some clear parallels linking Beatty’s own life with that of John Reed. In the stormy relationship of Reed and Louise Bryant we have a classic story of two strong-willed, fiercely independent souls trying to hold their love together against the vast centrifugal forces of ideology, politics, ambition, and egoism. That Bryant should have been at Reed’s bedside as he lay dying in Russia is proof positive that our passions can sanctify us as easily as they can damn us. To watch Reds and not care about Bryant and Reed as examples of the best and worst in all of us would take a heart of stone.
If I were to watch the film again, it would not be for its politics or what it teaches me of history; I would watch it as a cry from the heart. There’s a sublime moment in Reds when Ms. Bryant, drowning in a sea of Russian workers at a Bolshevik rally, watches Reed take the stage and against all probability electrify his at-first uncomprehending audience. The expressions which play across her face show her thinking how this is the man she loves, the man whose idealism always carried him away from her, the man whose work overshadowed her own, the incarnation of the larger-than-life dream she’d longed to live but couldn’t quite realize. She was right about all but the last. Their relationship could have died right there, had she simply given in to resentment at Reed’s grandstanding and to bitterness at her own perceived failures. It was probably a close call. But by choosing to risk her own life to get to Reed—trapped in Russia, his health broken—Louise Bryant demonstrated that our lives can be as extraordinary as we will them to be.
I admire Warren Beatty for putting out a call for eyewitnesses who’d been around at the time of Reed and Bryant, and had contact with them. These marvelous faces, and the stories they tell, become part of the film’s tapestry. Beatty had some 2500 responses to his call, whittled down to the 31 witnesses who became part of the narrative. That they are unnamed when on-screen, and shot against a pure black background, allows us to focus on their faces and their stories with no distractions. On one of the DVD extras, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro talks about the special lighting and filming technique he developed for the film, and went on to use for the rest of his career.
I said two minds. It seems to me that Reds fails as politics and history. There’s no need to be surprised that Hollywood would produce an epic film about a Communist sympathizer—all one has to do is look closely at what Reds teaches us about the left-wing activism in the U.S. and the Revolution in Russia. In the U.S., we see infighting between the American Federation of Labor and the IWW, and among leftist sympathizers in Greenwich Village. We hear about strikes and listen in on disputes over politics and labor. But at absolutely no point do we get any understanding that the unions and their Socialist supporters are actually accomplishing anything to improve the lives of American workers. It’s all dialectics and grandstanding. Men and women across America died for their unions and their fellow workers. They faced off against local militia, police, and gun thugs hired by corporate power brokers. They didn’t die in vain, but you’d never know that from the film. As long as a film about unions and Communists and Socialist in the U.S. doesn’t actually insist that they achieved improvements in working conditions and the quality of life of ordinary Americans, corporate Hollywood doesn’t give a damn. Had Beatty been making a movie about the successes of the American labor movement, rather than its ideological failings, he wouldn’t have gotten a dime.
In a similar vein, all we learn about the Russian Revolution is that it, too, was in the hands of squabbling ideologues who quickly abandoned any utopian principles they’d once had in regards to justice and democratic rights and an egalitarian society, trashing them in favor of a new tyranny. The new order turns out to be as vicious as the old. Those Reds turn out to be just fanatically bloodthirsty and devious as their enemies said they were. The only mitigating factor mentioned was the encirclement of Revolutionary Russia by the hostile Western powers, and the attempted military intervention by those same powers. Jerzy Kozinki’s portrayal of Grigory Zonoviev captures the fanaticism perfectly, and even anarchist Emma Goldman gets co-opted to slam the Revolution (she was genuinely disillusioned by what she saw in Russia at the time). At no point is there any sense that Trotsky and Lenin accomplished anything beyond self-aggrandizement and terror. This is exactly the message that every Red-baiting, Communist-hating Russophobe loves to see in the mass media. I’m surprised they didn’t ask for a Reds sequel, with an even bigger budget.
About the only political target that Beatty does nail is President Wilson’s about-face regarding America’s entry into World War I. I wish I could remember more of what I’ve read about how and why this all went down.
Watch Reds for John Reed and Louise Bryant, and to honor the work of the cast & crew. Watch the films of Eisenstein and Pudovkin to get a feel for the Revolution from the inside. Then go out and do some reading to get the bigger picture. Start with Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World, in an annotated edition that corrects some his factual errors. The book is an extraordinary eyewitness account, endorsed by Lenin himself. Then find yourself a couple of solid histories of the Russian Revolution (I’ve included some suggestions above). I don’t have a specific book on the American labor movement to recommend, but the works by Howard Zinn and Oliver Stone mentioned earlier provide a new perspective.
A final note: Reds is an excellent example of cinema’s imaginary geography. Very little of what you see onscreen takes place in the actual locations. English locations substitute for American ones, Finnish locations for Russian ones, Spanish landscapes for Middle Eastern ones. As Beatty points out in the commentary, all that’s needed to fool the audience are a few seconds of legitimate footage (such as a shot of New York’s Flatiron building) to suggest the scene.
Three short excerpts from John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World:
‘No more resolutions! No more talk! We want deeds—the Power must be in our hands!’ Let these imposter delegates leave the Congress! The Army is not with them!”
The hall rocked with cheering. In the first moments of the session, stunned by the rapidity of events, startled by the sound of cannon, the delegates had hesitated. For an hour hammer-blow after hammer-blow had fallen from that tribune, welding them together but beating them down. Did they stand then alone? Was Russia rising against them? Was it true that the Army was marching on Petrograd? Then this clear-eyed young soldier had spoken, and in a flash they knew it for the truth…This was the voice of the soldiers—the stirring millions of uniformed workers and peasants were men like them, and their thoughts and feelings were the same….”
Smolny was tenser than ever, if that were possible. The same running men in the dark corridors, squads of workers with rifles, leaders with bulging portfolios arguing, explaining, giving orders as they hurried anxiously along, surrounded by friends and lieutenants. Men literally out of themselves, living prodigies of sleeplessness and work—men unshaven, filthy, with burning eyes, who drove upon their fixed purpose full of speed on engines of exaltation. So much they had to do, so much! Take over the Government, organise the City, keep the garrison loyal, fight the Duma and the Committee for Salvation, keep out the Germans, prepare to do battle with Kerensky, inform the provinces what had happened, propagandise from Archangel to Vladivostok….Government and Municipal employees refusing to obey their Commissars, post and telegraph refusing them communication, railroads stonily ignoring their appeals for trains, Kerensky coming, the garrison not altogether to be trusted, the Cossacks waiting to come out….Against them not only the organised bourgeoisie, but all other Socialist parties except the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, a few Mensheviki Internationalists and the Social Democrat Internationalists, and even they undecided whether to stand by or not. With them, it is true, the workers and the soldier-masses—the peasants an unknown quantity….
Imagaine this struggle being repeated in every barracks of the city, the district, the whole front, all Russia. Imagine the sleepless Krylenkos, watching the regiments hurrying from place to place, arguing, threatening, entreating. And then imagine the same in all the locals of every labour union, in the factories, the villages, on the battle-ships of the far-flung Russian fleets; think of the hundreds of thousands of Russian men staring up at speakers all over the vast country, workmen, peasants, soldiers, sailors, trying so hard to understand and to choose, thinking so intensely—and deciding so unanimously at the end. So was the Russian Revolution….