by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I wanted us to be able to watch a long movie last night; TCM had just shown the film Reds and I had recorded it; neither Charles nor I had seen it since its initial TV go-rounds in the early 1980’s (neither of us had seen it in a theatre even though it’s a big, spectacular movie that should be seen on the big screen). Reds was a personal project of its star, Warren Beatty: a biopic about John Reed, author of Ten Days That Shook the World, co-founder of what eventually became the Communist Party, U.S.A. and a man so venerated by the original Soviet government that when he finally died in Soviet Russia he was actually buried in the Kremlin. (Robert Osborne’s commentary before the film said that Reed is the only American buried in the Kremlin, which Charles pointed out was not true; Industrial Workers of the World [IWW] co-founder “Big Bill” Haywood also died in the Soviet Union and half his ashes were interred in the Kremlin, while the other half were sent to Chicago and buried near a monument to the Haymarket defendants.)
Beatty cast himself as Reed and tapped Diane Keaton as Reed’s lover and (later) wife, Louise Bryant — after Beatty’s long-time girlfriend Julie Christie, for whom he’d intended the part, dropped out at the last minute because she thought the character should be played by an American. He also hired Jack Nicholson to play Reed’s rival for Bryant’s affections, the playwright Eugene O’Neill, apparently because Beatty thought Nicholson was the only actor around whom audiences would believe could seduce a woman away from him. Reds is an interesting but flawed movie — it’s three hours and 20 minutes long, about an hour longer than was good for it; and it tries a delicate balancing act between romance and politics which doesn’t come off mainly because the politics seem much more interesting than the romance. For its first hour or so of running time Reds seems like a pretty ordinary soap opera that just happens to be set in the 1910’s — with Diane Keaton performing almost exactly as she had in the films she’d made with Woody Allen as the neurotic bitch who sought solace in her life by playing her boyfriends against each other.
Then the first of the two 1917 Russian revolutions happens, the Czar is toppled and Alexander Kerensky (played by his real-life descendant, Oleg Kerensky) is installed as provisional president, while the rival Bolshevik movement mobilizes to get rid of him and seize power themselves — and Reed happens to be in Petrograd (née St. Petersburg, later Leningrad and now St. Petersburg again) when the Bolsheviks finally stage their coup (which is really what it amounted to; it wasn’t a mass movement, though it had mass support, mostly amongst the war-weary Russians who were furious that the Kerensky government had insisted on keeping Russia in World War I and supported the Bolsheviks because they promised — and delivered — peace), and despite the handicap of the U.S. government seizing all his notes as soon as he returns to the States, manages to get his book published. It becomes a best-seller and both he and Bryant do lectures about the revolution and the new Soviet government, and when anti-Bolsheviks within the Socialist Party U.S.A. refuse to let Reed and other Bolshevik supporters take their seats on the party’s executive committee, they rebel and start a Communist Labor Party and seek recognition from Moscow as the official U.S. arm of the Communist movement.
Reed takes a dangerous trip back to Russia to plead their case — only the Comintern orders his group and a rival Communist party to merge, and what’s more, they refuse to let Reed leave: instead they insist that he remain and work for the government’s propaganda arm. When he tries to escape, he’s held up at the Finnish border and arrested — and the U.S. government refuses to do anything to get him out. Finally he is set free but is repatriated back to Russia, where he’s again enlisted as a propagandist; when he finds out that his speeches to a Middle East conference in Baku are being rewritten from calling for a “class war” to calling for a “holy war” — a sore point for Reed since at the start of the movie he had walked out of a job for a capitalist magazine in the U.S. because an editor insisted on rewriting him (a careful “plant” in the script Beatty co-wrote with Trevor Griffiths) he finally gets disillusioned with the Revolution and the Soviets and chews out his propaganda boss, Grigori Zinoviev (Jerzy Kosinski), saying that without individual liberty and the freedom to dissent the Revolution will fail. (Reed’s speech at this point is so Ayn Randian it suggests that had he lived he, like his close friend and associate Max Eastman — portrayed in the film by Edward Herrmann — would have turned hard-Right and written books like Eastman’s 1955 tract Reflections on the Failure of Socialism).
Reds is a messy movie but it does one thing that’s rare in an American film of any kind or ideological bent: it actually takes both political ideals and political struggles seriously. Though the Russian Revolution itself is rather ineptly portrayed — just a montage of people marching across the screen in different directions that’s supposed to represent the triumph of the Bolsheviks — the wheeling and dealing behind the scenes will be vividly familiar to anyone who’s actually spent any degree of time as a political activist. The issues presented in the movie seem all too familiar not only from the time in which it is set — or 1981, when it was finally released after Beatty had worked for years on it, including a year and a half of post-production — but today as well. John Reed starts the film a critical supporter of Woodrow Wilson who becomes disillusioned not only with Wilson but with mainstream politics in general when, just five months after winning re-election on the slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War,” he goes before Congress and asks for a declaration to get us into war.
Both the promise of the Left’s ideals and its fatal inability to unite — its tendency to tear itself apart over minor differences in doctrine — are vividly dramatized in this film; some of the scenes taking place at socialist or communist meetings are wince-inducingly familiar to people who’ve attended as many similar meetings in our own time as Charles and I have. At the end, the film even touches on the Middle East and the difficulties it presents for progressives in general; when Zinoviev alters Reed’s call to the Arabs to engage in “class war” and changes it to “holy war against the infidels,” and later justifies it by saying that you have to speak to people in a language they can understand, it seems to anticipate much of the political world of today in general and the struggle over Afghanistan in particular. Maybe it’s a coincidence or maybe it’s something more than that, but while Reds was being made Afghanistan was the victim of a proxy war — one of so many during the Cold War — between a Soviet-backed government and an insurgency made up of mujahedin (translated back then as “freedom fighters” but now rendered as “jihadis” — a word that doesn’t exist in Arabic — or “terrorists”), and one of the ironies was that it was now the Americans who were trying to co-opt the rhetoric of militant Islam as a weapon against the Soviets (and we succeeded in bringing down the Soviet-backed Afghan government but at the cost of recruiting and training the people who later became the Taliban and al-Qaeda).
Another irony is that two of the strongest characterizations in Reds come from people who reject Reed’s politics: Nicholson’s O’Neill is a great character study in alcohol-fueled cynicism (and Beatty triumphs as a director here by actually getting Nicholson to give an understated performance for a change!), and Maureen Stapleton is genuinely moving as Emma Goldman, particularly in her last scene in which she critiques the Soviet revolution from her perspective as an anarchist and predicts the dictatorship the Soviet Union will eventually become. (I’m less inclined than I would be otherwise to write this off as Monday-morning quarterbacking because one real-life Leftist actually did predict the Soviet Union’s slide into authoritarianism well before the Russian Revolution even happened; in 1904 Rosa Luxemburg wrote a review of Lenin’s pamphlet What Is To Be Done? in which she accurately claimed that any country in which a revolution was made under Lenin’s principles would become a dictatorship.)
Reds is considerably more interesting as a political film than it is either as a love story or a spectacle; part of the problem is that Warren Beatty is just too contemporary a personality to be credible as someone who lived and worked in the 1910’s (he had that problem in Bonnie and Clyde, too — he never really convinced us as a person who lived in the 1930’s — but somehow that whole movie had so much more ironic a context that Beatty’s inability to convince us that he’s living in the past not only didn’t matter as much but actually helped that film), and part of it is that the story of John Reed and Louise Bryant and their personal relationship simply isn’t as dramatic or as interesting as the story of the political struggles they were involved in — the non-political parts of Reds come off as a rather dull soap opera played out in period clothes and sets.
Reds is also an odd film from the visual perspective; though cinematographer Vittorio Storaro won one of its three Academy Awards (the others were Beatty as director — putting him on that rather odd list of actors, including Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson, who’ve won Academy Awards for directing but not for acting — and Maureen Stapleton as best supporting actress) and it’s been cited as “the first film to use ENR variable silver retention development process developed by Ernesto Novelli Rimi at Technicolor Rome,” all too much of it (especially the interiors) is filmed in the damnable past-is-brown style that’s become cliché (indeed, in all too many modern movies the present is equally brown — and equally dull-looking).
Warren Beatty worked on it for years, shooting some of the interviews with the so-called “witnesses” — real-life people from John Reed’s time commenting on their memories of him and the other characters — in the early 1970’s, well before he got the go-ahead to make the movie, apparently out of the fear that otherwise some of the people he wanted would die on him — and had he not got bogged down and run over his shooting and post-production schedules and released his film in the 1970’s Reds might actually have been a hit. Instead, it came out in 1981, right after Ronald Reagan’s election and the resulting change in the Zeitgeist — one gets the impression that had he cast Diane Keaton as Ayn Rand and made a movie about her heroic escape from the Soviet Union, that would have succeeded at the box office whereas Reds was a flop and lost the Best Picture Oscar to a dark-horse contender, Chariots of Fire, also set in a bygone era (the 1920’s) but a classy sports movie with no political agenda at all.