Directed by Warren
Beatty, starring Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson
and Maureen Stapleton, color, 1981, 197 minutes
of Blue-ray disk for "Reds"
By Carter B. Horsley
"Reds" is perhaps the
most intellectual film of all time.
It is about the Russian Revolution.
It is about a young American, John Reed, who wrote a great history of
that revolution, "Ten Days That Shook The World."
Its makes extensive use of fascinating new interviews of people who
were involved in the revolution.
Its narrative also involves the story of Louise Bryant, who was the
lover of Reed and Eugene O'Neill.
It was created during the Cold War and won an Academy Award for best
Warren Beatty was widely regarded as America's sexiest man and as a
major playboy, thus making his achievement in creating this epic movie
all the more remarkable. He played the lead role of John Reed
and directed and produced the film.
"Reds" is the most political film of all time.
Beatty's great daring, however, was not entirely successful.
He and his three other top stars were all nominated
for Academy Awards, but only Stapleton won. Beatty and Keaton
lost out to the routine and safe performances of Henry Fonda and
Katherine Hepburn in "On Golden Pond" and Nicholson lost to John
Gielgud in the insipid "Arthur." The film lost Best Picture
to "Chariots of Fire," that was notable mainly for its very popular
score by Vangelis, the great synthesist even though it was his worst
The Academy Awards are more popularity contests than critical judgments
so the film's three Oscars, including one for Vincent Storaro's
cinematography, is still impressive given the general
anti-intellectualism of America.
In his very fine review in The
New York Times December 4, 1981, Vincent Canby observed
that the movie is "a large, remarkably rich, romantic film that
dramatizes - in a way that no other commercial movie...has ever done -
the excitement of being young, idealistc, and foolish in a time when
everything still seemed possible."
Canby lingers on this thought:
"Only the very narrow-minded will see the film as Communist
propaganda. Though Reed remained at his death a card-carrying
Communist and was buried in the Kremlin, the movie is essentiallly as
ideological as the puppy that whimpers when Louise stalks out.
'Reds' is not about Communism, but about a particular era,
and a particularly moving kind of American optimism that had its roots
in the 19th Century."
Nicholson, Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty in "Reds"
Mr. Canby corrected praised the use of the "witnesses":
"there are more than two dozen of them - who make up a kind of Greek
chorus, the members of which appear from time to time throughout 'Reds'
to set the film in historical perspective, as much by what they
remember accurately as by their gossip and by what they longer recall.
It's an extraordinary device, but 'Reds' is an extraordinary
film, a big romantic adventure movie, the best since David Lean's
'Lawrence of Arabia,' as well as a commercial movie with a rare sense
"The film," Mr. Canby continued, "which begins with a montage of Reed's
exploits while covering Pancho Villa in Mexico in 1913, moves from
Portland to Greenwich Village; to Provincetown, Mass., where Reeed and
Louise helped form the famous Provincetown Players with Eugene O'Neill
and others; to France, before United States entry into the war, and
finally to Russia, where Reed and Louise were coverning the successful
Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Theirs is the kind of story
only a third-rate novelist would dare make up."
In other hands, it could be slapstick with Harrison Ford and his whip
leading Indiana Jones's non-historical charges. And that is
why it is such an important movie. It was real and to many
Americans it was an amazing story almost lost in the turmoil of World
War I and then distorted in the contortions of the eventual Cold War
that made too many Americans forget the idealism of the origins of
Russian Communism admidst the slander and blasphemy of Senator Joseph
McCarthy and his virulent anti-Communism.
It is a story that is hard for many post-Cold War babies to fathom,
whose for whom Communism is a far-off, fringe politics that was "put
down," "defeated" and "dead." There must be some people who
believe that it "failed" because of poor leadership and many mistakes
and that its basic principles still held some important validity.
Mr. Canby argues, effectively, that what was "Most astonishing is the
way movie...avoids the patently absurd...and the secret...is that the
film sees Reed and Louise as history's golden children, crass and
self-obsessed but genuinely committed to causes they don't yet fully
understand." The movie, he added, dramatizes "the excitement
of being young, idealistic and foolish in a time when everything still
The movie was named the best picture of 1981 by the New York Film
Yet Beatty, who starred in such very serious films as "The Parallax
View" and "Mickey One," is no Pollyanna. His enthusiasms as
Reed are not naive and foolish. He became part of really
important history and his book about it is is very important document,
especially for non-Russians.
Louise Bryant met Reed in 1912 at a lecture in Portland, Oregon, where
she was married, and is impressed with his claim that "profit" is the
reason for wars. They have an affair and move to Greenwich Village and
she becomes a feminist and radical and he gets involved in labor and
the American Communist Labor Party. She has an affair with
O'Neill but still marries Reed but when Reed admits to infidelity she
goes to Europe as a war correspondent and he soon follows.
According to Wikipedia, Beatty mentioned making a film about Reed to
Dede Allen, the film editor, in 1966 and he finished a script three
years later. In 1976, he decided to collaborate on the script
with Trevor Griffiths and they allegedly also got script imput from
In his book, "Pauline Kael, A Life in The Dark," Brian Kellow recounts
that Kael, the famous film critic, "was dead set against the Reed film
and repeatedly tried to talk Beatty out of it, warning him that it wa a
pompous, grandiose idea, and accusing him of trying to reinvent himself
as the new David Lean." When it opened, she conceded that it
was a movie with "an enormous amount of dedication and intelligence,"
but added that the witnesses were "all muchpeppier and more vital than
the actors" and that Diane Keaton's Bryant was presented as a
"tiresome, pettishly hostile woman." She also felt that the
movie portrayed Reed as "pussywhipped," a phrase that William Shawn,
the editor of The New
Yorker, did not like.
The film's cast is impressive: Edward Herrmann as Max Eastman, Jerzy
Kosinski as Gregory Zinoview, Paul Sorvino as Louis Fraina, George
Plimpton as Horace Whigham, and Gene Hackman as Pete Van Wherry.
The witnesses included Henry Miller, Roger Baldwin, Adela Rogers St.
John, Hamilton Rish, and Andrew Dasburg.
The first half of the movie concerns itself mostly with pre-Moscow love
interests and squabbling and a great fight between Keaton and
Warren, but the movie picks up a lot of
steam and drama in the second half's labor and political meetings.
It shows that Reed not was no mere chronicler but an active
participant in momentous events. It also shows that the birth of
Russian communism was not easy and very complicated and such
forthrightness is the film's greatness.
few years after the film came out, I took my mother to a cultural event
at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and while we were having drinks in the
large lobby I got very annoyed with my mother about something and the
only thing that stopped me from raising my voice even higher was that
Diane Keaton came up to my mother with a friend. I really wanted
to stay and meet her but I was so livid that I moved away while they
chatted for several minutes. I calmed down but my mother and I
didn't talk until the intermission and then didn't raise the subject.
My mother and I very rarely argued and were very close and the
memory of this minor incident shames me, but I have never hesitated
speaking my mind. It doesn't help much, however, when you're