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Directed by Warren Beatty, starring Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jack  Nicholson and Maureen Stapleton, color, 1981, 197 minutes

Cover of Blu-ray disk
Cover 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 direction.

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 score.

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."

Reds 2

Jack 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 of history."

"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 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 seemed possible."

The movie was named the best picture of 1981 by the New York Film Critics Circle.

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 Elaine May.

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.

[A 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 wrong....]

This film is ranked 53rd in Carter B. Horsley's list of the Top 500 Sound Films

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