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Reds

by Glenn Erickson Dec 11, 2021

Warren Beatty’s show is a beautiful, one of a kind epic. Never mind that it is sharply critical of John Reed, an American who was buried in the Kremlin — Hollywood never approached the title subject directly: (whisper) Commies. Beatty’s production idiosyncrasies raised eyebrows but his picture is quite an achievement in filmic storytelling, cleverly accessing a political scene sixty years gone through testimony by notables that lived it. Beatty and Diane Keaton provide the romantic fireworks that make the film commercially viable, amid all the revolutionary fervor and political chaos.


Reds 40th Anniversary
Blu-ray + Digital
Paramount Home Video
1981 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 195 min. / 40th Anniversary Edition / Street Date November 30, 2021 / 17.99
Starring: Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Edward Herrmann, Jerzy Kosiński, Jack Nicholson, Paul Sorvino, Maureen Stapleton, M. Emmet Walsh, Ian Wolfe, George Plimpton, Dolph Sweet, Ramon Bieri, Gene Hackman, Gerald Hiken, William Daniels, Oleg Kerensky, Shane Rimmer, Jerry Hardin, Jack Kehoe, R.G. Armstrong, Jan Tríska, John Ratzenberger, Bessie Love, Max Wright, Josef Sommer, Joseph Buloff.
The Witnesses: Roger Baldwin, Henry Miller, Adela Rogers St. Johns, Dora Russell, Scott Nearing, Tess Davis, Heaton Vorse, Hamilton Fish, Isaac Don Levine, Rebecca West, Will Durant, Will Weinstone, Emmanuel Herbert, Arne Swabeck, Adele Nathan, George Seldes, Kenneth Chamberlain, Blanche Hays Fagen, Galina von Meck, Art Shields, Andrew Dasburg, Hugo Gellert, Dorothy Frooks, George Jessel, Jacob Bailin, John Ballato, Lucita Williams, Bernadine Szold-Fritz, Jessica Smith, Harry Carlisle, Arthur Mayer.
Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro
Production Designer: Richard Sylbert
Art Director: Simon Holland
Costume Design: Shirley Russell
Film Editors: Dede Allen, Craig McKay
Original Music: Stephen Sondheim, Dave Grusin
Written by Warren Beatty & Trevor Griffiths
Executive Producers: Dede Allen, Simon Relph
Produced and Directed by
Warren Beatty

Actor-producer-director Warren Beatty needed all of his clout and influence to push through a film that surely no corporate movie company wanted to make, a biography of John Reed, the American activist and radical who began as a reporter but became his own story when he enthusiastically supported the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, and wrote the book Ten Days that Shook the World. Beatty’s film is less romantic than Doctor Zhivago or Lawrence of Arabia, and slightly more experimental. Surely helped by his co-producer, mentor and editrix-royale Dede Allen, Beatty utilizes a brilliant device to lend authenticity to his tale of long-ago American ‘radicals’: he filmed interviews with a fascinating group of ‘witnesses’: octogenarian notables, who either had contact with WW1-era activism or knew John Reed and Louise Bryant personally.

 

Warren Beatty’s career behind the camera saw him producing a number of great pictures and directing just six. 1981’s Reds is by far the best. Hollywood bestowed 12 Oscar nominations and 3 wins to Beatty’s film, making it his crowning achievement. The epic was filmed in California, Spain, Finland, England, New Yorki and a little bit in Sweden. That much of it plays in dank interiors doesn’t limit its epic feel — Beatty and his cameraman Vittorio Storaro used the high budget to create a rich ‘world’ around the characters, while never losing sight of the personal story.

1915. Portland Oregon dentist’s wife Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) feels stifled by her marriage and provincial conservatism in general. She meets political journalist John Reed (Warren Beatty), who writes for the leftist paper The Masses, and not much later runs away with him to New York’s Greenwich Village to pursue her own ambitions as a writer. Reed’s name in leftist politics is on the rise, but Louise bristles at being ignored or patronized by John’s influential friends — poet and magazine editor Max Eastman (Edward Herrmann) and activist-anarchist Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton). John’s inability to say No to new causes and events prevents him from keeping his part of a bargain to stay with and work with Louise, which makes their relationship an on-and-off affair. In John’s absence Louise becomes involved with playwright Eugene O’Neill (a possibility debated by the ‘witnesses’). An anti-communist wave brings mass deportations. John supports the new leftist parties, but petty infighting prevents much progress from being made.

 

When WW1 arrives they feel that Wilson has betrayed their pacifism. Although they have secretly married, Louise breaks up with John and goes to Europe as a correspondent. John eventually joins her and their romance comes to the forefront again when they travel together to Russia and witness the events of October 1917. John finally crosses the line, speaking for America at a rally; he can no longer claim journalistic impartiality. They rush home to write and propagandize. By this time the Federal Goverment officially lists John as a subversive. John allows himself to be talked into smuggling himself back to Russia to obtain official recognition for one American Communist Party group. Bolshevik policy maker Grigory Zinoviev (Jerzy Kosiński) instead demands that John stay to help with Red propaganda while civil war rages on all sides. When he tries to escape on foot, he’s captured by White-sympathizing Finland, questioned and ‘disappeared’ into a prison.

Months later, the determined Louise returns to the chaos of Eastern Europe and Russia in search of John, only to find that he has been freed, and is off on a propaganda mission for Zinoviev. She reunites with Emma Goldman, who was deported years before. Weary from a kidney ailment, John barely survives his trip through a war zone by armored train, and returns to St. Petersburg, where a long-delayed romantic reunion occurs.

The demanding but rewarding Reds makes a nearly-forgotten subject seem alive and current. It’s not an endorsement or reverie for communism, as was the norm ten years earlier in Italy when ‘committed’ filmmakers honored bygone labor struggles and condemned crimes by capitalist powers. Neither does it serve to condemn political idealists like John Reed, a dreamer who believed that social reform could alleviate economic injustice. Socially-inclined intellectuals had been campaigning for one kind of world revolution or another for fifty years, while money interests managed to curb labor movements, often by violence. When Russia’s revolution came to be, it was no wonder that progressives everywhere saw hope for utopian ideals. John Reed’s enthusiastic writings helped to foster the lie that the Soviet Union was poised to become a worker’s paradise, an even bigger tragedy.

 

The screenplay by Beatty and playwright & TV writer Trevor Griffiths paints a convincing portrait of John Reed as a man caught up in the forces of history. A fly on the wall for a monumental world event, Reed is a political ‘influencer’ who ends up more of a pawn. Reed is portrayed as a dreamer, a political celebrity and a damn fool. His progressive struggle tilts at the big windmills, while the activists that really made a difference at the time thought practical and small. The most effective were women like Emma Goldman, who set up health clinics and fought for women’s equality. During WW1, American women didn’t yet have the right to vote.

The smart script balances a lot of interesting material, finding ironies in Reed’s experience and adding some witty and ironic visual touches. We first see Reed as a dusty silhouette chasing after a wagon in some ragged battle in revolutionary Mexico. A fool’s fool, Reed chase after an elusive dream of revolution, only end up in the middle of sheer chaos. This is mirrored perhaps ten years later during the attack on Zinoviev’s armored train, with Reed again chasing a horse-drawn buggy in the dust.

Reed finds that neither political system will respect his individual views. He throws tantrums when his New York editors change his copy. Later, in a war-torn province of the Soviet Union, he delivers his speeches on behalf of America’s solidarity with the revolution in English, while multiple local speakers read translations in different tongues. To John’s disbelief, the cynical Zinoviev has rewritten his words to make him condemn the Yankee imperialists. When he protests, Zinoviev chastises him for putting his pesonal ego before the needs of the state. That’s just a more blatant approach than the U.S. authorities, who found legal ways to prevent papers like The Masses from publishing viewpoints that conflicted with government policies.

Beatty and Griffith celebrate John Reed’s honest idealism, even while acknowledging the Soviets as obsessed with power and granting themselves the right to steamroll individual rights and liberties. The American communists fare no better: they’re a motley group of agitators that can’t build a coalition, and have no practical alternative to our flawed but functional and frequently admirable political system.

The film’s key moments are so strong that I can’t understand why anybody would think Reds to be dull. Taking his place on a revolutionary platform, John receives the mass approval and cheers that he’s perhaps been after all along. It’s both a personal triumph and a disaster. From that moment forward John is no longer a journalist but an advocate. If it weren’t for influential his book Ten Days that Shook the World, an excellent account of the early days of the revolution, he’d be just another agit-prop pawn for Lenin.

 

At another key moment Louise Bryant testifies at some government hearing, asserting unequivocally that America is in no way headed for revolution. She and John Reed part ways ideologically when she has to scream this at him — downtrodden Americans don’t want justice, freedom or equality, they only want the security of the middle class chance and the chance to become rich. But John dreams of a grandiose social transformation, to ‘shake the world’ as in the title of his book.

Reds is a beautiful film yet doesn’t rely on David Lean- like pictorialism or visual poetry, perhaps with the exception of the image of John Reed chasing after those wagons. We are instead transported to a pre-war starched-collar Portland, and then to a proto- Bohemian clan of self-important young political activists and writers in New York. While Reed rails against government policies in The Masses, Emma Goldman fights for women’s rights on the streets. The movie takes pains to present the struggles of hot-to-publish firebrand writers. Reed argues with his publishers, including a nice cameo from Gene Hackman as an obnoxious editor. John and Louise’s writer’s talk seems more than credible. If Warren Beatty did not have full control, we’d doubt that much of that material would have been retained in the final cut.

 

The supporting characters are so well introduced that we blink to realize that we’re seeing familiar actors in for just one scene or maybe two: Paul Sorvino, M. Emmet Walsh, George Plimpton, Dolph Sweet, William Daniels, R.G. Armstrong. Noted author Jerzy Kosiński is excellent in a larger part as the Russian politico who cajoles and shames Reed into dangerous service for the revolution. Jack Nicholson is nicely slotted in as O’Neill, a character used to force Louise to face the limitations of the open relationship she and John talk about but don’t really want. Maureen Stapleton’s Emma Goldman is a marvelous characterization despite having only a few minutes of screen time. The role earned Stapleton a supporting Oscar; she had been nominated three times before.

The show uses an fairly lazy device to hint at John and Louise’s love life and present the passage of time: they get a puppy, which is shown locked out of their bedroom at several ages. The show gives way to more of an epic scope as John and Louise individually and together evade the law to sneak in and out of war-torn Russia. Louise’s snowbound trek to reach John is the stuff of romantic tragedy; Storaro’s images show us the hardships without overselling the snowy beauty. Some tonal shifts are equally adroit: the travelers’ jaunty optimism fades quickly when their the train pulls up to a station platform covered with battle victims suffering with little or no medical aid.

The rallies and mass parades in St. Petersburg are thrillingly huge, without entering the bigger-than-Lean sweepstakes. I believe we also see what’s supposed to be the interior of the Winter Palace. Stories of Beatty shooting millions of feet of film, doing innumerable retakes, etc., are what we read, but the final film is what we see, and it’s dazzling.

The biggest talking point about Reds is Beatty’s use of his ‘witnesses,’ the famous and semi-famous talking heads that open the film and return repeatedly to comment on Reed and Bryant, the tone of the times, why they believed in Communism, etc.. It’s a marvelous idea, mixing reality with the conventional dramatics of the rest of the film. Some of these people knew John and Louise but don’t pretend to fully understand them — and can’t confirm that the two lovers were actually married, or if Eugene O’Neill was part of their sex life. The witnesses are vital, personable and funny, and I only really recognized a few on sight: Henry Miller, Adela Rogers St. Johns, Will Durant (I think). George Jessel belongs in this bunch?  That’s interesting.

 

Drop some of the witness’es names into wikipedia and you’ll be rewarded with a fascinating mini-biography. They are also identified by profession at the film’s Wikipedia entry. I’d have to study some more to figure out which bright old woman is the legendary Rebecca West, H.G. Wells’ emancipated free-love partner (and critic). A formidable woman indeed.

The witness segments inject real life into the show. It’s like watching a movie about Abraham Lincoln, with input from people who actually knew him. The timing seems wrong considering that most of the witnesses were born in the 19th century — George Jessel, for one, passed away before Reds was released. We’re told that Warren Beatty, anticipating a delay, began filming his witnesses ten years earlier. But their visual treatment is really consistent — was Storaro in on the shoots early as well?

I’ve always been bothered with the fact that the witnesses are not clearly identified on screen. I can understand that the intimate tone would be disturbed if Beatty and editor Allen had superimposed text titles each time a speaker changed. Still, I wish an alternate subtitle track were on the disc to inform the curious.

A big film that needed a big audience Reds entered the moviegoing marketplace dominated by entertainments like Raiders of the Lost Ark: how many ticket buyers in 1981 could be made interested in the politics of 1920?  A big part of America would react negatively to the title alone, allergic to ‘radical’ Hollywood message-making. The star teaming of Beatty and Keaton perhaps drew a lot of bodies into the theater, with the love story keeping audiences in their seats for the entire three hour, fifteen-minute running time. We’re told that the show broke even and then some despite uneven reviews; that’s difficult to believe. Beatty didn’t personally promote it, a serious mistake. In addition to Maureen Stapleton’s Oscar win, Warren Beatty won for directing and and Vittorio Storaro for his cinematography.

 


 

Paramount Home Video’s Blu-ray + Digital of Reds is a glowing transfer that flatters Storaro’s careful cinematography, the convincing costumes, and the recreations of New York and St. Petersburg in the ‘teens. It is a new remaster job, besting an older Blu-ray by far in terms of picture quality. The late composer-songwriter Stephen Sondheim wrote a love theme for the show, “Goodbye for Now.”

No new extras were created but the included docu is still quite a good document about the difficulties of the film from conception to screen. It’s about 75 minutes long, but divided into smaller sections. A code for a digital screener is included.

Written with assistance from correspondent ‘B.’

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Reds 40th Anniversary
Blu-ray + Digital rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Witness to REDS, an eight part making-of documentary; Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES
; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray and digital code in Keep case
Reviewed:
December 7, 2021
(6627reds)CINESAVANT

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.