Reds (1981)


Directed by Warren Beatty

Written by Warren Beatty and Trevor Griffiths

Starring: Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Edward Herrmann, Jack Nicholson, Maureen Stapleton, Paul Sorvino, Gene Hackman, Jerzy Kosinski

Running Time: 195 Minutes

Tagline: Not Since Gone With the Wind has there been a Romantic Epic Like It!

Trivia: Although the production presented many challenges, it was no where near the disaster of other films of the era such as Apocalypse Now and Heaven’s Gate.  Beatty almost decided to cast John Lithgow as John Reed.

Warren Beatty’s 1981 magnum opus Reds recreates a crucial  time in the 20th Century, spanning the years 1915-1920.  Made at the height of Beatty’s influence in Hollywood, Reds told an unlikely story for the Reagan era: a three hour movie about an American communist. Although not a perfect film, at times it’s uneven and misses the right emotional tone, Reds did a fantastic job representing the period. Towering personalities of the time come to life and the underlying theme of art and politics remains relevant.

The two central characters are John Reed (Beatty) and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton). Reed achieved some fame by writing about the Mexican Revolution and the 1913 Paterson strike for The Masses, a legendary publication of art and politics. America’s entry into the First World War (1914-1918) in 1917 proved a definitive moment for the left, who strongly opposed it as nothing more than a capitalist contest for spoils. Reed traveled to Russia and witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution and wrote one of the definitive accounts Ten Days That Shook The World.

Diane Keaton as Bryant, an artist and feminist, often tests Reed’s chauvinism and calls him out for his own prejudices.  Eventually they married and their love story is central throughout.

Jack Nicholson also leaves an impression in a quiet and subdued performance as the playwright Eugene O’Neill.

Although Beatty was a bit too old to play Reed, a man 15 years his junior, he carried the film well enough. I suspect he was playing a version of himself: brash, generous, conscientious, self-centered, and opportunistic.

Maureen Stapleton won a well deserved Oscar as Emma Goldmann, taking the film to another level whenever she appeared.

Beatty inter cut the movie with real figures from the actual era relating their memories. These sequences served expositional purposes  and fostered a real connection between the past and present.

The second half is more elliptical and even feels rushed at times. Perhaps this was intentional, to emulate the feeling of living through history.  Reed’s experiences in Russia turned him into a revolutionary. He returned to America and attempted to start a Communist Party, but it devolved into quarrelsome factions.  Louise pleaded with Reed to return to writing, arguing the perfection an artist strives for can never occur in politics. Creating art and experiencing life can be agonizing and exhilarating, while politics requires endurance and compromise.


Reed returned to the Soviet Union to get recognition for his Communist Labor Party, only to be appalled at how the revolution was playing out.  The Bolsheviks, instead of fostering democracy and improving living conditions, engaged in a brutal Civil War and a harsh crackdown upon all their opponents, instituting a new form of totalitarianism that set the stage for Josef Stalin.

Reds never resolves the central question it raises, how far should one be committed to their political beliefs?  Does it mean sacrificing everything most dear to you?  Reed was never willing to go as far as the Bolsheviks and they let him know about it (ironically Reed is the only American buried at the Kremlin).

As a portrait of history, Reds is outstanding. Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography brought a humanistic touch.  The tension between the love story and the history are handled with grace.

Reds is even more important today. There’s a welcome lack of cynicism to it, a Romanticism that goes against the grain of today’s culture, one locked in a political stranglehold of misguided passion.


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