1980s, Drama, Epic

Reds (1981)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Warren Beatty


By Roderick Heath

“No, I haven’t seen Commie Dearest,” filmmaker Paul Morrissey quipped when asked if he had seen Warren Beatty’s Reds. “The cult of the personality has claimed another victim,” critic John Walker said in his review of the film, referring to Beatty’s reinvention of radical history in terms of the Hollywood epic and focal character John Reed as an avatar for Beatty himself. Most hilariously, during the shoot of the film, Beatty, who had gained over $30 million in funding from Barclay’s Bank for the purposes of memorialising a Communist hero, gave a speech to a group of Arab extras brought to the film’s Spanish location shoot, explaining Reed’s philosophy and the subject of the movie. He was promptly faced with a strike by the extras for higher wages.


John Reed was a journalist and committed socialist who wrote the famous reportage from the frontline of the Russian Revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World, but he was himself a controversial figure, his place in the scheme of early 20th century radicalism contested: Upton Sinclair labelled him a playboy revolutionary. Therein lies some hint as to why Beatty, a man massively successful at that most capitalistic of endeavours, Hollywood cinema, became obsessed with Reed and expended massive amounts of time and cash on bringing his story to the big screen: the kinship he sensed in a man who, like him, was often more famous for his torrid personal life than his singular professional accomplishments, and struggled with some valour and some conceit to claim both individual and collective stature. If nothing else, wrapping these ingredients in a multi-million dollar package and calling it Reds proved that Beatty had cojones the size of California.


Beatty began as a handsome ingénue and talented actor, discovered by Elia Kazan for his 1961 romantic melodrama Splendour in the Grass. He gained a reputation as an unruly, independent talent, one who got into awful rows with major directors through his fiery wilfulness. But he also gained status fighting to bring fresh vision to Hollywood as it entered the crisis of the second half of the 1960s, battling ossified studio chiefs and perceiving the new clout of the movie star. The perfect fruition of Beatty’s ambition was director Arthur Penn’s 1967 hit Bonnie & Clyde, a film which presaged a major cultural shift. Beatty continued to work with interesting directors and remained a hero of Hollywood’s relatively brief New Wave-hued, auteur-driven phase, but 1978’s successful and lauded Heaven Can Wait signalled his intention to became an auteur unto himself. Reds was a task Beatty had been toying with since the mid ’60s for which he collected what would become the film’s famous “witness” interviews over a decade. The zeitgeist that greeted Reds was, however, very different to that which greeted Bonnie & Clyde: Ronald Reagan was President, and radical was no longer chic. The film was mildly successful at the box office, but it was still perceived as a failure as it failed to earn the kind of cultural stature such a project seemed to crave. Admiration for Beatty was still pronounced enough to help him gain a Best Director Oscar for Reds, beating out a strong line-up of rivals for the award. Chariots of Fire was deemed a more apt Best Picture, ironic considering that although Chariots was thematically more conservative, it is more adventurous as filmmaking. Reds has maintained a shadowy kind of life since its release, neither eclipsing masterpiece nor easily dismissed vanity project.


Reds depicts the last few years of Reed’s life, commencing in 1915 when he encounters wife-to-be Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) during a visit to Portland, Oregon, where Reed had grown up in privileged circumstances. Bryant, who’s been playing the edgy bohemian in Portland and hopes to be a writer, quickly impresses and seduces the venturesome, reputed journalist. With her husband (Nicolas Coster) increasingly irritated by her provocations, including appearing nude in an artistic photo in a gallery exhibition she curates, Louise warily accepts Reed’s invitation to come live with him in New York. Bryant soon finds herself an uncertain, comparative provincial amidst the fast-talking, high-falutin’ world of Greenwich Village, where Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton) is the tongue-lashing doyenne of revolutionary credibility, and racy eccentrics are a dime a dozen.


Reed circles the edges of radical commitment without yet taking the plunge beyond reporting on labor disputes and union repression for a small network of activist newspapers. Bryant’s combative, proto-feminist determination to carve a niche for herself has Reed, who shares her free-love and emancipationist views, often unbalanced, whilst his busy work life and renown belittle her struggle to find a voice and subject. Bryant acts on her ideals by accepting romantic overtures from the couple’s friend, playwright Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson), whilst Reed’s away covering politics. Upon Reed’s return, O’Neill skulks away, and Reed bashfully proposes marriage. The pair bust up, however, after Reed discovers a poem O’Neill wrote for Louise, and he admits to casual affairs of his own. Louise gets herself posted to Europe to cover the war. Reed follows her there with a proposal that they head on to Russia to report on the imminent revolution. There, they are caught up in the fervour of the Bolshevik success.


Reds is an impressive film in many respects, long and spacious and intelligent. There was certainly nothing wrong with Beatty’s eye for talent and collaborators. Vittorio Storaro’s photography, which utilised a then cutting-edge form of celluloid processing to help him gain uncommon control over colour effects, is superb, clear and sharp, yet expressive, capturing a sense of period without excessive artifice. Yet, Reds is built around a curious series of contradictions and limitations that hamper its impact, the most overt of which is a gap between method and subject. Beatty had clearly gone to school on cinema with depth and intensity, but sadly, not much theory. Like most filmmakers to take up the challenge of epic cinema after the 1950s, David Lean was an obvious touchstone for his efforts. Lean’s cinema provides a ready-made palette for filmmakers thinking on a big scale, with all those images of small figures starkly dwarfed by huge, appealing vistas. But Lean’s visual sensibility was informed by tethering the interior dramas of his characters to the world surrounding them so that the landscape is both counterpoint to their interior vistas and also mimetic canvas for them. Beatty has no such essential compass to guide his appropriations, even as he inevitably quotes from Doctor Zhivago (1965), for a film that’s mostly about the raw power of verbal communication, between men and women and between political debaters. Most of Reds takes place in rooms—small apartments, cosy domiciles, or large halls full of bristling contention. Apart from a couple of brief flourishes, there are few points in Reds where the filmmaking reflects the shattering of norms and the shock of the new (ironically, Beatty’s later Bulworth, 1998, comes closer to the kind of gonzo politico-aesthetic mash-up this could have been). Rather the film as a whole reveals Beatty trying to succeed largely within the terms set by a line of big-time, traditional moviemakers.


The docudrama immediacy of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1965) or the dreamlike shock and ecstasy of Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba (1964) are far outside of Beatty’s terms of reference for handling revolution as a subject. His imitative classicism mixes throughout with variations on both the squirrelly New Wave style of filmmaking, full of volatile performing and open-structured scenes executed with restlessly mobile camerawork, whilst other touches harken back to the cutest styles of Hollywood filmmaking. His debut work, a remake of a classic ’40s film, signalled Beatty’s fetish for evoking the spirit of a bygone age, and his methodology for depicting the more traditional reflexes of Reed and Bryant’s relationship feels like a compendium of movie approaches: sentimental scenes of cute dogs and unwrapped Christmas presents that seek to make the fiery, unconventional duo comprehensible to middle America, or Harlequin Romance-like visions of Louise struggling to cross the ices of Finland to find her lover that are pure bunk. Not to mention the heart-tugging reunion at the railway station that gives the film its climax, straight out of any number of classic weepies. Beatty struggles to find an argot that suits his attempt to suggest period social and personal revisionism through the prism of more contemporary versions. Keaton’s performance as Louise is the clearest example of such a prism, a performance in the same key as her work for Coppola and Woody Allen as a strong on-screen avatar for ’70s womanhood, only in period garb. Her approach to Louise’s defensive, glaring, big-talking truculence to cover her anxiety is reminiscent of Jane Campion’s heroines—smart women who approach romance like an argument in the offing, but not sure exactly what about—whilst suggesting a brighter, more brittle Annie Hall.


One of the film’s amusing, but also most problematic, refrains depicts Reed constantly at a loss in dealing with Louise, the motor-mouthed communicator suddenly reduced to screwball foil in his efforts to play house with her. The film hits a nadir when Beatty insists on including a slapstick scene of Reed bumbling in the kitchen, complete with a pot with a neatly burnt-out bottom. Reed spends an uncomfortable journey to Russia with Louise when they’re nominally broken up over mutual infidelities, where she’s far more responsive to the jokey charm of a travelling companion, Joe Volski (Joseph Buloff), turning the difficult task of crossing war-torn Europe at the time into a comedy routine. The real Bryant, who married a third time and then divorced after rumoured lesbian affairs before dying at 50, was probably the kind of dynamic period poseur whom the likes of Alan Rudolph and Philip Kaufman were better at recreating in The Moderns (1988) and Henry & June (1990), respectively. Keaton is nonetheless superlative in her specific way, particularly in the deadly wary glares she offers Beatty as Reed asks her to follow him to New York (“What as?”), and after receiving one of Goldman’s brute dismissals.


Beatty’s own performance, by comparison, whilst slick, never really seems to find focus, perhaps a result of the too-neat symbiosis of actor and role many sensed, to a point where the film often feels more like a portrait in Beatty’s befuddlement at the spectacle of ’70s feminism outpacing his own louche lover-boy antics. We don’t learn much about Reed’s background or progress towards radicalism, or, indeed, much about him at all. The journalist came from an upper-class family and conspicuously rebelled against it, but that background is only vaguely depicted. We hear what a great journalist he’s supposed to be, but precious little of his actual work gains any exposure. In a similar fashion, although politics is the lifeblood of the characters, the actual substance of their political thought is, apart from Goldman’s sharply amusing spiel about the place of birth control in the revolutionary movement, left vague.


Reds is however a study of the disparity between observation and action, and it’s this problem the film wrestles with substantively. Reed, a professional wordsmith and part-time poet, is drawn steadily into the drama and unique thrill of political commitment in a time when it seems the whole flow of history may pivot, and finds there’s a price to be paid for not remaining a spectator. Beatty’s attention to the history of U.S. leftist movements is detailed and immediate, but in a way that mostly avoids depictions of their purpose, emphasising instead long-forgotten schisms and fraternal politicking that suggest why their movements waned, as Reed clashes with Louis Fraina (Paul Sorvino) as the two form rival Communist parties when their radical cabal are forced out of the Socialist Party. Much of the last hour of the film is dedicated to depicting Reed’s squabbles with Grigory Zinoviev (Jerzy Kosinski) and his bureaucratic cadres as the revolution calcifies into expedient repression in a way that makes it all seem like the world’s most lovingly shot sheaf of committee meeting minutes. Still, Beatty was doing something admirable and risky, delving back into the half-mythical days of Goldman, Big Bill Haywood (Dolph Sweet), and the IWW, pointing out the one-time existence of a radical leftist American movement prior to the 1960s and heavily suggesting that the threat of sedition around the First World War was used as a pretext to destroy alternative political thought. Like many filmmakers of his age and era, Beatty consciously reflected the radical-chic bohemia of the ’60s, his own grounding, through depictions of historical parallels. Moreover, he aims with impudent ambition to demonstrate why Reed’s rise to status as a hero of Soviet history was a peculiarly American achievement, fuelled by bright-eyed zeal and hope for the future, and a certain love of pugnacious display and competitiveness.


The film’s best sequences, then, tend to be about volatile personalities in close contact, with the keen observational basis reflected amongst the witnesses, with particularly adroit insight by Henry Miller, of all people, that people who gravitate towards radicalism are often beset by intense personal difficulties, with drives and damage outside of the ordinary. Louise and John’s arguments have the kind of fire and brittle, half-savage/half-hysterical energy to them redolent of genuinely loving, contentious relationships. Keaton’s scenes with Nicholson are even better, as both are on their game, playing intriguing characters who have uncommon reactions to situations and emotions. Perhaps the best scene in the film comes when O’Neill turns up at the couple’s new house in Croton-on-Hudson, just after they’ve given into bourgeois propriety and married. O’Neill sullenly declares his love, which he says he doesn’t need returned, but proceeds to extract blood anyway, whilst Bryant worries Reed might return. O’Neill initially seduces Louise by taking the exact opposite pitch to her first husband, who had growled about her desire to be the centre of attention, which O’Neill says she should always be, an appeal to her ego Reed pointedly refuses to make. But of course Louise’s attraction to Reed remains stronger than to O’Neill because of this. O’Neill’s lacerating, obnoxious side is revealed, making him a fitting avatar for Beatty, the infamously demanding director, by bitching about the terrible acting in versions of his plays, including an amateur production in which Louise gives an awesomely awful performance. After his startling run of performances in the ‘70s, Nicholson’s work here forms a marvellous coda before his part in Terms of Endearment (1983) marked his transformation into more of a personality than an actor.


Beatty offers some obvious, but well-handled narrative ellipses and motifs with symbolic suggestions, and some fine, small flourishes that give the narrative hints of poeticism rather than a mere flow of tableaux it threatens to become. Reed returns from one of his sojourns with an IWW leaflet with a half-written love poem on the back, a neat actualisation of the flip side of these people’s lives. For example, when Reed is first glimpsed in a brief vision of his adventures in Mexico to covered the revolution there, he’s seen chasing a wagon fleeing battle, and makes it on board. Towards the end of Reds, he’s caught in the middle of a White attack on a Soviet train; he again tries to escape chasing after a cart, but is left behind this time, outpaced by history and left stranded amidst its casualties. Or, Goldman’s aggressive dismissal of Bryant is counterpointed when she’s surprised by Bryant coming to Russia in search of Reed, a subtler and, in its way, more emotional payoff than the later reunion of the couple. Indeed, one of the singular achievements of Reds is that it sustains a sense of human intimacy (almost to a fault) in spite of mega-production trappings and a continent-spanning story. The film’s script was cowritten by British playwright Trevor Griffiths, with some added wisecrackery from Elaine May, who would later direct Beatty in the infamous Ishtar (1987). May’s touch is apparent throughout the film, like Reed’s riposte to “What as?” with “It’s almost Thanksgiving. Why not come as a turkey?” and, when Reed’s problematic liver causes him to urinate blood whilst in jail for activism, and a fellow prisoner observes, “This one even pisses red.”


Perhaps some of the reason for the film’s curiously niggling sense of a lack at its core lies in how, in spite of the richness of Storaro’s photography and the sharpness of Dede Allen and Craig McKay’s editing, Beatty’s direction, like that of most actors turned filmmakers, remains rooted in an overriding delight in the performance and behavioural intricacies. Beatty expends rampant amounts of time and energy to tease out details that a more experienced artist might have painted in moments. Reed, Bryant, O’Neill and others are only defined by what they say and do in relation to each other, and anything that doesn’t relate to this is sped through. Beatty’s intelligent casting gives the film a lot of extra dimension. As well as bringing on board a lot of fellow heroes of the American New Wave, like Nicholson and Gene Hackman as one of Reed’s gregarious but mainstream editors, he also offers some old-Hollywood faces, like veteran character actors Ian Wolfe and Bessie Love as two aged relatives of Reed’s. Beatty fills out other roles with smartly employed nonactors like Oleg Kerensky as his own father Alexander and literary figures Kosinski and George Plimpton (above), who give the film a sense of genuine linkage to the intelligentsia it’s depicting.


The machine-tooled precision of some of these turns points to what a good handler of actors Beatty can be even as he gives himself and Keaton too much rope. Stapleton won an Oscar, and very well deserved it was, for capturing the essence of someone passionate right through to the bone and pitilessly intelligent at the same time. Goldman, a major figure in E. L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime, was left out entirely from Milos Forman’s agreeable film version near-simultaneously released with Reds, but here she is, roaring with life, provoking Reed and Bryant’s pretences, aching at being deported for her politics even as she proclaims adoration for America, “its mountains and its forests,” and refusing unlike Reed to dismiss the early signs of authoritarianism in the Bolshevik regime. Thus, she is the constant moral centre of the film as well as a source of automatic entertainment, and as such, she’s not in the film half as much as she needs to be.


The most consistently praised aspect of Reds is Beatty’s use of documentary interviews of still-living witnesses of the era, few of whom actually knew Reed and Bryant but who heard about them or generally inhabited the same sort of world. These include Miller (above) with his insolent Brooklyn wisdom, writer and suffragette Rebecca West, patrician former congressman and Red hunter Hamilton Fish III, and various other leftists, artists, bohemians, and socialites of the 1910s and 1920s. The intelligence and sensitivity of this aspect is indeed tremendous, capturing these ancient but still fascinating, richly experienced personalities on the very edge of mortality and memory, casting their minds back to popular songs, ancient love affairs (including some that never were), observations of people and movements, and archaic rumour. Beatty sometimes uses the witnesses as a counterpoint to his fiction, sometimes as a kind of rough-and-ready narration for his story, and sometimes to justify his own artistic choices, for the point that emerges from the collective voices is often that the exact truth of the past is impossible to capture. Beatty’s habit of framing his interviewees slightly off-centre against a black background seems to have influenced the aesthetic of Ken Burns, and yet he never identifies the people, leaving them as sharply specific and yet anonymous contributors. This touch emphasises an egalitarian approach to the voices, but ultimately Beatty subsumes them to his own vision, even as their loose and unnecessary exposition contributes to the fragmentary nature of the film’s second half.


The most striking sequence in Reds is a particular ode to the talent of Beatty’s editor, Dede Allen. The stirring climax of the film’s first half sees Reed and Bryant’s affair rekindle in exact accord with the October Revolution, the couple swept up in the midst of epoch-altering excitement, all scored to a rousing rendition of “The Internationale.” This sequence stands out not just because of the vivacity and style with which it captures the peculiar thrill of being part of a great movement, but also because it’s one of the few parts of the film that’s inventive, expressive cinema. Yet, it also ironically dismisses the most interesting part of the story, indeed the very point and totemic import of Reed’s labours, in a few minutes’ whirl of images. The peculiarity of Beatty’s priorities here, that he can devote so much of his extreme running length to domestic squabbles and made-up odysseys and actually move so cavalierly through the Russian Revolution, becomes questionable. But Beatty still manages to provide a flow of powerful and affecting moments. The sequence in which Reed and comrades storm the Socialist Party meeting from which they’ve been barred, with the chairman (John Hillerman) wrestling with Reed for the megaphone he snatches, is dynamic and droll. Well-visualised, but curtailed is a sequence of Reed trying to leave Russia via a hand-cranked rail car into Finland, crossing a chilling and vast landscape only to run into border guards, and Louise, making the same journey from the opposite end, reeling in alarm at the sight of a herd of stampeding reindeer.


There’s a sense of real strangeness and exoticism to the sequence in which Zinoviev drags Reed out to the Eurasian wilds to preach to desert tribesmen, and Reed finds his speeches calling for Socialist revolution are being tweaked for the local audience into a call for holy jihad. The subsequent attack on Zinoviev’s train by White soldiers is a late, brief, but still welcome spurt of action. Beatty is a good enough actor to at least sell Reed and Bryant’s reunion as he pleads to her, “Please don’t leave me,” capturing the aching sensation of finding something you love in the middle of an alien and hostile land. Similarly good, and surprisingly subtle, is Reed’s subsequent death scene, as the man expires, his remaining kidney eaten up disease. Beatty captures it as a series of indirect cues Louise witnesses in a stygian Soviet hospital as she goes to fetch him some water—a woman praying over an icon, a tumbled water cup, and a young child who seems like Reed reborn—and her return to find him dead is not surprising. Even if Beatty finally ended up only making another movie where a devoted wife weeps over her famous husband’s body, he still brings it home with an eerie and poetic touch. Beatty’s suspicion, expressed in 2006 when the film was finally released on DVD, that the film plays better today with its conscientiously precise charting of the way individual fervour and state aggression grows and wanes during wars and social upheaval, feels accurate.


4 thoughts on “Reds (1981)

  1. Intriguing look at a fascinating film that has been, as you said, not quite forgotten but not really remembered either. For me, the traditionalist Hollywood style, some might say “squareness,” worked in a way that it didn’t for you. Essentially I see Reds as a kind of Old Hollywood heroic epic about the exact kind of people that Old Hollywood didn’t make movies about.

    Certainly a strange film, occupying a strange place in history. Hollywood would never have made a film whose heroes were Communists before the whole American New Wave movement of the ’70s, nor would they greenlight a 3 hour long political epic with no explosions or superheroes had the concept come their way even a few years later. And even considering that, it’s still amazing that such a film could be released as Reagan made his way to the White House.

    It also makes a good foil to the film adaptation of Ragtime that came out the same year. Personally, I feel that Beatty’s film better captures the spirit of the era and of Doctorow’s book than does Forman’s film.


    • Roderick says:

      Hi Michael. Thanks for commenting.

      Generally I have no problem with a traditionalist style, and I don’t necessarily insist this should’ve been Godardian agitprop either. It’s simply that Beatty’s direction feels like a mix and match of approaches and viewpoints in a manner that’s aesthetically frustrating; it causes the film to be divided within itself about what it’s trying to do and how it’s doing it. I feel Beatty looking for a voice, like a talented but still callow writer, and not quite finding it. And try as I might to ignore it, nonetheless I do feel frustrated by it. Your point about it being an “Old Hollywood heroic epic about the exact kind of people that Old Hollywood didn’t make movies about” is quite valid, of course. But one trouble is, it neuters the film so much – you note its peculiarity in coming out in the Reagan era, and indeed it was so innocuous that Reagan himself could attend a screening of it and walk away unoffended and unchallenged.

      And yet, it’s certainly a rare, gorgeous, compelling, oddball film creation which would have been verboten before and a few years later would more likely have been an HBO telemovie. I’d agree that it’s more period-flavorful than Ragtime (although that’s a good film). However, I’d also go on to say that Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America stomps them both right into the ground in that regard; it has an organic, truly intense sense of early 20th century urban life which neither of these works quite animates. And ultimately I think that illustrates one difference between a talented director like Beatty and a great one like Leone; Leone creates his world in much more depth, both on a tactile level and also emotionally.


  2. You’re definitely right about Leone, and it’s a shame he never got to further expand his horizons beyond Westerns before his death. I suppose, ultimately, that I recognize the same sprawling, “mix and match” approach that you do, but I’m more impressed with Beatty’s handling of so many disparate elements. It’s very easy to imagine a version of Reds that is a complete and utter mess, and not in a good way.

    By the way, I should have said earlier that this another excellent piece as I’ve come to expect from this website. I’ve been a reader for a long time, but this is the first time I’ve commented, so I just wanted you all to know how much I’ve enjoyed your writings over the years.


    • Roderick says:

      You’re right, Michael, in that Reds could have been a shambles, and whilst it has messy qualities overall it certainly isn’t a mess. I don’t want to sound overly critical myself; Reds is a very fine film, just one that falls short of the top rung for some reasons I’ve tried to elucidate. And thank you.


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