When Reds was released in 1981 I was 9 years old. I saw it in a theater with my parents. Taking a 9 year old to see a movie that is primarily about a radical journalist’s roll in The Russian Revolution is one of those things that I look back on wonder what the hell my parents were thinking. Given that also dealt with that journalist’s sexual relationship with his paramour/wife in a very frank way, I’m kind of stunned that Children Protective Services weren’t knocking on our apartment door to take me away to some foster home. I mean it wasn’t like there was explicit sexual content but the movie makes no bones about the fact Jack Reed and Louise Bryant were having sex. It is equally blunt about Bryant’s affair with Eugene O’Neil. But these are events that that help provide the overall tale of Jack Reed, an American who became a hero to Soviet Russia.
The tale of how Warren Beatty struggled to get Reds made is equally as interesting as movie’s protagonist. Beatty was looking to produce a story about Jack Reed. Beatty had been working on a script about Reed for a ten year period between 1966-1976. He brought on screenwriter Trevor Griffiths and towards the end writer Elaine May to help finish the final draft and by 1978 Beatty had taken his original title for the movie Comrades and morphed it into, what became, the final version of Reds. By all accounts, Beatty hadn’t even planned to be involved with the movie outside of producing it but trying to recruit Hollywood names to star and direct about an American Communist in a country that was on the cusp of making Ronald Reagan the 40th President of The United States. Beatty was making a movie that never would have gotten financed at any point between 1938-1975 based solely on anti-Communist paranoia, Cold War fear and a little thing like The House Un-American Activities Committee.
The thing about Reds is, you cannot take out the politics out of the movie because Jack Reed was a very political figure in both America and Russia. He went from being Journalist with pro-socialist leanings to to true believer of Communist Revolution. His friends included other socialists and anarchists like Emma Goldman and Max Eastman. It seems that Reds tries to get across the point there were to major loves in Reed’s life, his dedication to radicalism and his love for Louise Bryant. I mean Jack Reed was a man that touted some unpopular ideas, many would make the argument that his beliefs were “Un-American”. Reds does more to paint a picture of Reed as a man of principle, a man who stuck to his ideals. Not so much a total Communist as much as he was an Idealist. A man who knew that he could not remain an objective journalist if he was going to be true to himself. At the same time, the movie still manages to paint a picture of Reed as American through and through. He knew that the country of his birth was born from a revolution that shook off oppression but also understood that for there to be actual progress that a true “Revolution” is never ending because there is always some form of oppression or tyranny to rebel against. This was a man that was a man that was just as concerned with being home for Christmas as he was taking part in “the Glorious Revolution”.
Reed witnessed the October Revolution firsthand and wrote Ten Days That Shook The World so people the world over could understand the point of what was happening in Russia during October of 1917. By his own admission, Reed had ceased to be an objective reporter. His views on the Russian Revolution were not neutral and he admits to that in the preface of Ten Days That Shook The World.
“I tried to see the events with the eye of a conscientious reporter”, wrote Reed, “yet in the struggles my sympathies were not neutral”. His sympathies and beliefs show that Reed tries to be honest in his chronicle and lets you know where he stood.
The first half of Reds is all about how Reed went from objective reporter to radical writer. It shows you how he met and fell in love with Louise Bryant and how both of them try to actually carve out their own little piece of the “American Dream”. Infidelities drive them apart but reporting on The Russian Revolution leads to them reuniting professionally and romantically. The first half of the movie also paints a portrait of how political thought and ideals were developing in America at the time (th early 1900s). Socialism, Communism and to a lesser extent Anarchism were still relatively new concepts that were being embraced by people from different backgrounds. These were politics that made pleas to the disenfranchised masses. Men, women, immigrants… all of them had a place for these as equals, or so they were told, with these philosophies. But Reds also reminds us that just because people may fight under the same banner, doesn’t mean they share the same ideas of how to achieve their goals. In the second half of the movie we are shown how the effects of World War I pro-war sentiment split the Socialist Party, leading to the formation of 2 different organizations seeking to be recognized as official branches of the Communist Party in Russia. We are exposed to the other truth of the Russian Revolution, about how those that took power waited for Vladimir Lenin’s physical state to deteriorate and twist the worker’s paradise into a the dictatorship it was going end being under Stalin. We see how Jack Reed, once a stalwart supporter of the Revolution, may have become disenchanted with it towards his final days. How that while the October Revolution was dramatic and important to history, what came after was not what was promised by any means.
Reds is also one of those epic movies that covers an epic series of events from history that demands it have an epic cast. On top of Betty taking up the mantle of Jack Reed there is Diane Keaton as Louise Bryant, a woman that was trying to not be hat society wanted a woman to be. Bryant as opinionated, artistic and outspoken. The fact that Keaton and Beatty were romantically involved before the movie and during its filming only adds ot their onscreen chemistry. There are stories that point to the fights between Beatty and Keaton on camera might be a bit to real, as the two split up not long after Reds was released. Then there is Jack Nicholson as Eugene O’Neill. Its one of those movies that remind you of how Nicholson can be. His O’Neill is a gruff asshole who speaks his mind, yet still a man that will help a friend when the friend needs it most. Then there is Maureen Stapleton, who plays Emma Goldman, revolutionary and anarchist, the first person to point out to Jack Reed that just because there isa revolution in Rusia, it isn’t necessarily the revolution it was meant to be. Everyone named was nominated for an Academy Award for acting, with Stapleton taking home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but there are so many other faces that crop up. Gene Hackman as Jack Reed’s newspaper editor, Edward Herman as Max Eastman, Paul Sorvino as Labor Leader/Communist Louis Franzia. Hell if you blink then you’re probably going to miss someone. Its a loaded cast and they all come geard up with great performances.
In the end Reds is a love story. It is about Jack Reed and how he has to find balance between his wife, Louise Bryant, and his love for his own Idealism. It is abut how even a series of bloody, world changing events, cannot keep 2 people apart. Reds has one of those iconic moments in film, the train station scene between Jack Reed (played by Beatty) and Louise Bryant (played by Beatty’s then lover Diane Keaton). It is one of those scenes in movies that is etched in my mind. That image of 2 people, both in tatters, finally see each other again after the ordeals they have both been through to see one another again. The results of the Revolution around them, while important, matter less than the 2 people, embracing and holding onto one another for dear life because, at that moment, all that matters to them is each other.