But the film did do well enough at the box office to make a small profit and earn a number of awards, including an Oscar for Beatty as a director and Maureen Stapelton in her role as Emma Goldman.
The film follows early 20th Century American globe-trotting journalist and activist John "Jack" Reed and Louise Bryant as writers and political radicals. They fall in love and then, after moving from staid Portland, Oregon, to living a bohemian lifestyle in the Greenwich Village part of New York (and having some tumultuous old-fashioned Hollywood romantic complications) go to Russia to witness, report and (for Reed) participate in the October Revolution of 1917. Seeing the film the first time prompted me to go out and read John Reed's "Ten Days That Shook the World" and its a great piece of reportage, and historically significant even if some critics have found it too kind to one political movement in that revolution.
Written as it was at the beginning of such an epochal event in human history, Reed can be forgiven for being a bit too romantic about the possibilities of what was happening in Russia to empower workers and forgotten people all over the world.
The first half of the film shows us Reed's view of the Revolution and the growth of radical labor politics in World War II era America. The scene with the laborers in the barn in the clip is indicative of that.
The second half of the film shows how those around Reed (including Bryant and Emma Goldman) become more disillusioned with the chances of radical change in America and the high cost that Lenin's government is exacting on the Russian people. At the same time, Beatty and his fellow screenwriter, the British playwright Trevor Griffiths, make it clear that Reed is a man who is a man trapped between his own country (where he faces jail for sedition charges stemming from opposing the entry of America in World War One) and his lack of total revolutionary fervor for some in Russia who increasingly use him as a tool to promote their own ideas as the Bolsheviks desperately try to fight off the attempts by disenfranchised revolutionary parties, moderate and reactionary groups and foreign armies who mean to bring down their government. He seems a man without a country, chasing a revolution that has little use for his true reflections.
I couldn't help wondering what would have become of Reed's view of Russia had he lived longer? According to a quote attributed to Bryant, he felt at the end of his life he might have misjudged the Bolsheviks. But there is controversy there. What we do know without controversy is that John Reed at his best was courageous and had no tolerance for censorship or the lies of politicians or bureaucrats.
It's clear though his is a tale that would be little known outside formal history classes in America were it not for the box office clout of a American film star. No matter what you think about the beliefs of these two main people when you reflect upon them, I think most would say this is a tale well worth the telling.