Saturday, January 21, 2012

"Reds" (1981) Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Maureen Stapleton

Genre: Drama
Last night i watched this film for the first time in thirty years. I found it a daring tour de force by star-director-co-screenwriter Warren Beatty at the time. "A three-hour film about an American Communist who goes to Russia...and dies" as he puts it in the DVD commentary was not potentially the stuff of box-office gold in 1981, the first year of Ronald Reagan and the most heated time of Cold War America since the early Sixties.

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.


  1. A key scene in the second half of the film. Reed has just delivered a speech for the Communist Party to an Islamic audience in Baku near the Caspian Sea in 1920. He finds a Russian leader, Zinoviev, altered his remarks. The irony here is that this same "alteration" for public consumption was what plauged him when he wrote for liberal magazines in the USA prior to 1917.

  2. Ten Days That Shook the World has become a catchphrase of mine since I read John Read at a time when I was reading copious communist and anarchist tracts, pamphlets and books during the late 70s. It was of course also the title of a soviet film by Sergei Eisenstein, as well as the inspiration for the film Reds which I saw and liked when it first came out in the UK. Watching the video again I thought ...ah those were the days.....days that are unfolding again but in new ways internationalist and anti-imperialist, but I also thought the choral Internationalé in this scene is so Hollywood because only Hollywood, Bollywood and North Korea still make films like this, or so it seemed to me anyway Doug.

  3. Zinoviev has a point, one can't allow bourgeois individualism and egotism to subvert the revolution in a war situation and you can't alter the course of history to big up the contribution of a foreign journalist.

  4. One of my all-time favorite films on a lot of levels, Doug - as Aaron said, it's interesting to re-view the film thirty years on and say, "Ah, those were the days" (in reference to the '80's-era context).

    You probably know that John Reed lived in the Portland area; the remains of the Reed estate are in the unincorporated town of Reedville, just west of Portland - most local residents don't know that the now-covered path which has a row of Poplar trees leading back off of Hwy 47 is literally the entrance to the estate - most of us who live in the immediate area pass it without knowing.

    Contrary to belief, his family didn't endow Reed College - that was another Reed from Portland....

  5. I remember seeing the Eisenstein film in a Russian History class ot long after seeing this film. The professor pointed up that some other film-maker, not Eisenstein who was needed elsewhere, shot and spliced an extra scene of an actor playing Stalin with Lenin and excised a lot of Trotsky.

    That's show biz!

    Yes, that last scene in the clip selection there is one of my favorites in the film---it has elements of a lot of successful films; the gritty underdog in a boxing movie like "Rocky"; some epic sweep a la one of Cecil DeMille's techicolor crowd-pleasers or David Lean's "Doctor Zhivago", all the more romantic smaltz (with an sex update) you see in movies like "Casablanca", "The Way We Were", and even a Russian guy who spent some time in Brooklyn or whatever for that all-important "Welcome handsome American people! You're just in time to sway the crowd" part.

    And all the singing! It's a small world after all, as Uncle Walt Disney said.

    I'm sure you're much more in scholarly synch with all the events of those days, AA, and where people in charge went wrong or right.

    (Irony alert: Reed's book was banned in Russia under Stalin, according to a source in Wikipedia. Also, Reed donated the profits of the book to the British Communist Party in his will. )

    I am certain some change does seem in the air--for good or ill in the case of the USA right now I'm not sure.

  6. And in case Mr. Reed missed that salient point...the mortar barrage from the White Army unit trying to blow up the train

    From my view, I like where Reed (Beatty) is going with his point about human freedom and some of more famous early Marxist writings would be with him I think. It's just he's acting like he's back at Harvard, and it's kinda beside the point to have an editorial conference when you got guys just outside trying to kill everybody in the room. It's a clever scene all-around as Reed and Zinoviev go at it a couple times in scenes leading up to that moment and that's the coda.

    Nothing like a mortar/machine gun barrage ever happened back in 1920 on the London and North Eastern Railway lines I'll wager.

    At least not in first-class.

  7. Yes, it seemed a nice irony to have Paramount Pictures (owned then by Gulf and Western) finance this movie, Will.

    Yes, I always wondered about that part about Reed College. I guess John Reed's his father was a reformer type, of the Teddy Roosevelt variety. He took a local position with the reform-minded rowd and lost a lot of friends with the local gentry. I'll have to check out Reedville when I go up that way.

  8. Sorry, I am entirely out of my league. But because your exchange was so interesting, here is five---- ;

  9. Yes I suppose it is Doug, also a somewhat ironic one because of all the leading Bolshevik's Zinoviev was the only one who opposed the 1917 "October Revolution" and the use of violence at the time. He had a chequered career which ultimately ended with his execution in 1936 after the show trials and the height of the 'Terror' of the Stalinist era.

    So far as Reed's antagonist is concerned Zinoviev was I think a soft target. Reed represents an American take on the Russian Revolution, Zinoviev is portrayed as the heartless bureaucrat and Comintern apparatchik juxtaposed with Reed's freedom loving anarchic intellectual, but there are other ways of viewing this I think.

    From Zinoviev's perspective Reed I think was an adventurer and maverick whose involvement represented another dimension of US interference in Russian affairs at that time. We should remember of course that Trotsky's return to Russia had been financed and facilitated by the US government. Zinoviev makes a good fall guy as he proved to be in Britain in 1924 when the PSYOP of the forged so-called 'Zinoviev Letter' caused the fall of the Labour government.

    It is a supreme irony I think that Reed is viewed by Bolsheviks like Zinoviev as a bourgeois pollutant interfering in the process of the unfolding revolution on the one hand, whereas a conspiracy of Western intelligence and the White Guards used Zinoviev himself to fabricate an anti-socialist outcome in Britain, and thereby Zinoviev unwittingly interfered in political outcomes here in the UK.

    A game of bluff and double bluff means nothing about the era was (or is) what it first appears and John Reed aided by his early and natural demise has become a hero of the revolution in Russia - and an icon for anti-communism in America.

    Reed demonstrates the achilles heal of communist internationalism, it allows the involvement of actors from abroad with unknown motives, backers and affiliations to infiltrate the vanguard party and help fuel schisms within it.

    That I think is why revolutionaries today do not belong to any vanguard party and internationalism has given way to a more all-inclusive globalism, the October Revolution demonstrated beyond any doubt that socialism-in-one-country (however big that country is) is not achievable, because the very existence (and bourgeois shape) of the nation state subverts the revolution.

    Reds is ultimately an anti-communist, anti-revolutionary propaganda film a sort of mirror image of Eisenstein and ultimately during the Reagan era a slightly cheeky exception (to exceptionalism) intended to demonstrate American values and thereby to prove the rule - bourgeois individualist frontiersmen always know best. A 'rule' now as outdated as the notion of bolshevism itself perhaps, but the question I am left asking is where was Armand Hammer at the time?

    Well, we know that he was seeking to appropriate the Romanov fortune and was another American privateer and soldier of (great) fortune speculating in Russia at the time.

    As an epilogue to this rambling comment (sorry about that Doug) I include a paragraph on Hammer from Wikipedia which to me helps shift the perspective on Reds and the whole John Reed story.

    It is one of the crucial pieces frequently missing from the official jigsaw I think.

    Hammer's intentions in the 1921 trip have been debated since. He has claimed that he originally intended to recoup $150,000 in debts for drugs shipped during the Allied intervention, but was soon moved by a capitalistic and philanthropic interest in selling wheat to the then-starving Russians. In his passport application, Hammer stated that he intended to visit only western Europe. J. Edgar Hoover in the Justice Department knew this was false, but Hammer was allowed to travel anyway.

  10. The Reed clan was colorful, all right - not much doubt of that. A lot of Portlanders still wish John had been born elsewhere, but there you have it.

    Reedville isn't much - it's a gas station, a few houses; a railroad-sign and an old boat-builder-turned-junkyard with a big rabbit-statue out front - as I said, the only way you'd know anything of substance had ever been there is that row of poplar-trees and the overgrown path. I understand that the foundation of the old house (which burned before I was born) is still there, too. No idea who owns the property.

  11. Thanks ,and please drop by again, Dragon.

  12. Irony indeed, AA. I had forgotten about that turning point from my own studies on the early Labour Party, AA--the infamous "Zinoviev Letter" that popped up right after MacDonald's minority government lost a vote of confidence. Later offical British investigations I gather has determined it was a White Russian "false flag' operation embraced as genuine by the Torys and the Libs and denied by Zinoviev.

    Yes, Zinoviev was a soft target. I gather he was always out of favor in an regine where all the power players had really long memories. He only came around to Lenin's way of thinking, officially, after the events of the October Revolution, and how much his heart was really in Lenin's all-or-nothing approach, well...

    It does point up the importance of Lenin's arrival back ot Russia in 1917, courtesy of the Germans. They thought he'd make some trouble for the Provisionals. Little did they know how much of Germany's own future they were changing; ditto the Americans with Trotsky.

    This was not Reed's revolution, although it must be said he was being used I think to provide some of that "international color" the Bolsheviks wanted. The leftists intellectuals who came and saw Russia in the ensuing years were given good treatment I gather and many went away having seen more "Potemkin Villages" than Catherine the Great herself.

    Hadn't thought of it quite that way, but , yes, the nation-state system is a a stumbling block to, say, workers' rights or any socialist system that means to unite people beyond national identity.

    Ironically financial capitalism itself seems to me quite keen to undermine the same system in its own way, transporting jobs away from developed nations and threatening elected leaders with the loss of personal and political suport if they don't get the economic "playing field" they want.

    Funny but not unture to think of "Reds" as yet another variation on the "frontier myth" that goes all back to the adventures of Natty Bumpo and those "Leatherstocking" novels by James Fenimore Cooper, but good myths die hard, AA. Really hard.

    The long-lived Armand Hammer was quite the hustler, wasn't he? I know his time in Russia was significant in that era (from 1921 to 1930, with many visits later) and he made a fortune by befriending the most unlikely of power players across the Capitalist-Communist divide. An interesting character I need to read more about.

    Thaks for your adding your informative "takes" as always.

  13. Gee, a junkyard and a few buldings; down my way that would be an incorporated municipality!

    A shame they couldn't have those trees made into a park in memory of the Reed family, Will. Time has passed and tie-ins to colorful characters make for good tourist opportunities.

    I'd just like to see a couple acres set aside up there to drive the GOP reps down here to distraction. ;-)

    I like the rabbit statue there. We gotta keep that.

  14. Doug, this is a photo of Harvey Marine, which used to be a manufacturer of fiberglass fishing boats (some of which surface on Old Boat Trader every now and then); the mascot (which used to be a larger-than-life statue of a Richfield station-attendant from the 1950's; Atlantic-Richfield, now ARCO, used to put them in front of their gas-stations) is called 'Harvey', for reasons I shouldn't have to explain.

    "Harvey" was created in the '70's by the last of the boatbuilding crew before they shut down the manufacturing line; they literally beheaded the Richfield attendant and made him a fiberglass head. Locals still give direction based on relative direction and distance from 'the Rabbit'.

    You can sort of tell from the photo that the place used to house something a little more substantial; the entire building is twice that long, and sits right on Highway 8, one of the main east-west thoroughfares from suburban Portland out to points-west (and eventually, the coast.)

    "Harvey" is about 150yds east of the entrance to the former Reed estate.

    (Now, your day is complete. I know it....):

  15. It is Will. It is. :-)

    Honorable mention to the "feeling crabby??" sign in the shop.

    Thanks for that photo.

  16. Thank you for the read. I love to stop by interesting people's sites and see what is up.

  17. Thanks for dropping in, Bennett.

  18. Well yes, but its not a bad it?

  19. Not a bit bad, AA...if I had had a teenaged sister back in the day, and she brought home a well-rabbit dressed like that, I'm sure my mom would have been most pleased.