Warren Beatty’s 1981 film, Reds, tells the story of John Reed and Louise Bryant, two American journalists who were witnesses to the Russian Revolution. Beatty wrote the screenplay with Trevor Griffiths. Watching this film, one is impressed by the personal courageousness of Reed and Bryant, as well as by their commitment to social justice. They were interesting and inspiring people, so I wish I could give this film an unqualified endorsement, but unfortunately it has a number of problems with it.

At nearly three hours, Reds is too long, mainly because the first half largely consists of scenes of Reed (Warren Beatty) and Bryant (Diane Keaton), who were married, bickering with each other, as well as scenes of Bryant having an affair with Eugene O’Neil (Jack Nicholson). The film doesn’t get interesting until about halfway through when Reed and Bryant go to Russia. Beatty and Griffiths seemed to have had trouble making convincing characters out of historical figures. O’Neil, for example, mostly just drinks a lot and glowers at people. It’s hard to see why Bryant is attracted to him.

Lenin and Trotsky appear only briefly. Zinoviev (Jery Kosinski) and Radek (Jan Triska) are the only Bolshevik leaders depicted in any detail. Reed’s feud with Zinoviev provides much of the drama in the second half of the film. Zinoviev comes across as a bit of a bully and somewhat dishonest, although personally brave. Reed, on the other hand, comes across as a bit ultra-left. He opposes the idea of communists trying to work within the American Federation of Labor, for example. Unfortunately for the film, their conflict is left unresolved because of Reed’s untimely death.

Reds does not romanticize the Russian Revolution. There are discussions about the collapse of the Russian economy and the high-handed methods of the Bolsheviks. Yet the film also points out that sixteen foreign armies (including the U.S. army) invaded Russia. This is a point that often gets conveniently ignored in discussions about the Russian Revolution.

Beatty does possess skill as a director. The scene in which Bryant’s home is raided by government agents, for example, is effectively done, as is the scene in which White Army soldiers attack a train on which Reed is traveling.

The film includes interviews with “witnesses”, people who knew Reed and Bryant. Most of their comments are unilluminating, and some are downright inane. (George Jessel is inexplicably allowed to sing.) They mostly serve as a distraction from the story. I think the film would actually have been better if these had been left out.

While we are on the topic of historical portrayals, I must say I always thought Patrick Stewart would make a good Lenin. So you can imagine my pleasant surprise when I learned that Stewart actually did play Lenin in a BBC TV-series in the early 1970’s entitled The Fall of Eagles. Here is a clip from the series that depicts Lenin’s return to Russia in 1917:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: