“What was the question again?” Warren Beatty asked self-deprecatingly after one of his interesting and infinite free associative rambles at the 44th New York Film Festival. Having recently viewed Reds for the first time with a live audience, Beatty -- who served as director, star, producer and cowriter of the film -- said he "would not change a frame." Accurately doubtful of commercial success, Beatty indicated he’d done Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait and other films during the long gestation, research and several rewrites for Reds.
Embraced by critics and awards voters, the work proved weak at the box office, where “unlike paintings, movies are slaves to the release date.” Entering the conservatism of Reagan’s inaugural term, 1981 America was not officially at war, “not the same dynamics as now, or earlier in Vietnam,” and some picketed what they misread as this pro-Communist propaganda. In cinema circles, Reds did transform the image of the famous Lothario into that of a serious auteur solid enough to survive the financial fiasco of Ishtar, and one of the movie colony’s more liberal representatives.
Beatty praised the changes wrought by video and now DVD technology. On October 17, Paramount Home Entertainment is releasing the film for the first time in the latter format, a 25th Anniversary Edition whose Disc 2 showcases the usual “In-Depth, Never-Before Seen” paraphernalia. Seizing the day, and the times, publicity proclaims this a “Politically Charged Tour De Force . . . a bold and powerful true story.” Effective filmmaking it is, but the encomiums are more eyewash than eyewitness.
Its English title from John Reed’s account, and commissioned by Moscow for the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Eisenstein’s Ten Days That Shook the World aka October/Oktyabr is unapologetic propaganda -- Trotsky was soon edited out -- that, for all its score and rare footage, lacks continuity and a sense of the individual in exemplifying its director’s “intellectual montage” theory. Hollywood history, on the other hand, routinely reduces real events to spectacle gathered around two players.
Shakespeare would also toy with history or its legends and embody philosophical abstracts and types in a few characters but did not in the process lose sight of the complexities of individuals and groups. Moneyed cinema, however, aims squarely for the heartstrings, and purse strings. Early on, DeMille’s blatantly distorted Americana sought b&w spectacle, whereas color extravaganza history has relied on romance. Gone with the Wind and Lean’s much overpraised (but respectfully cited by Beatty) Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago are lavish love stories that play fast and loose with background events.
Shot against plain black, Reds’ “witnesses,” contemporaries and friends of Reed, are intentionally not identified, so as to avoid a sense of documentary, but the dozens of intellectuals and artists sprinkled throughout give much of the impression, and the contradictions, of the man of flesh and blood. As the radical journalist, Beatty is charming, boyish, naïve. The serious glue of the whole is his then-ladyfriend Diane Keaton as aspiring writer Louise Bryant, who leaves her dull dentist husband to follow Reed to a life sparkling with the bubbly and intelligentsia of the era.
Advocates of fashionable free love, the two mate, squabble, make up and, as much a surprise to themselves as others, get legally hitched. Cynical Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson, neither gaunt nor soulful enough for the part) hankers after her, too -- their affair precipitates the marriage -- and recognizes the woman’s frustration at being an appendage of her famous husband, with her own talents not taken seriously. Though she balks at times, asserts herself and imposes conditions, she follows her man to the ends of the earth once he briefly joins her in World War I France. Their historical partings and reunions are altered for cinematic convenience, at times ridiculously so, as in her Little Eva crossing of frozen Finland.
Reed had returned to the Soviet Union to plead for recognition of his divided compatriot workers, Socialists and Communist Labor Party members. There the deported Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton) already realizes that the Revolution has been hijacked by bureaucrats like Grigory Zinoviev (Jerzy Kosinski), who for muddled reasons would keep Reed as a political accomplice-prisoner.
Sought by Federal agents for sedition at home, minus one kidney and suffering from typhus, at thirty-three the hero dies in a hospital at the moment Bryant steps out to get him water. Contrary to legend, not the only American buried at the Kremlin, he left a legacy of naïve idealism bolstered by undoubted courage. Guilty of no more than being the radical’s wife and, with O’Neill’s help, entering Finland illegally and then Russia, center-framed in the doorway Bryant mourns. Her better celluloid half gone, the love story over, she does not merit a few more feet covering the disastrous remainder of her life.
Although banned by Stalin’s censors, Reed’s account in fact heightened drama at the expense of accuracy, and so, “much of [Eisenstein’s] film is fiction, as is indeed much of Reed’s book.” The same holds for Reds, equally fancy and fact, its tagline that “not since Gone with the Wind has there been a great romantic epic like it.” Not so good as its initial reputation, and marred by historical bluff and jarring cutesiness (reportedly from uncredited script doctor Elaine May), it is nevertheless the sweeping melodramatic stuff of classic moviemaking.
(Released by Paramount Home Entertainment and rated "PG" by MPAA .)