REDS: ROMANCE OR MISLED IDEALISM
Director: Warren Beatty
Time: apx. 3hrs. 29 mins.
The Road to Revolution Is Paved with Good Intentions
By Doug Ewing
Miranda: O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in-t!
Prospero: ‘Tis new to thee!
The Tempest (V.i. 181.84)
Miranda is too truly human, all too grandly, human. Someone should take her to see Reds. She might, then, realize the only brave new world we’ll ever know resides within the human heart, encased in ribs of clay, divinely inspired, historically informed. Reds bears shining, 70 mm, witness to the existence of a spark in man that would, if it only could, marry heaven to earth, though the notion is so foolish as to be truly beautiful.
Jack Reed was an American contemporary of Trotsky, possessed of similar talents. He poured his life out in a stirring, futile attempt to establish a socialist world-state of laboring dignity, truth, liberty, and justice for all, amen. He is now a box of bones in the Kremlin. In Reds, Warren Beatty breathes life back into Jack Reed’s flesh, while holding the revolutionary dreamer up for reverent ridicule. It is a mammoth undertaking (three hours and twenty minutes of high romantic adventure), but Reds proves well worth the film it’s printed on.
Reds is a period piece, set against a backdrop of war, Greenwich Village radicalism, and revolution in the years from 1916 to 1920. Boldly conceived and tastefully executed, it is to be commended for the distance it insists exists between audience and silver screen, the distance between past and present. Costume designs are faithfully, unobtrusively pre-flap: as Louise Bryant, Diane Keaton gets to drag some of her Annie Hall outfits out of mothballs. Women still wear their hair long. Streets are full of horsedrawn coal carts and antique automobiles. The whimsical strains of “You Can’t Come and Play in my Yard” drift in and out of the film, and the song’s simple, nursery rhyme quality reinforces the depiction of the era’s naiveté. (Anyone remember the ukelele?) Director Warren Beatty-he does everything but run the projector and sell popcorn-scatters the reminiscences of thirty-two aged witnesses through Reds to further accent our distance from the teenage of the 20th century. We are invited to recognize the irreversible passage of sixty years in old, wrinkled faces.
In the beginning, Jack Reed (Warren-heaven can’t wait-Beatty) meets Louise Bryant at the Liberal Club in Portland, Oregon. Asked to appraise the importance of the European war Reed rises to respond, simply, “Profits.” Bryant collars him afterward, badgers him into an interview, and they end up taking each other by storm on the very next night. Bryant is introduced as a silly, moody dilettante who holds to ideas of role relationships that are as blurry as the photos she keeps in her studio. That seems to suit Reed, who is as careless with his women as he is with the food on other people’s plates. Together, they form a relationship around juvenile clichés we’ve come to know and ignore as so much singles’ bar blather. Reed leaves for New York. Bryant follows. A dialectical pattern of desertion, reunion, and subsequent growth toward true sympathy is established, and followed throughout the film. Their notions of freedom within love gradually mature.
Greenwich Village is the capital of coffee shop socialism, inhabited by earnest, young, middle class radicals. It is an island in New York, which is an island in America, which is portrayed as a country that does, admittedly, have its problems. Men still work for as little as a dime a day, seven days a week, yet can be forcibly denied the right of peaceful assembly. Women can’t even vote. It is an America soon to be taken into war by Woodrow (no-war) Wilson, where “subversive” journalists mysteriously disappear from print. Abysmal conditions give birth to the American labor movement, and the dissatisfaction of popular socialists in Greenwich Village is as understandable as that of their counterparts in Bloomsbury or Gertrude Stein’s Parisian circle. However, in their Utopian zeal, radicals build dreams on premises of sand, and history comes to remember them as “the lost generation.”
From New York to Provincetown to Croton-on-Hudson, Reed and Bryant laugh, fight, and love well together. Beatty and Keaton do solid justice to a bright, muscular Beatty-Griffiths script that challenges, yet stays within, the admirable range of both leads. Some of their verbal exchanges are real slash-and-stab affairs. “I don’t care! Yes, you care!” they shout at one another, reversing roles from scene to scene, when, in fact, it is tenderly evident that they both care far more than their “free spirit” poses will let them admit. Jealousy (how unhip) splits up the couple in Croton-on-Hudson, and Bryant traipses off to France. Boy follows girl, gives her a ticket to Petrograd, and she follows him.
Reds presents a scenario in which the Russian revolution turns red because Kerensky baptizes it in trenches of blood. Bloody war spawns Bolshevist sentiment, as desperate hunger feeds it. The regime tucked away in the Czar’s Winter Palace has lost touch with the needs of its people, and something must be done. The Russian people, in their misery, need a pain killer, and reasonable men can, given such times, be excused for succumbing to the narcotic allure of Bolshevism. The road to revolution is paved with good intentions.
Heed and Bryant cover the glorious revolution as strict journalistic partners-no sharing names, bylines, beds, etc. They are to be separated in the same room. However, they cultivate a new professional respect for each other which, in turn, engenders a revival of affection. They end up clutching each other just before intermission, in a shot lifted directly from the classic scene of Rhett and Scarlett with Atlanta blazing in the background in Gone With the Wind.
Together again, they return to New York. Bryant is growing up, as Reed prepares to leap off the deep end into party politics. His sense of humor drowns in the fanfare accompanying publication of his Ten Days That Shook the World. He takes up the cross of a congenitally ineffectual American communist movement. Politics play hell with their marriage. Reed proposes leaving for Russia to represent what Bryant bitterly and accurately calls, “Half of half of the left . . . fourteen intellectuals in a basement who propose to tell the workers of America what they want, whether they want it or not.” He leaves her anyway, alone with her work.
As an aside, Reds shores up its leading roles with a fine supporting cast. Maureen Stapleton plays a strong, wittily consistent Emma Goldman; an outspoken feminist and professional revolutionary who, to the grace of her character, is never too stubborn to admit when she’s been wrong. George Plimpton is dutifully obnoxious. Gene Hackman is chronically drunk. Jack Nicholson is magnificent. Actually, magnificent is, in this case, near understatement. Nicholson plays the devil out of Eugene O’Neill, plays him like the neighborhood rattlesnake, with a heart, manifestly sapient, an artist coiled up with a bottle in a crabapple tree. He calls Reed a “pretentious SOB,” Bryant a “lying Irish whore,” and loves them both to death. He throws one particularly devastating shot into the teeth of Bryant’s socialist ardor:
Something in me tightens when the eyes of an American intellectual shine, and they start to talk about the ‘Russian people’. . . . I feel I’m being offered another brand of Irish Catholicism . . ., and women think that as long as they talk about the revolution before going to bed with a man, then it’s not so much sex as missionary work.
Bryant comes back with a sharp reminder that it’s easy to sit on one’s own and, “observe human inadequacy from inside a bottle,” but O’Neill has cut her, with surgical precision. Nicholson doesn’t need a whacko role to prove he’s crazy. Maybe playing a supporting character gives him breathing room to bring his talent under control, sculpting a real Eugene O’Neill. He may think he is O’Neill.
Meanwhile, back on the commune, the glorious revolution has degenerated into a good-news, bad-news joke. Reed and Bryant go through hells trying to get back together. The Party tells Reed that his place is that of, “An engineer on the locomotive that pulls the revolution along tracks of historic necessity laid out by the party,” and that he “can always return to the personal life, but he can never, never return to this particular moment in history.” The bad news is that the train of revolution rums out to be an iron monster clouded in the steam that powers it. Reed’s eloquence is debased into propaganda, and his integrity defaced by party translation of his work. He has become a tool servicing a machine. The good news is that Reed and Bryant can be reunited; that spirit alone cannot transform history, but it can, if it will, survive it. When the train of state lumbers into Petrograd station from its diplomatic mission to Baku, we can see the broken glass and tattered banners; idealism has ossified into tyrannical “necessity.” But on that station platform, as man and wife embrace, there is an element of triumph that Reds has rendered entirely believable. In their respective struggles for reunion, Reed and Bryant have redeemed their aimless hearts. As free lover dings to free lover and Reed sobs, “Don’t leave me, please don’t leave me,” we are at last ready to believe that Bryant no longer will.
Certain romantic poets misread Paradise Lost, giving Lucifer mistaken credit for having stolen the show. They ignore Milton’s grand design and exaggerate the importance of a single, brilliantly drawn character. There is a temptation to viewReds that way; to view it as an appeal to, or apology for eternal Bolshevik revolution; to view it as the Jack Reed Show; to deny the film a vision larger than that of its most sensational leading character. But the film is larger than the man.
Warren Beatty keeps Reds at arms length, long ago and far away, where we are at liberty to approach it as romantic adventure and, if so desired, to purchase a videodisc for home-view. Every campus radical should see this film. If they are still looking for a fairytale built on solid rock, Reds will direct them to Disneyland where they can dose their eyes, go for a ride, and forget about the real world for a while.
A Candidate for Sainthood?
By David Green
Warren Beatty’s new film, Reds, has been praised by critics writing for publications spanning the ideological spectrum from the far Left to the moderate Right. The Nation called it “heartlifting”; People’s World called it “daring” and “courageous”; and the Wall Street Journal, of all publications, called it an “astonishing achievement, and easily the finest [movie] of the year.” Most critics have gone beyond praising the technical side of the film-which, admittedly, is impressive-to praise the movie’s subject, John Reed. Several critics have even referred to him as a saint, conceding, to be sure, that his character was not without flaws. Clearly, that is the impression Beatty wishes to leave us with as we depart from his three and one half hour long epic which celebrates the life of John Reed, the founder of the American Communist Labor Party. Reds ends with the recently deceased hero, Reed, lying in a hospital bed, his head suffused in light, his adoring wife kneeling at his side. The scene evidently is supposed to call to mind images of Christian saints as depicted in medieval art. Beatty makes no pretence of Reed’s being a traditional saint; rather he is, as Robert Hatch contends, a “revolutionary saint.” From such saints we would do well to be delivered.
Reds begins with Harvard graduate Reed in Portland, Oregon visiting his mother’s home. There he meets and quickly falls in love with Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), who, though married, in short order seduces him in a church courtyard as Onward Christian Soldiers plays in the distance. Reed implores Bryant to join him in New York, at Greenwich Village, which eventually she does, and there the two of them soon immerse themselves in their work as radical journalists. For a while, Reed and Bryant are very much at home amidst the bustling bohemianism of Greenwich Village. During most days and long into many nights, they cavort playfully with fellow proletarians in tweeds. Together with their friends they work feverishly to bring to pass what one gathers is the radical dream: that of transforming the United States into Greenwich Village writ large.
Reed and company act ostensibly on behalf of America’s underprivileged; they speak endlessly about the plight of the poor. But they seem motivated not so much by idealism as by the considerable ill will they harbor against American society and institutions, and by their well-nigh irresistible impulse to be chic: this season sedition is chic. Reed seems to believe that America is inhabited chiefly by philistines, bigots, robber barons, and warmongers. Consequently, he lets no opportunity pass for expressing his disdain for all things American. He is particularly galled at the prospect of the United States entering World War I. To forestall that occurrence, he travels far and wide to quell incipient outbreaks of patriotic sentiment.
Reed’s sidekick, Louise Bryant, enlivens the narrative considerably. Their relationship tends to be a bit feisty: in one scene, they engage in a violent dialectical struggle during which numerous objects are hurled. Ms. Bryant is a feminist of the undiluted variety and, as such, she is a highly concentrated bundle of loudly expressed and often contradictory opinions and impulses. As a believer in free love she does not hesitate to have affairs with two men simultaneously, but she packs up and leaves when her husband, Reed, hints that he himself has been a practitioner of free love. The murkiness of her thinking extends to virtually all spheres of human inquiry and enterprise. But for all her confusion, Bryant nevertheless displays, in the end, an altogether admirable degree of devotion to her beleaguered husband. Her decision to travel thousands of miles in order to track him down represents a remarkable triumph of decency over feminist cant.
The highlight of Reed and Bryant’s adventures occurs during their sojourn into Russia on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution. Mao once said that a revolution is not a “dinner party, nor an essay, nor a painting, nor a piece of embroidery; it cannot be advanced softly, gradually, carefully, considerately, respectfully, politely, plainly, and modestly.” Reed and Bryant, to the contrary, believe that revolutions are great fun, particularly the Bolshevik Revolution. At no time are they happier than when actively participating in its heady excess. Reed at one point takes to the stump to affirm, presumptuously and falsely, that all American laborers stand behind their Russian brethren in their desire for revolution. Reed is cheered wildly. When the mobs march through Petrograd, Reed and Bryant march with them, singing theInternationale and smiling ecstatically.
Encouraged by the success of the Bolshevik Revolution-indeed, exhilarated by it-Reed and Bryant return to the United States in hopes of fomenting revolution there as well. Reed begins, and soon completes, his chronicle of the revolution (Ten Days That Shook the World) and then plunges again into radical politics. In short order this preeminent rabble-rouser is turned upon by his fellow rabble. Expelled from the Socialist Party, Reed and his followers form the Communist Labor Party, which immediately dispatches him to Moscow to seek the recognition of the Comintern. Reed and Bryant’s troubles resume as a result of his decision to go to Moscow. Bryant hints that she will abandon him if he follows through on his travel plans. Reed leaves for Moscow anyway. In the next several months circumstances conspire to persuade the erstwhile revolutionaries of the folly of their “idealism.”
Reed is disturbed by the icy reception he receives in Moscow. Not only are there no crowds to cheer him, but the communist bureaucrats with whom he confers are noticeably uninterested in what he has to say. Unable to achieve his goal of gaining recognition for his party, Reed decides to flee Russia (he had been denied permission to leave). He is captured and imprisoned, however, by Finnish troops; and is released only after Lenin agrees to exchange several dozen Finnish professors for him.
Back in Moscow, Reed confers with his fellow radical from the Greenwich Village days, Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton), who is in Russia after having been deported from the United States. Goldman expresses disillusionment over the course of the revolution; Reed, in contrast, asserts his continued loyalty and maintains that a certain amount of repression is to be expected and tolerated in the establishment of a worker’s paradise. Reed has a ready answer when Goldman challenges him to name the culprit responsible for the failings of the revolution: the United States. Reed thereby confirms the invincible tendency of radicals to blame the United States for all evils extant in the world.
There are limits, however, to Reed’s toleration of Soviet repression. At a party conference in Baku, Reed delivers a bland speech extolling the virtues of communism, revolution, and anarchy. When one of his statements sets off a wild demonstration, he is perplexed. Afterwards he discovers that his speech had been altered by Soviet translators. Instead of merely advocating a “class war,” he is heard to advocate a “holy war.” Never mind that a call for war of any sort is odd coming from a pacifist like Reed; the point is, Reed knows tyranny when he sees it. It is one thing for the Soviets to create an oppressive police state; it is quite another for them to tamper with one of his adjectives. Reed thereupon lectures the party leadership on the necessity of allowing dissent, but they, it turns out, are strangely unreceptive to American Civil Liberties Union rhetoric. Reed is surprised.
In Petrograd, Reed is reunited with his wife Louise, whose own arrival culminates a long and perilous journey to reach him. Their reunion is a happy one, but Reed’s health soon degenerates. Before long, Reed dies, professing to his wife his desire that she remember him as a fellow “comrade.”
Numerous critics have hailed Reed as an idealist, not to mention saint, because of
his determined labors on behalf of what they deem to be a noble cause. Defenders of Reed point out that he eventually became disillusioned with the Soviet regime, and that he never would have tolerated its Stalinist excesses in later years. They say that it is a pity that his “grand” dream of ushering in a worker’s paradise never came to pass. It is a bit bizarre, however, to speak of a communist revolution going sour. By Marxist principles it cannot help but go sour. Marxism, after all, calls for a dictatorship of the proletariat. That dictatorship, to be sure, is eventually supposed to wither away, but Marx did not specify whether that withering away is to take place after one millennium or ten.
Reed seems to go beyond simple communism, to an endorsement of direct democracy. He dislikes rules of procedure, credentials requirements, and bureaucrats. He seems to admire direct democracy for the very reasons James Madison condemned it. In The Federalist Papers (#10), Madison notes that “such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths.” As a communist, Reed is hostile to the rights of property. As a journalist, he relishes the prospect of turbulence and contention. As a romanticist, he is too foolish and ignorant to realize that such governments are as short in their lives as they are violent in their deaths. Whatever can be said on behalf of Warren Beatty’s John Reed, it cannot be said that his politics constitutes a solid base for political societies.
Several of the critics who called Reed a saint also argue that Reds is essentially a “period piece.” In this way they suggest that the mentality which the film depicts is no longer with us, or at least that it has greatly abated with the passing of time. Indeed, this misled idealism is more characteristic of our era than it was of Reed’s. (Scandanavian university students, when asked which country they most admire, often reply, with all seriousness, “Albania.”) Wiser and more sober minds will protest the debasement of the language involved in calling Reed and others like him saints, and at the very least will seek to defer their canonization.