Warren Beatty might be the leading cinematic martyr of his time: His character gets killed at the end of Bonnie and Clyde, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Parallax View, Bugsy, and Bulworth. He gets killed at the beginning and end of Heaven Can Wait. At the end of Reds, Beatty dies not in the usual fusillade of lead but pathetically, in a fetid hospital. The proximate cause is disease, but really he’s just one of many victims of the Russian Revolution.
I’ve always been puzzled by conservative disdain for Reds, the 1981 film about the radical journalist John Reed that won Beatty a Best Director Oscar and also won an Oscar nomination for Jack Nicholson and an Oscar for Maureen Stapleton as, respectively, Eugene O’Neill and Emma Goldman, Reed’s friends and fellow radicals. (The film is available to stream for subscribers of Hulu and Amazon Prime.) Yes, the first half is Bolshevik propaganda, culminating in the scene just before the intermission (this would be the last film shown in theaters with an intermission for 34 years) that could have been used as a recruitment piece for international socialism. Photographed in glorious strokes by Vittorio Storaro, who also won an Oscar, it’s a dizzying montage of Beatty’s Reed, his wife Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), and other Bolsheviks celebrating victory in the October 1917 Russian Revolution to the strains of “The Internationale,” the unofficial anthem of the Revolution.
Given Beatty’s reputation as an ardent and unapologetic leftist, it would be understandable if conservatives simply walked out of the film at intermission, and perhaps many did. Yet as with Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, the two David Lean films to whom Reds openly pays homage, the entire second half of the film constitutes a rebuttal and a corrective to the first half. Act One ends with a bender; Act Two is a hangover. Reds develops into a warning about the folly of utopian thinking and a specific inquiry into how Bolshevism went so spectacularly wrong that even its most vigorous supporters, true zealots who had traveled halfway around the world to work in its behalf, couldn’t fail to notice. For the film to have a tragic arc, it’s vital that it be told from the point of view of someone like Reed, who in essence gave his life for his belief in international socialism. The ecstasy of the closing moments of the first half is undone by a steady descent into disillusionment.
After the old order has been upended, asks the second half of Reds, what next? Things start to go sour for Reed when he returns to the U.S. in 1918 to try to implement Bolshevism. He and the movement get bogged down in infighting and friends begin to notice the dark element of his idealism. Asked by Bryant to show some concern for a comrade, Reed is dismissive of such individualistic thinking: “Listen to me, building a party will help Eddie.” One of the many leftist “witnesses” from the era whose filmed testimony Beatty used in the film is seen saying: “We all have problems. You can’t escape having problems, don’t you know. But to take on the problem of all humanity, to save all humanity, my God, that was too big even for Jesus Christ. Don’t you know he got himself crucified? How the hell do we expect to do all those things?” Exposure to prolonged doses of Communism can make someone sound a lot like a conservative.
Even Bryant thinks Reed’s vision is far-fetched: “Revolution? In this country?” she asks him in disbelief. “When, Jack, just after Christmas?” Much of what Bryant has to say in the second half of the film splashes ice water on utopian thinking in general and on the viability of Communism: “You want to go running all over the world ranting and raving and making resolutions and organizing caucuses,” she tells Reed, ridiculing his “group of 14 intellectual friends in a basement who are supposed to tell the workers of this country what they want whether they want it or not.” As in Doctor Zhivago, Communism sunders the film’s lovers, and as in the earlier film it takes a breathtaking feat of physical and mental endurance for one lover to break through its literal and metaphorical barriers for one last reunion before darkness closes in.
Returning to Moscow in 1919 as an international delegate to the Comintern from the Communist Party of America, Reed finds the brotherhood of man has already been succeeded by a power struggle. After an earnest meeting with the chairman of the Comintern, Grigory Zinoviev (played by the novelist Jerzy Kosinski), Zinoviev casually informs Reed that he will not be allowed to leave the country because he’s too valuable to the regime as a propagandist. Reed wants a train ticket out, and Zinoviev tells him, “But you have a place on the train. You have a place on the train of this revolution.” Goldman lays out the truth for Reed:
The dream that we had is dying in Russia. . . . All the power is in the hands of a few men and they are destroying the Revolution. . . . My understanding of revolution is not a continual extermination of political dissenters and I want no part of it. Every single newspaper has been shut down or taken over by the party. Anyone even vaguely suspected of being a counter-revolutionary can be taken out and shot without a trial. Where does that end? Is any nightmare justifiable in the name of defense against counter-revolution?
When Reed makes the typical defense of revolutions, that brutality is a necessary means to a better end — “What did you think this was gonna be, a revolution by consensus, where we all sat down and agreed over a cup of coffee?” — Goldman rebuffs him: “Nothing works. Four million people died last year. Not from fighting a war. They died from starvation and typhus in a militaristic police state that suppresses freedom and human rights.” Reed, after defending “terror” and “firing squads” with a chilling fervor, comes slightly back to his senses and concedes, “It’s not happening the way we thought it would.”
Reed never did make it back to the U.S. He died in 1920, aged only 32, of scrub typhus, a bacterial disease common in the East but virtually unknown in America. The last scenes of the film show Reed suffering in a filthy Moscow hospital. He has been joined for his final days by Bryant, who underwent a harrowing journey to sneak into the country. A martyr to the cause, he was buried in the Kremlin. Earlier in the film, his editor Max Eastman (Edward Herrmann), who in later years would turn right and become a contributor to National Review, singles out why Reed is different from ordinary radicals: “We all believe in the same things. But with us it’s more or less our good intentions. And with Jack it’s a religion.”
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.