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John Reed remains one of the most vivid first-hand journalists America ever produced. He reported out of passion, often becoming his subject matter; his intensity overpowering and writer’s fever infectious. His métier—on display in Ten Days That Shook The World, the pieces “Insurgent Mexico,” “The Colorado War” and “The War in Eastern Europe”—was witnessing the immediacy of history and transferring it into an undeviating drive. Once hooked, readers intuit he died three days before his thirty-third birthday less from diseased kidneys and typhus than by writing himself to death. These attributes are also what helped make him the object of scorn for having lost objectivity; he became easy to attack for being committed to Communism resulting from the Bolshevik Revolution, as though there weren’t justified causes for social restructure, and made easier for hindsighters to attack his lack of foresight in not seeing what could go wrong. He did experience the chaos but his time ran out before trying to crystallize the expansive anarchical confusion in the violent power grabs. All the same, he remains a fit movie subject, especially in the early years of the Reagan presidency. To a degree Warren Beatty, having wanted to make a movie about Reed for years, does him the justice intended: 1981’s Reds starts out very nicely—a composite landscape of free-thinkers against the rising fear spread by capitalist anti-union goonheads, how the divide between the rich ruling class and everyone else was as huge then as it is today. And he’s the right actor to play him—both being handsome, unabashed progressives and lovers of women—and throughout he’s performing as well as he ever has, including those shouting matches with Diane Keaton as Reed’s wife Louise Bryant. The audience detects the movie’s fall into bloated romanticism—into the charade of Louise trekking through cold winter misery to see Reed (factually it was late summer)—is Beatty’s difficulty in trying to steer clear of fancies. The movie’s cost ballooning to $35 million (and rumors persist the tally is closer to $60 million), it was too late to re-focus on Reed’s writings as ardent vignettes to serve the bio-political purposes, though he’s provided multiple snippets of “meaningful” and “perceptive” discourse as can be tolerably jammed into dialogue. But we begin to feel weighted down watching him rowing the lifeboat, sinking with heartfelt urgency and bewildering irony: one of the great Hollywood studs has made a patently sincere movie about a great American writer who sincerely believed in a supposed egalitarian system turning into a weeper. He co-wrote the script with Marxist Trevor Griffiths—who penned TV’s 1972 Adam Smith and adapted Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers for a 1981 BBC-Masterpiece Theatre presentation—and shared a WGA award absent the fact not much of their joint script is in the release. Otoh, Elaine May’s uncredited contributions boosting Keaton’s Bryant into a playable part are very much present. And telling: May enjoyed fighting with Beatty, who enjoyed screaming back. (He had problems with other ladies too: film editor Dede Allen was exasperated by May’s interferences with the editing, and Pauline Kael nagged at him not to make a biggie about an American communist that, according to her view, nobody wanted to see.) The WGA honor, however, said something about smart audiences responding to Reds: listening to those bursts of sometimes breathtakingly wordy earnestness, they probably whispered “get on with it, Warren” yet were rooting for him, feeling good will toward his revived esprit after the wet farts of The Fortune and Heaven Can Wait. Despite hating her character and exhausted by Beatty’s excessive takes, Keaton sheds most of her tiresome mannerisms and saves herself; Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman (who believed she originated the bobbed hairstyle) is unsinkable; a quiet Jack Nicholson as a sexy Eugene O’Neill; and the “witnesses” unknowingly toss out life-preservers to viewers nearly drowning in tedious bureaucratic squabbling and Vittorio Storaro’s somniferous grayish tan hues in 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Those unidentified interviewees are Jacob Bailin, Roger Baldwin, John Ballato, Harry Carlisle, Kenneth Chamberlain, Andrew Dasburg, Tess Davis, Will Durant, Blanche Hays Fagen, Hamilton Fish, Dorothy Frooks, Hugo Gellert, Adele Gutman, Emmanuel Herbert, George Jessel, Isaac Don Levine, Galina von Meck, Arthur Meyer, Henry Miller, Nathan Scott Nearing, Dora Russell, Adela Rogers St. Johns, George Seldes, Art Shields, Jessica Smith, Arne Swabeck, Bernadine Szold-Fritz, Heaton Vorse, Rebecca West, Will Weinstone and Lucita Squier-Williams. According to muckraker Seldes, Reed was initially buried in the Kremlin wall but later given a “fourth-class burial” under a black marble slab near the wall via orders from Stalin, who suppressed Ten Days until the Russian edition was rewritten to make him and not Trotsky the hero of the Revolution. (In Reed’s text, Stalin is scantly mentioned.) Bryant would marry a U.S. diplomat and have a daughter but lose custody in an eventual divorce, having become a drunk and drug addict in Paris, dying at 49 from a cerebral hemorrhage after falling on the stairwell to her living quarters in 1936. Roadshows were out of vogue ten years prior to Reds and received “special engagement” classification, with intermission and in some cities souvenir booklets. In Spherical process.

Oscars for best direction, supporting actress (Stapleton), cinematography; nominated for best picture, best actor (Beatty), best actress (Keaton), supporting actor (Nicholson), original screnplay, art direction (Richard Sylbert and Michael Seirton), sound, costumes and film editing (Craig McKay and Allen, also the movie’s executive producer).  

Text COPYRIGHT © 2002 RALPH BENNER (Revised 6/2023) All Rights Reserved.