Warren Beatty’s ‘Reds’ an Impressive Bore
Maybe watching film feels like a marathon because it took three decades to make
By Todd Hill
Full disclosure — Not every movie I watch is experienced in a theater, laughing and crying at the events on screen surrounded by scores of similarly rapt, impassioned cinephiles.
Fact is, I catch most films at home, seated alone on the couch. My dog routinely joins me, but only pays attention when he hears the sound of a barking dog or howling wolf emanating from the television. Sometimes if a movie fails to hold my interest I may fall asleep watching it, forcing me to later find the place where I first lost consciousness and resume my viewing. To be honest, it occasionally takes me two or three days to get through a motion picture.
In my defense, I’ve never tried to watch a film on a smartphone and never will. But still, is my situation ideal? It’s certainly not what the filmmakers intended. But I will posit that my ultimate impressions of most movies aren’t significantly impacted by how I take them in.
No matter how or where I first watched it, I’m fairly sure that “Reds,” Warren Beatty’s 1981 cinematic opus about American socialists in the early 1900’s, would strike me as one thing more than anything else — really long.
Obviously, that’s not a fair summation. “Reds” — all 194 minutes of it, but who’s counting? — while being both inspired by and paying homage to great cinematic epics like David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) and “Doctor Zhivago” (1965), is stuffed with Big Ideas those earlier efforts only skimmed.
“Reds” features nearly three dozen “witnesses,” accurately described by The New York Times in 1982 as “very, very old people,” remarkably wrinkled non-actors who were around when the central figures of this film, Jack Reed (Warren Beatty) and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), were falling in love and becoming increasingly and inevitably disenchanted with Bolshevism. Beatty sprinkles their unscripted words throughout his film, allowing them to serve as something like a Greek chorus.
One of these witnesses, the author Henry Miller, who actually didn’t know Reed or Bryant but was a friend of Beatty’s (and who died two years before “Reds” was finally released), best sums up this picture’s message when he tells the camera that “men who try to change the world either a) don’t have any problems of their own, or b) are unwilling to face their problems.”
This is uttered early in “Reds,” when Beatty’s massive vanity project (in addition to starring in the film, Beatty also co-wrote, directed and produced it) shows potential of being truly interesting. But sorry, if it’s an epic about Bolshevism that I want, I’ll take “Doctor Zhivago” any day.
While “Reds” may set itself up as an easy critical target, however, it remains far too significant to American filmmaking to easily dismiss. It has its committed fans for a reason. These are probably the people who managed to stay awake and take in the movie in one sitting.
“Reds” even features an intermission, a largely meaningless gesture that went out of fashion about 20 years earlier. But it does serve to break the marathon motion picture into two distinct halves.
The best part of “Reds” is the halting, realistic love story between Reed and Bryant, which may or may not have been a reflection of the fact that Beatty and Keaton were actually in a relationship at the time, on which the seemingly endless production of this film took an evident toll. Louise, who considers herself something of a journalist, walks away from a dull, conventional marriage in Portland, Ore., to be with Jack, only to find it difficult to stand out among his charismatic circle of friends and acquaintances, including playwright Eugene O’Neill (a brooding Jack Nicholson), in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Jack is also an inveterate womanizer, perhaps not surprisingly given that he’s played by Beatty. And Louise has a passionate, albeit short, fling with O’Neill when Jack is away giving political speeches.
Louise eventually succeeds in drawing Jack away to a radically different environment in Provincetown, on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod, where everything is clear and clean and blindingly white, from the clothes, to the houses and their meticulously shabby furnishings, down to the sand and the birds. It all serves to fairly suffocate Jack, which sends Louise off to France in a huff to cover World War I. He eventually follows, and like the committed socialists they are, they wind up in Russia where, this being 1917, an enthusiastic revolution breaks out. The crowds are in a frenzy, clenched fists in the air, the Slavic words of “The Internationale” pouring from their throats. Anything seems possible, some kind of utopia appears within reach. Cue the intermission.
It becomes something of a running joke in “Reds” that the witnesses, for all their screen time reminiscing about Jack and Louise, don’t actually remember that much about them, quite possibly because of their advanced ages. To the extent that Jack Reed is remembered at all today it’s for writing the book “Ten Days That Shook the World” in 1919, about Russia’s October Revolution of two years earlier. But you wouldn’t necessarily know that from watching “Reds.”
The film’s second half, meant to feel climactic, instead slowly relinquishes whatever momentum it had earlier managed to generate. Abundant time is dedicated to Reed’s ultimately futile efforts to have the Communist Labor Party of America recognized by the Comintern, Vladimir Lenin’s communist organization back in Russia. It’s difficult to imagine many people caring about this 100 years ago, let alone today.
But it’s this tiresome political chore that lures Reed back to Russia, promising an exasperated Louise that he’ll be back in the States by Christmas, a promise he would never keep. Once there, in a scene redolent of one in “Doctor Zhivago,” Reed is lectured to by a communist functionary, “You can always go back to your private responsibilities. So can I. You can never — NEVER — come back to this moment in history.”
Some moment. It eventually dawns on Reed that Soviet communism is just another power grab by bureaucrats in suits. He would never get out of Russia. “Reds” fitfully follows Louise across snow-choked Finland, and finally into a beleaguered Russia, as she comes searching for the love of her life, a crusade that at least ends with a well-played, emotional reunion at a train station (yes, this is yet another film with an emotional scene at a train station). But shortly afterward Reed dies, at the age of 32, of typhus, a disease he surely would not have died of in America, seemingly lost to history had it not been for Beatty’s “Reds.” For what it’s worth, Reed remains one of few Americans to have been buried in the Kremlin.
If watching “Reds” today has something of the experience of running a marathon, perhaps that’s because it also best describes the making of the film. Beatty, never known for working particularly quickly, first came up with the idea of a movie about Jack Reed in 1966, and began working on a script in 1969, although it’s difficult to imagine it ever being an easy sell. Once the film’s shoot, which took place in five countries, was finally finished, Beatty spent a year and a half in the editing room.
And he was justly rewarded, for all intents and purposes. Critics loved “Reds,” and it has been held in high regard by cinephiles ever since, although the movie was, not surprisingly, a box-office dud upon its release during 1981’s holiday season and is seldom seen or talked about today.
“Reds” was nominated for a whopping 12 Academy Awards, which seems fitting, including Best Picture, winning in three categories, for Best Supporting Actress (Maureen Stapleton), Best Cinematography, and significantly, Best Director.
Its loss in the Best Picture category feels altogether appropriate until we consider the film that did win — “Chariots of Fire,” a lifeless snooze of a movie that had no business even being nominated. Just try staying awake through that one.
Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.