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Review by Walter Frith
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It would have been easy for Warren Beatty to make his masterpiece 'Reds'
only about the Russian revolution of 1917. The film is also a torrid
romance, a semi documentary feature in many ways, a panoramic and
exquisitely filmed motion picture that in many ways is better than David
Lean's great 'Doctor Zhivago' and, if you disagree with that, is
certainly a great companion piece to that film. The thrust of Beatty's
sensational and provocative film lies in the fact that Beatty not only
tells a story about the revolution of communism in Russia, but tells it
from the stand point of an American journalist, himself a communist, who
was able to enrage and yet strongly soothe his colleagues with his ideas
of how the world should be run. Beatty plays John Reed, an man whose
literary work 'Ten Days That Shook the World', would be the inspiration
for this film which includes Reed's passionate and stormy relationship
with fellow journalist Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), who gives the best
performance in the film.
The film begins during World War I and has a very unusual narrative.
Witnesses in the form of ordinary people are displayed on camera as
being interviewed in documentary fashion and tell many aspects of the
film's story through their own experiences and the film displays the
pictures of it all. John Reed believes that America's involvement in
the war is purely economical and is for nothing more than profit. His
motives are found to be puzzling by many, including Louise Bryant, who
wants to interview him. He explains that he doesn't do interviews (in
many ways, a reflection of the real Warren Beatty) but he is strangely
attracted to her and the two of them fall in love throughout the course
of the film.
John Reed's crusade takes him to Europe to spread his propaganda and his
words at home about the dismantling of all things capitalistic are seen
as treasonous by the government. John has many friends, some of whom
are eventually exposed as mere acquaintances. There is the great
literary genius Eugene O'Neill (Jack Nicholson) who has an affair with
Louise and mocks John's political beliefs. Louis Fraina (Paul Sorvino)
who is one of Reed's somewhat confused political operatives. Grigory
Zinoviev (Jerzy Kosinski), Reed's subversive revolutionary companion in
Russia and his hard line colleague in communist propaganda back in
America, Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton). There are many other
character actors and great talents in the film such as Edward Herrmann,
Josef Sommer, George Plimpton, M. Emmet Walsh and the superb Gene
Hackman who, surprisingly, has a very small role in the picture as a
right wing magazine editor.
Where the film is a little weak is in the way that it tells its love
story between Reed and Bryant. The outline and execution of it is a
little corny and detracts from the story of the revolution. It isn't
bad beyond belief but it could have been trimmed a little bit. To
compensate for it, the film tells of John Reed's battle with kidney
infections and his eventual loss of one of them and a warning from his
doctor that he must slow down if he wants to live a full and healthy
life and the film's most impressive turning point is when Reed is doomed
to come back to America after a warrant is issued for his arrest for
wanting to overthrow the government and Louise Bryant follows him to
Russia and searches for him vigourously.
'Reds' won three Oscars. For Best Director (Warren Beatty), Best
Supporting Actress (Maureen Stapleton), and Best Cinematography
(Vittorio Storaro). It had twelve nominations including Best Picture
and Best Original Screenplay by Beatty and Trevor Griffiths and Robert
Towne worked on the script in an uncredited manner as he does on many
I find it interesting that at the time of its release in 1981, 'Reds'
was the heavy favourite for the Best Picture Oscar and lost to the very
deserving 'Chariots of Fire'. With communism still a serious threat to
the world in 1981, it would be inconceivable to imagine the Academy
giving a Best Picture Oscar to the story of an American who believed in
communism. Perhaps now that the iron curtain has fallen, the film would
have won if it had come out today since communism looks less likely to
impose any real threat to the planet. It may have been an untimely
release but nevertheless is a pleasure to look back on as its subject
matter is fascinating and relatively educational for many generations
--- most importantly, those yet to come.
Copyright © 1996 Walter Frith
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