Reds (1981) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

"I read John Reed’s book, 'Ten Days that Shook the World,' with the greatest interest and close attention. I recommend it to the workers of the world without reservation."

 – V.I. Lenin, 1919 -

Reds is proof that if a big name director uses big name stars to make a long film about a serious topic, many people will acclaim its genius, no matter its actual merits. Warren Beatty made this one three and a quarter hours long (plus intermission), chose the Russian Revolution as his subject, and filled it with superstars like Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, and Gene Hackman. Predictably, it received a bushel basket full of Oscar nominations, and even managed to win Beatty the Best Director award over some strong competition. Hugh Hudson was nominated that year, but would lose the Best Director race even though his Chariots of Fire would be the Best Picture winner. Steven Spielberg was also in the running with his best entertainment picture, Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is currently rated #16 on the IMDb all-time list. But Beatty won!

Reds is fundamentally a biography of John Reed, who is best known as the author of Ten Days that Shook the World, a first-hand account of the October Revolution in Russia. Reed was an American who was physically present in St. Petersburg to report all the small details of those critical days, and he talked personally to Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev and others. His was, and probably still remains, the most reliable journalistic account of the initial establishment of Bolshevism in Russia.

 Here is the summary of the film by act:

Act 1: Reed and Louise Bryant meet and court in Portland, where they both lived.

Act 2: Intellectual life in Greenwich Village and Provincetown in the 1910's. Reed and Bryant interact with other free thinkers like the famous playwright Eugene O'Neill (Jack Nicholson) and the anarchist/intellectual/feminist Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton, who won an Oscar for this role). The relationship of Reed and Bryant goes through some very rocky patches. Louise has a famous affair with Eugene O'Neill.

Act 3: Bryant and Reed are present for The Russian Revolution


Act 4: Reed attempts to establish a viable Communist Party inside the United States.

Act 5: Reed returns to Russia and is enlisted (involuntarily!) by the Bolsheviks to assist in spreading socialist propaganda through the far reaches of their vast empire. Louise tries to meet up with him, and manages to reach him only a week before he takes to bed, deathly ill of typhus. He passes away in 1920, only three years after the revolution, at the age of 32.


A good deal of this doesn't work at all. Act 2, for example, is just bickering and shouting between Reed and Bryant about the shape their relationship will take. Act 5 is just bickering and shouting between Reed and Zinoviev about how the Revolution is being destroyed by bureaucracy. Act 4 is also bickering and shouting, this time between Reed and the other people who are trying to establish a socialist political party in America. This act is particularly mundane. In fact, it reminded me very much of the scene in The Life of Brian in which the intellectuals discuss whether the revolutionary interests of the Jewish people should be represented by the People's Front of Judea or the Judean People's Front, or other similarly named groups. If you substitute Socialist Party of America and American Socialist Party into the Monty Python dialogue and place it side-by-side with the Reds script, it would be very difficult to tell the difference. (Reds was made only two years after The Life of Brian, and I'm wondering if the parallel was deliberate.)

In other words, almost everything after the intermission consists of boring bickering about petty matters like credentials and improper translations, all of which are of no interest to you unless you happen to have a scholarly curiosity about such forgotten matters in times long past. The failure of the film in its second half parallels two developments from life. (1) The Russian Revolution began in the wellspring of optimism and hope for a better life for the common man. It almost immediately turned into a regime no less incompetent and repressive than the Czar's. (2) John Reed's life though the Russian Revolution was a glorious success. His accounts of Villa's exploits in Mexico and Lenin's in Russia made him possibly the most famous journalist of his time, maybe of any time. After that, he made a transition from artist to ideologue and found his new role unsuitable and disillusioning, although he never lost his enthusiasm for the original principles of the noble cause. With the film's two subjects having gone sour after the October Revolution, the film was doomed to the same course.

Frankly, the first part of the film is not that much better. It might have spent its time more wisely by showing some of the conditions which led American workers and intellectuals to their long-time flirtation with Communism. That would have created much more empathy for the main characters who devoted their lives to the socialist cause. Instead, Beatty decided on a steady procession of historical cameos that should have required a scorecard. I'm still not sure precisely who Edward Herrmann and Gene Hackman were supposed to be. In the middle of a bunch of parlor socialism is a strange love story between Bryant and Reed that seems to flourish only during the ten days that shook the world, during which the lovers look deep into one another's eyes during Lenin's speeches and hold hands romantically as the people around them ransack the Czar's palaces. It's as if the climax of the revolution was their climax as well. The only scene missing to complete the link is Bryant having a loud climax while Lenin arrives at the Finland Station. This section concludes with a romantic musical montage, filled with images of them romping through the forest with their doggie and making love under heavy blankets and laughing off each other's fumbles in the kitchen. It's the same musical montage that we see in every 80s film, except that in this case the usual soft-rock classic has been replaced by the Internationale, the famous rallying ballad for the global socialist movement. In the last analysis, the first half of Reds is just another conventional Hollywood romance which uses important historical events as a backdrop. It is arguably no better than, for example, Cold Mountain, and in fact scores lower than that Civil War epic at IMDb (7.1 vs. 7.3).

The second half, in my opinion, isn't even worth watching! In fact, I think the film would be better if it ended at intermission, and would have been far better if it ended there with an expansion of the pre-intermission section. The repressive conditions that brought about the international worker's revolt provided enough material for one film. By trying to dissect the destruction of that dream as well, Beatty just assayed too much for one film to handle. Beatty could have spent his time far more wisely by showing why socialism seemed like such a good idea to begin with, rather than by dissecting such boring trivia as the inchoate socialist movement's internal power struggles, which seemed to fill the entire post-intermission portion of this film with various characters shouting at one another about penny-ante matters.

In addition to the film's other problems, the critical role of Louise Bryant is fatally underwritten, and what little we know of her is enough to make us wonder why Reed loved her in the first place. She seems to spend the entire film whining and griping about being underappreciated without ever showing us exactly why we should appreciate her, thus seeming to validate Emma Goldman's famous claim that "Louise was never a Communist; she only slept with one." At one point, Louise actually says to Reed, "If you go to Russia, I'm not sure I'll be here when you come back." After watching the film, you might conclude that Emma Goldman could have gone a step further and said, "Louise was never an interesting or important person herself, but she did fuck some."

Of course, the film is not without some appeal, and it has its moments. Some of the scenes in Russia are especially spectacular, and the re-creations of the look and atmosphere of the turn of the century are quite impressive. Beatty used one truly intriguing device - a sort of Greek chorus called The Witnesses. He filmed interviews with elderly people who actually knew Jack Reed, Louise Bryant and Emma Goldman, and/or people who remembered the idealism of the American socialist movement. Many of the interviews were filmed years before the principal photography began on Reds, and some of the interviews were made more poignant by the fact that the witnesses were appearing as ghosts, having died between their interviews and the film's release. The diverse group included entertainer Georgie Jessel, historian Will Durant, author Henry Miller, and many more (none identified as they spoke), just about all of whom seemed more interesting than the characters in the film.

Looking back on this film after a quarter of a century, it is difficult to understand how it could have been nominated for so many Academy Awards, or even how it could still have 93% positive reviews at IMDb. It's an intermittently interesting and occasionally brilliant film which is spoiled by its length and lack of focus. The second half is tedious, and the first half is often corny. It's not really worth a look unless you are absolutely fascinated by the subject matter.



Two discs. Special features on disc two:

  • "Witness to Reds: The Rising"
  • "Witness to Reds: Comrades"
  • "Witness to Reds: Testimonials"
  • "Witness to Reds: The March"
  • "Witness to Reds: Revolution Parts 1 and 2"
  • "Witness to Reds: Propaganda"

(These are basically illustrated interviews with Beatty.)


None. A nude photograph of Diane Keaton is seen. It may or may not be she.

The Critics Vote ...

  • It was nominated for 12 Oscars including Best Picture. It won three, including Best Cinematography and Best Director. To date, this is the last movie to receive Oscar nominations in each of the four acting categories.


The People Vote ...

Miscellaneous ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

Our own guideline:

  • A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre.
  • B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. In order to rate at least a B-, a film should be both a critical and commercial success. Exceptions: (1) We will occasionally rate a film B- with good popular acceptance and bad reviews, if we believe the critics have severely underrated a film. (2) We may also assign a B- or better to a well-reviewed film which did not do well at the box office if we feel that the fault lay in the marketing of the film, and that the film might have been a hit if people had known about it. (Like, for example, The Waterdance.)
  • C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by people who enjoy this kind of movie. If this is your kind of movie, a C+ and an A are indistinguishable to you.
  • C means it is competent, but uninspired genre fare. People who like this kind of movie will think it satisfactory. Others probably will not.
  • C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie, but genre addicts find it watchable. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film, but films with this rating should be approached with caution by mainstream audiences, who may find them incompetent or repulsive or both. If this is NOT your kind of movie, a C- and an E are indistinguishable to you.
  • D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-. Films rated below C- generally have both bad reviews and poor popular acceptance.
  • E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre.
  • F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.


Based on this description, this film is a C, a film of great ambition and superb production values, but one which is a trivial treatment of important issues, and which manages to make some of the most exciting developments of the 20th century seem boring.

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