25th Anniversary of Reds
For anyone interested in ideas, history, writing, love and passion you should (re)catch Reds, its worth the 3 plus hours time commitment! The movie follows the story of John Reed, who wrote the classic history of the Russian revolution Ten Days that Shook the World, and his colleagues then friend then wife, writer Louise Bryant. The film is just plain physically beautiful and it captures the human spirit.
My favorite parts of Reds are still the long shots of the snow-covered Russian steppes, which serve as a metaphor for the loneliness of the protagonists being caught up in their own ideology far from home in circumstances they don’t really understand and can’t escape from.
Needless to say in 1917 the world was a different place. Mass industrialization, mass labor and big business were reaching their nadir and many actually believed that socialism would unify people. The story follows Reed’s story, from a struggling Greenwich Village journalist – we start the story with him coming home to his upper-middle class family in Oregon to raise money for the magazine The Masses where he meets Bryant and they stay up all night drinking coffee and talking about the (newish) state-capitalist war system – and ends with Reed’s death in the Soviet Union after being nearly abandoned by the Comintern traveling road show to the Central Asia Republics. Along the way Reed loses the impartial spectator journalist perspective and becomes a power-struggling, factionist, left-wing New York politician and then a pawn of the USSR.
Reed’s speeches to the masses are motivating so the Comintern uses him on the road. In one great scene, an amalgamation of the roadshow in the Republics, with Hindus and Muslims and pastoral peoples – Turks, and Kazakhs, Uighurs, Tartars, Indians and Arabs - his speech is turned without his knowledge by the Soviets from a “class war” to a “religious war” with chants from the people for death to the Western infidels.
Another of my favorite scenes is with Jack Nicholson as playwright Eugene O’Neil (his play the The Hairy Ape a classic). Diane Keaton, who plays (in an Oscar-nominated role) Louise Bryant and who had an affair with O’Neil, tries to get O’Neil to join the socialist cause. Jack says, “its scare me when a Greenwich Village intellectual gets a glean in their eye about a cause, it reminds me of the Roman Catholic church, I liked it better when you were preaching free love”. The film of course shows the danger of both.
In another standout scene, when both Emma Goldman (played also in an Oscar-nominated role by Maureen Stapleton, probably the film’s standout performance) and John Reed are stuck in St. Petersburg by the Comintern. Goldman, who is the realistic one, describes how the new Soviet is worse than the old order, with no free press and the shooting of dissidents and lines for the bare necessities of life and no heat in the buildings. Reed says that revolution is war and people must be killed and that the poor economic conditions are due to the sanctions of the western world and war. This is a perfect description of why Goldman tended toward anarchy, and was wise to the ways of the totalitarian state that those with rose-tinted glasses couldn’t see. It also shows that in most cases there is truth to both sides of a story, so one must adhere to the golden rules of human conduct. In the end Reds is a love story in a well done, one-of-a-kind, historical setting about ideas and the search for truth.