For reasons I don’t entirely understand, conservatives bitterly attacked the movie Reds when it came out in 1981. After all these years, the movie holds up as one of the most intellectually interesting and visually powerful portrayals of lost history that I’ve seen.
The movie stars Warren Beatty playing John Reed, the great communist journalist who wrote Ten Days that Shook the World, a journalistic account of the Bolshevik revolution that whipped up a great deal of sympathy for the Bolsheviks in the United States. Diane Keaton plays his girlfriend and eventual wife, Louise Bryant.
The film is unforgettable in so many ways. It includes some of the best romantic fight scenes I’ve ever seen, not least because they paralleled the actual off-screen lives of Beatty and Keaton. The portrayals of legends like Max Eastman, Eugene O’Neill, and Emma Goldman are very convincing.
In terms of culture and politics, the film provides a richer education than you can get from 50 books on the topic of the Progressive Era, the Great War, the Russian Revolution, and the heady brew of interwoven cultural issues like women’s suffrage, birth control, abortion, free love, and the beginnings of the organized socialist movement in the United States.
I’ve never been sympathetic to the Bolsheviks as versus the old regime in Russia, but the scenes here from the revolution are completely inspired and touch the heart of anyone who agrees with Jefferson on the positive need for revolution from time to time. The portrayals of both Lenin and Trotsky seem authentic and thrillingly so.
That sense you get that you are watching the real thing is enhanced by the extended interviews with people who actually knew both Reed and Bryant. They all have strong opinions. They are wise. They are insightful. We hear from communists and anticommunists, socialites and politicians, working-class philosophers and credentialed academics. It is a beautiful mix.
From a political perspective, the film offers a devastating turnaround judgment on the results of revolution. Emma Goldman tries to talk some sense into Reed in the years following, and explains that millions have died from starvation, that nothing works right, that the vanguard of the proletariat has become a centralized police state. Reed won’t listen. He explains back to her that the socialist revolution requires terror, murder, and firing squads.