The poster for Reds, Warren Beatty’s 1981 epic about American radicals in the early 20th century, has a single, striking image: a couple embracing at a train station. It’s not the summation one would expect of a 194-minute film that spans half a decade, globe-trots through more than a dozen countries, and wrangles an ensemble cast of household names. Still, despite its grand scope, Reds, out on DVD for the first time, finds its truest meaning in that emotional clutch.
Mr. Beatty spent more than a decade trying to bring the story of John Reed (1887-1920) to the screen. Born and raised comfortably in Portland, Ore., and educated at Harvard, Reed was gradually radicalized while searching for thrills in Europe and Greenwich Village. He reported on the Paterson strike of 1913 for The Masses, a socialist monthly, and the more mainstream Metropolitan sent him to cover the Mexican Revolution (he wore a new yellow corduroy suit). None of this seemed to interest Mr. Beatty, who begins his story in 1915 with Reed’s first encounter—a frenzied discussion about U.S. involvement in World War I—with Louise Bryant, a married Portland dilettante with journalistic aspirations and burgeoning leftist ideals.
Mr. Beatty plays the part as if Reed was, well, a Warren Beatty character: a little dumbstruck yet determined, used to having things (and women) come his way but striving for the things (and women) that won’t. There’s some bumbling light slapstick as Reed prepares to move on Bryant, and the sociological dogma has the laughable sound of something Cary Grant would spout in Bringing Up Baby. Diane Keaton brings something more than vulnerable beauty and palpable intelligence to Louise Bryant—she brings the ghost of Annie Hall, another free spirit whose charm, insecurities and career ambition both seduced and flummoxed the man in her life.
Bryant follows Reed to New York City, determined to make her mark as an intellectual and a liberated woman. But she feels adrift and unappreciated amidst the Greenwich Village gang—and who wouldn’t when it’s Eugene O’Neill (a remarkably understated Jack Nicholson), Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton, in an Oscar-winning role), Max Eastman, Isadora Duncan, Alfred Stieglitz and Sherwood Anderson at the dinner parties? So Reed takes her away to Provincetown, but it’s the same story there, with nicer beaches. This is where Ms. Keaton’s thwarted expressions break your heart: All the men want Bryant to be their muse, and she wants to be a New Woman, taken seriously as she chews over social theories and poses for nude portraits.
They marry, move to Croton-on-Hudson; he travels around the world, covering labor disputes, and wears out his one kidney. If the soothing score that accompanies their home life is any indication, monogamy comes naturally. But the two nonetheless pursue infidelities, seemingly out of some vestigial sense of duty toward progressivism. Along with Bryant’s journalistic struggles—she’d just as soon write about the Armory Show of 1913 as about striking workers—their clumsy free-love experiments are an early sign that the conflicts between ideals and instincts are going to pile up. They go to Russia just in time for the October Revolution, where Reed would gather material for Ten Days That Shook the World, the book that would make his career. There’s a jolt of excitement in seeing the couple at the center of such a kairotic moment, bounding up the steps of the Winter Palace, sitting with Lenin. But even this is subordinate to their romance—Saint Petersburg burns bright with candles, the couple marches huddled together wrapped in coats and ushankas, and “The Internationale” takes on the feel of a Christmas carol. It’s as if the couple’s marriage will flourish as the masses ascend.
The second half of Reds dashes that idea, as Reed and Bryant challenge each other’s priorities and find increasingly scarce triumphs only in bedrooms and at typewriters—stolen moments on the smallest of scales. Reed returns alone to Russia and finds the country’s dream of a socialist utopia turned sour, but doesn’t know when to fold his cards. “If you walk out on it now, what’s your whole life meant?” he asks Emma Goldberg, who would go on to write My Disillusionment in Russia.
Soon the Russian bureaucracy is too much even for Reed. He’s jailed while trying to cross the border, and Bryant sets out to find him. When cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s camera finally opens up to outdoor vistas, it’s not to convey the breathless, widescreen majesties of Lawrence of Arabia but the damning plains of snow and ice that separate the lovers.
If Mr. Beatty’s reputedly leftist Reds is a voice of dissent, it is—surprisingly—dissent from the idea that personal travails are secondary to collective struggles. Reds chronicles personal lives being trampled not only by ideals, but by ideals that will be betrayed. This double tragedy is, by the end, drawn on the faces of Ms. Keaton and Mr. Beatty—most notably when Bryant, visiting the dying Reed in a Russian hospital, looks into the face of a young child and is reminded of the family they never got around to having.
The postscript—unmentioned by the film—is grimmer still. Bryant collapsed at Reed’s funeral (“I heard the first shovel of earth go rolling down and then something snapped in my brain”) and then was plagued by alcoholism and mental illness. She died alone in Paris in January 1936, eight months before Stalin instituted the Great Purge and took absolute control of Russia.