Reds Misread: American Critics’ Filtered Perceptions of Warren Beatty’s Tale of the Early 20th Century


Reds: directed by Warren Beatty; written by Warren Beatty and Trevor Griffiths; photography by Vittorio Storaro; edited by Dede Allen and Craig McKay; music by Stephen Sondheim and Dave Grusin; produced by Warren Beatty; released by Paramount Pictures. Copyright © MCMLXXXI Barclays Mercantile Industrial Finance Limited

Excerpt from Ten Days that Shook the World
included in the script of Reds 

In the 2016 American election campaign, Bernie Sanders, an openly-declared socialist, came close to winning the Democratic Party nomination, and polls at the time showed he had a strong chance of being elected president in a contest with the Republican candidate Donald Trump. Nonetheless, a common remark heard during the campaign was that the younger people supporting Sanders had little understanding of what socialism meant or of the history of socialist revolutions of the 20th century. Bernie didn't understand it too deeply, either, because he didn't talk much about his American socialism needing to detach itself from American imperialism. The subject is not taught at school, and when it comes to portrayals of this history in popular culture there is nothing but a barren wasteland of Cold War action movies with generic Slavic bad guys and American good guys. Films about McCarthyism (such as The Front, Guilty by Suspicion, and Trumbo) focused on moderates who were punished for the youthful indiscretion of “having attended a few meetings.” Their unjust persecution is portrayed as un-American because they were pressured to rat on colleagues and their constitutional rights were being abused. None of them were portrayed as seriously committed socialists who really did want to undermine American capitalism and bring about a revolution. Perhaps the only major film that came close to a sympathetic portrayal of socialism, and a socialist hero, was the 1981 film Reds, which appeared at the most importune and unlikely time—right after sunrise in Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America.”

Then again, it may not have been such an improbable occurrence because its auteur, Warren Beatty, believed Reds marked the end of something, in the subject matter and the willingness to gamble. What moved the late 60s and 70s was politics. Reds is a political movie. It begins with politics and it ends with politics. It was in some sense a reverie about that way of thinking in American life, one that went back to 1915.” It was “a reverie about the two decades just past... Reds was a death rattle.” [1] In other words, there was a feeling then that the end was near. The Iranian Revolution had shaken the world and provided the US with an opportunity to destabilize the Soviet influence in Central Asia. In the late 70s President Carter supplied weapons to mercenary Mujahedeen fighters in order to destabilize the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan. The aim was not to defeat the Soviets there but to draw them in, bog them down, demoralize their soldiers, and drain their resources—to give them “their own Vietnam.” The US boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow to protest of the invasion which it had provoked. By this time, even before Reagan was president, a plan was in motion to begin a “full court press” of overt and covert operations to undermine not just Soviet-supported nations in the Third World, but the Soviet Union itself. [2]
This may explain why a large institution of capitalism, Paramount Pictures (previously a part of Gulf-Western, now owned by Viacom), agreed to invest $35 million in the production of an epic film about John Reed, the American hero of the Bolshevik Revolution who is buried in Red Square. It was not the most likely investment to return a profit from an American audience. Thirty years earlier it had been impossible in Hollywood to make any film that hinted at the slightest sympathy with socialist causes, but in the late 70s, studio executives gave the green light to this project. They must have sensed that it just didn’t matter anymore because they had this vague awareness that an era was coming to end.
The Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) shows that the film grossed $40 million from the American market, on top of what came from international audiences and the home video market years later. In any case, the film was tax sheltered with Barclays Mercantile Industrial Finance Limited, which is credited at the end of the film as the copyright holder, so the studio never worried about the costs. Making the film was also the ultimate way for an institution of capitalism to declare victory. The corporation seemed to say, “Look, telling this story poses no threat to us or the American way of life, and after all, no socialist nation had $35 million to make such a film. It took a Hollywood studio to make this movie.”
Connoisseurs of non-American cinema would say that despite its relative merits, Reds was still typical Hollywood, focused on the love story and the personalities, simplifying the history and finishing with a reassurance for American audiences that the hero became disillusioned with the excesses of the communism and wanted to come home. But since the film was made by Hollywood rules that required a big budget and a big return on investment, Warren Beatty can be credited with taking the radical story and the history lesson as far as possible within these constraints. A consultant on the film recalled, “The thing that kills historical dramas is exposition. We have an audience which doesn’t know the first thing about any of this stuff, and if we’re going to educate them with the dialogue, it’s going to be deadly—it will ruin the film.” [3] Beatty tackled this problem by co-writing the script with a Marxist historian, Trevor Griffiths. They developed the script over several years, fighting intensely about how to get the balance right. Griffiths wanted to get the exposition right, while Beatty used his Hollywood experience to create a story that modern audiences would relate to.  
I argue below that the aforementioned reassurance about the failures of communism was not really in the film. It was rather a selective interpretation that audiences and critics took from it through their own ideological filters. They saw what they wanted to see and ignored much else.
Synopsis:
The film opens in 1915 with journalist John Reed deeply involved in the American socialist movement, working to advance worker rights and keep America out of the “bankers’ war” in Europe. He meets Louise Bryant, a talented but unfocused writer who shares his political views. They fall in love and spend the next two years in New York before John (Jack) decides the place to be now, after the bourgeois February Revolution, is Russia. At this point the couple has split and Louise is living in France. Jack sets off to find her and convinces her to join him on the trip to Russia. There they see the extremes of suffering that Russians have been through while fighting in World War I for the collapsing czarist empire. The new government led by Kerensky is collapsing because of its commitment to Western powers to stay in the war. Meanwhile the Bolsheviks are gaining on the promise to stay out of it. John and Louise arrive in St. Petersburg just in time to see the October Revolution. John writes his famous account of the time, Ten Days that Shook the World, and returns to America to lecture and advance the cause of socialism in America. The American left splits tragically and farcically in a way that leaves most of it supporting the status quo of capitalism and patriotic involvement in the war, while the radical end of the movement splits into the Communist Party and the Communist Labor Party, which both aim for recognition from Moscow as the official communist party in America.  John leaves for Russia again in order to establish his party as the one which will get this recognition. At this time, Russia is fighting foreign and domestic enemies in the civil war that will last until 1923, so travel in and out of Russia is extremely difficult. Once in Russia, John is accepted as a fellow revolutionary, but he is forced to stay, partly because he is needed and partly because it is too dangerous to attempt the return journey. Louise comes looking for him and manages to reunite with him. They work as propaganda agents for the Revolution, and John travels to Azerbaijan in order to bring the region into the new Soviet Union. John catches typhus on the journey and dies after his return to Moscow.
In the film, and in what is known about John Reed’s final years, it is impossible to know whether his commitment to the Revolution had changed. He had bitter disputes with the Soviet leadership, and was not blind to the excesses and the centralization of authority that had been deemed necessary during the civil war, but one cannot conclude from this that he was disillusioned. Arguing tenaciously within the groups he belonged to was something he was well-known for, but it could not be equated with rejection of the group itself. He had already lost one kidney before leaving America the first time, and his health was wrecked by the hardships of living through the Revolution, so it was natural that he expressed a desire to go home, but again that is not proof that he disagreed with Lenin’s policies. The film leaves the question about his political convictions unanswered, though most reviewers seemed to draw the conclusion that the film was a validation of American values. I discuss a few such reviews in the next section, then I look at three segments of dialog that show these interpretations were selective, biased and simplistic. The significant segments of the reviews that show this bias are highlighted.
The Reviews
Rolling Stone in 1982:

... once Reed gets imbued with a religious brand of Marxism, he loses his boyish flexibility and kills off his own élan vital... It's when the Utopian revolution turns ugly that Reds' themes come into focus. The Soviets strive to effect massive change through force of will alone. Shackling together disparate countries in chaotic Comintern committees, forsaking the immediate needs of the people to shore up the State, their liberations turn to tyranny... It's not incidental to the politics of the film that John Reed and Louise Bryant are American journalists. Free speech and the right to dissent are at the heart of this movie. In this century, social change in America hasn't happened because oppressed people altered the means of production, but because they manipulated the means of communication. This movie articulates the search for social progress when most of the nation is hiding behind patriotic platitudes. In this context, Reds might even be called a revolutionary film. [4]

Vanity Fair in 2006:
... a major motion picture that would dramatize the Russian Revolution from a not entirely unsympathetic perspective.” [5]
Roger Ebert in 1981 in The Chicago Sun:
...he found himself in the midst of the Bolshevik revolution, wrote a book called Ten Days That Shook the World and made himself a famous journalist. He never quite got it right again after that. He became embroiled in the American left-wing politics of the 1920s, participated in fights between factions of the Socialist Party and the new American Communist Party, and finally returned to Moscow on a series of noble fool's errands that led up, one way or another, to his death from tuberculosis and kidney failure in a Russian hospital... It is that personal, human John Reed that Warren Beatty's Reds takes as its subject, although there is a lot, and maybe too much, of the political John Reed as well... in Warren Beatty's screen persona a persistent irony, a way of kidding his own seriousness, that takes the edge off a potentially pretentious character and makes him into one of God's fools... Beatty may be fascinated by the ins and outs of American left-wing politics sixty years ago, but he is not so idealistic as to believe an American mass audience can be inspired to care as deeply. So he gives us people... [6]
The New York Times in 1981:
Grigory Zinoviev, the smarmy Bolshevik who may have helped push Reed to a disillusion with Communism never fully verified... Only the very narrow-minded will see the film as Communist propaganda. Though Reed remained at his death a card-carrying Communist and was buried in the Kremlin... Reds is not about Communism, but about a particular era, and a particularly moving kind of American optimism that had its roots in the 19th century. [7]
The Guardian in 2012:
...everything a historian could want in a movie. The action picks up again as Reed returns to the Soviet Union. Emma Goldman is already there, and disillusioned with the Soviet project... "The situation is such that we are now going through the deepest spiritual conflict in our lives," she wrote to a friend at the time. Nor does Reed arrive in the glorious socialist paradise he expected. Instead, he finds food and fuel shortages, and the head of the Comintern, Grigory Zinoviev (Jerzy Kosinski), imperturbably eating a lemon. Zinoviev effectively kidnaps Reed and puts him to propaganda work. This, too, is accurate, as is the film's depiction of his doomed attempt to escape. [8]
The Washington Post, 1981:
How extraordinary it is to have a major Hollywood feature film with an idealistic American Communist, sympathetically depicted, as its hero. Hollywood is where the merest supposition of sympathy for anything like communism once wiped out careers like the plague. [9]
Slant Magazine in 2006:
The second half of the film gets lost in obscure political arguments... Reds is finally just an appealingly conventional epic movie-star romance with radical trimmings. [10]
AV Club, 2016:
In the second half, this rush gives way to disappointment and horror as Reed and others bear witness to the autocratic policies imposed by Vladimir Lenin, Politburo member Grigory Zinoviev (Jerzy Kosinski), and the rest of the Bolsheviks in power. By depicting this rise and fall of communist idealism, Beatty was working out his frustrations over the way the counterculture ideals of the 1960s dissolved in the more anguished 1970s—and would only continue to do so in the increasingly right-wing America of the 1980s... Beatty is clear-eyed about communism as well: sympathetic to the politics, but wide awake to the despotic dangers that could (and sadly did) emerge. [11]
In all of these reviews there is a general impatience with “obscure political arguments” and a “religious brand of Marxism” that reduce the viewer’s enjoyment of the love stories and interpersonal dynamics. The reviews are telling for what they failed to mention: the massive opposition to the Revolution that forced the “fall of communist idealism.” The reviewers saw only failures of the Soviet leadership, but overlook American outrages that are depicted just as thoroughly. They didn’t see these probably because they didn’t know this history or understand its significance. In the early parts of the film we see the violent suppression of workers’ strikes in the United States and the suppression and imprisonment of American journalists who dissented against American participation in World War I. Emma Goldman was in Russia after the Revolution because she was an immigrant to America deported after her imprisonment (along with hundreds of others) for inducing persons not to register for the military draft. Yet none of these reviewers commented on the “disappointment and horror as Reed and others bear witness to the loss of their rights under President Wilson’s regime.” In the three dialog segments cited below, we see what these reviewers overlooked: how the film made biting commentary on the prospects for a workers’ revolution in the United States, on the naiveté of socialists who did not foresee the massive, violent international reaction against the Revolution, and the importance of appreciating this factor in order to understand why the Bolsheviks were arguably justified in the measures they took to centralize power. What could they have achieved if they had been left unopposed by at least their foreign opponents? This is the question overlooked by all these reviewers, but John Reed is never depicted in the film as having abandoned his commitment, in spite of whatever disputes he had over tactics.
_____
Dialog 1:  John (Jack) Reed and Louise Bryant argue about the prospects for revolution in the United States
Jack: I’m just saying that the revolution in this country [the United States] is not going to be led by immigrants.
Louise: Revolution? In this country? When, Jack? Just after Christmas?
Jack: Well, what do you think we could’ve done with the steel strike if we’d been ready? 30,000 party members all armed with a unified theory and program leading 365,000 steelworkers? What it takes is leadership. And we’ve got to get it by getting recognition from Moscow. I have to go.
Louise: You don’t have to go. You want to go. You want to go running all over the world ranting and raving and making resolutions and organizing caucuses. What’s the difference between the Communist Party and the Communist Labor Party except that you’re running one and he’s running the other?
Jack: I’ve made a commitment.
Louise: To what? To the fine distinction between which half of the left of the left is recognized by Moscow as the real Communist Party in America? To petty political squabbling between humorless and hack politicians just wasting their time on left-wing dogma? To getting the endorsement of a committee in Russia you call the International for your group of fourteen intellectual friends in the basement who are supposed to tell the workers of this country what they want, whether they want it or not? Write, Jack. You’re not a politician, you’re a writer. And your writing has done more for the revolution than twenty years of this infighting can do, and you know it. You’re an artist, Jack. Don’t go. Don’t run away from what you do the best. Jack. 
Dialogue 2: Is the American worker too complacent to want a workers’ revolution?
Eugene O’Neil: Ah, yes, Russia. Russia’s been good for you and Jack. Given you a way to meet people, given him a reason to leave home. Russia. Russia.
Louise: Are you really that cynical, or are you angry with me?
Eugene O’Neil: I’m really that cynical. Why would I be angry with you?
Louise: Gene, if you’d been to Russia, you’d never be cynical about anything again. You would have seen people transformed. Ordinary people.
Eugene O’Neil: Louise, something in me tightens when an American intellectual’s eyes shine and they start to talk to me about the Russian people. Something in me says, “Watch it. A new version of Irish Catholicism is being offered for your faith.” And I wonder why a lovely wife like Louise Reed who’s just seen the brave new world is sitting around with a cynical bastard like me instead of trotting all over Russia with her idealistic husband. It’s almost worth being converted. You and Jack have a lot of middle-class dreams for two radicals. Jack dreams that he can hustle the American working man—whose one dream is to be rich enough not to have to work—into a revolution led by his party. And you dream that if you discuss the revolution with a man before you go to bed with him, it’ll be missionary work rather than sex. I’m sorry to see you and Jack so serious about your sports. It’s particularly disappointing in you, Louise. You had a lighter touch when you were touting free love.
Dialog 3: Emma Goldman and John Reed, in Russia in 1920, disputing whether to stay committed to the Bolsheviks
Emma: Jack, I think we have to face it. The dream that we had is dying in Russia. If Bolshevism means the peasants taking the land, the workers taking the factories, Russia’s one place where there’s no Bolshevism... The Soviets have no more local autonomy. The central state has all the power. All the power is in the hands of a few men and they are destroying the Revolution. They are destroying any hope of real Communism in Russia. They’re putting people like me in jail. My understanding of revolution is not a continual extermination of political dissenters, and I want no part of it. Every single newspaper’s been shut down or taken over by the party. Anyone even vaguely suspected of being a counter-revolutionary can be taken out and shot without a trial. Where does that end? Is any nightmare justifiable in the name of defense against counter-revolution? The dream may be dying in Russia, but I’m not.
Jack: You sound like you’re a little confused by the revolution in action, E.G. Up to now, you’ve only dealt with it in theory. What did you think this thing was going to be? A revolution by consensus where we all sat down and agreed over a cup of coffee?
Emma: Nothing works. Four million people died last year. Not from fighting a war, they died from starvation and typhus in a militaristic police state that suppresses freedom and human rights, where nothing works.
Jack: They died because of a French, British and American blockade that cut off all food and medical supplies and because counter-revolutionaries have sabotaged the factories and the railroads and the telephones, and because the people, the poor, ignorant, superstitious, illiterate people, are trying to run things themselves, just as you always said that they should, but they don’t know how to run them yet. Did you really think things would work right away? Did you really expect social transformation to be anything other than a murderous process? It’s a war, E.G., and we’ve got to fight it like we fight a war, with discipline, with terror, with firing squads, or we just give it up. 

Emma: Those four million people didn’t die fighting a war. They died from a system that cannot work.

Jack: It’s just the beginning, E.G. It’s not happening the way we thought it would. It’s not happening the way we wanted it to, but it’s happening. If you walk out on it now, what’s your whole life meant?
_____

Movie reviewers in 1982 wrote on short deadlines, from memory or from notes that they took in dark theaters. They didn’t have the advantage of reflecting on the film thirty-six years later, extracting dialog from the DVD, or checking on the internet to see that John Reed died of typhus, not tuberculosis or kidney failure. They can’t be expected to give expert historical analysis. They are guides, arbiters and reflections of popular taste in entertainment, not of expertise in political theory or history. So perhaps my criticism is unfair, but I hope I have illustrated an alternative way to interpret Reds. It is an error to see the film as an affirmation of “American optimism” or freedom of speech, or a repudiation of the Bolshevik revolution. The last words of John Reed in the third dialog above were almost the last ones he spoke in the film, and nothing in the film, or in what is known about his final years of life, can be seen as a rejection of his commitment to the Revolution. In fact, many socialists today still defend all the “excesses” and regret the purposeful dismantling of the Soviet Union because we have had only unfettered capitalism ever since. As it becomes indisputable that American capitalism has increased inequality, and inequality has made America drift toward fascism, the following description of the immutable laws of political science is hard to dispute, no matter how unpleasant the implications:
... imagine the ouroboros as the political spectrum, the head as Fascism and the tail as Communism... Let’s superimpose the ouroboros—with the biting head to the right of the bitten tail to the left, and both extremes at the top, [and put] on top ... the four-way political compass, not only with the self-explanatory left and right, but with the top representing authoritarianism and bottom indicating libertarianism. Thus, the top left box would be for the Marxist-Leninists, the bottom left the anarchists, the bottom right the ‘free market’ fetishists (including the ‘anarcho’-capitalists), and the top right everything from the Trump-lovers to the idolizers of the likes of Pinochet, Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler. The neo-con, neoliberal Clintons, Obamas, and Bushes would be near the bottom-middle-right...
To create a world where all production is for the sake of providing for everyone, we have to do more than just remove the political and economic obstacles (the ruling class and their bourgeois state): we also have to wean ourselves from old, bad habits, i.e., production for profit, exploiting labourers, hoarding food, etc. If these bad habits aren’t broken, the libertarian left of the hind half of the serpent will slide towards the ‘libertarian’ right of unfettered capitalism, the front half of the serpent.
Stalin’s push for rapid industrialization, collectivization, ruthless punishing of grain-hoarding kulaks, execution of traitors, spies, and other enemies within the USSR, as well as defeating the Nazis and building up of a nuclear arsenal, were all needed measures to keep the USSR from slipping from the hind area of the ouroboros to the front half. The same can be said of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the DPRK’s development of nukes, a perfectly reasonable reaction to the US bombing of the Korean Peninsula, Iraq, and Libya... The error of liberalism is assuming that an easy-going acceptance of the moderate bottom middle of the ouroboros will result in the world staying there. Nothing stands still forever; all things flow. Our material conditions won’t stay in the bottom middle: they will slide from there to the front half of the serpent, and continue to slide up to the head, as they have for the past forty years. It’s easy to see how Reagan, the Bushes, and Trump have contributed to this trend, but many remain willfully ignorant as to how Carter, the Clintons, and Obama have contributed to it. [12]
Whether it is 1920, 1982 or 2018, there is no mass awareness in America of this dialectic. Considering this analogy using ouroboros, even if one didn’t want to contemplate finishing at the tail with communism—especially an anachronistic version of it suited for 1917, there is only one direction to go to avoid a rendezvous with fascism. There is no lateral movement possible outside of the snake. Yet the large segment of society that should be mobilizing in the leftward direction is bogged down in a deranged resistance in which well-educated intellectuals believe that their president is a puppet of the Russian government. In this delusion, they are oblivious that they are pushing the world closer to nuclear war and neglecting to do anything about the ecological crisis created by capitalism. Furthermore, the delusion involves waiting for the FBI and the CIA to turn the clock back to some imagined past when all was well—which is, ironically, an echo of the opposition’s own dream of “making America great again.” Although Reds was primarily the story of John Reed, Louise Bryant came across as the clear-eyed one who understood the kind of work he needed to do, and her advice to stay would have saved his life, if he had listened. And she understood something timeless about America when she asked, “Revolution? In this country? When, Jack? Just after Christmas?”

More about John Reed: “He spoke truth to and about Power”- P. Sainath on John Reed

Notes



[3] Biskind, op. cit.

[5] Biskind, op. cit.

[6] Roger Ebert, “Reds” (review), Chicago Sun, January 1, 1981, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/reds-1981.

[10] Dan Callahan, “Reds” (review), Slant Magazine, September 12, 2006, https://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/reds.


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