Just by virtue of when it was released, “Reds” (1981) has been praised as courageous filmmaking in the age of Reagan. But thirty years later, what exactly was being praised then and now?
In the bonus features of the commemorative DVD release, Warren Beatty says that he made this film to combat America’s “inordinate fear of communism.” But the majority of screen time dealing with politics involves those who don’t buy into it. Eugene O’Neil, played cynically by Jack Nicholson, calls Bolshevism the “latest theocracy.” Maureen Stapleton’s Emma Goldman early on recoils from the Soviet regime’s abuse of civil liberties. Reed himself attacks the Bolsheviks for censoring his copy and looks on in horror as the Soviet Army marches by.
Beatty must have realized impassioned support of Leninism wouldn’t have played well with ’80s audiences. Hence he drastically edits Reed’s political speech down to one word: in answer to a Democrat’s question about what World War I is about, he says “profits.” When asked by Louise Bryant what Reed’s views on politics are, Beatty avoids the all-night speech by fast-forwarding to morning, where Reed attempts to embrace Bryant.
What must have polled better to audiences was the sex element. Why else use interviews with the apolitical Henry Miller (who criticized Orwell for even involving himself in Spain since all political efforts were doomed anyway)? Or why include Rebecca West, whose only included reminiscence about Reed isn’t his commitment to the working class but his lines with women (“Aren’t you pagan enough?). Beatty even gets his political classification wrong; he forgets when calling the film “the last gasp of the Old Left including me,” that he was born in 1937, when the Stalinist–not Leninist–Left was in high tide and he came of age during the New Left period.
In fact, the New Left is what the film has been shaped around. Comrades live in a communal Provincetown cottage and swap lovers. Glora Steinem-style feminism has been anachronistically inserted when Beatty has Diane Keaton spend most of her screen time griping about no one taking her seriously as a writer.
There has always been controversy about whether Reed intellectually broke with the Bolsheviks before his death. Beatty supports the break thesis but follows the familiar “dream-is-still-alive” theme of the left by having Reed, in the aftermath of an explosion, chasing the same type of wagon he did when he was in Villa’s Mexico.
Thus, Beatty’s film doesn’t combat an ideology, unless it is one of puritanism.