I first met Warren Beatty in the transit lounge at the Copenhagen airport in 1969. He was on his way to Russia, already embarked on a project to make a film called Ten Days That Shook the World, based on the celebrated work of a boyhood hero of his, John Reed. Since when Warren Beatty was a boy, and for many years afterward, the only biography of Reed available was the one by Granville Hicks—written when Hicks was a member of the Communist party, a work whose proofs had been vetted by Earl Browder and which Hicks called “as important a contribution to the cause of Communism as I was likely to make”—it can be supposed that Beatty’s view of Reed even in 1969 was not highly critical.
In the presidential campaign of 1972, Beatty, who does not hide the fact that he cherishes political ambitions of his own, vigorously supported George McGovern. But he has in recent months, I understand, been chumming up to Senator Daniel P. Moynihan—rather at the opposite end of the Democratic party from ex-Senator McGovern. Such a change of heart left him the problem of what to do with this movie, which had already swallowed up millions of dollars.
We will never know the movie Reds would have been if Beatty had made it when his enthusiasm for McGovern was at its height. But even after the crushing McGovern defeat, with Nixon in office, détente was the watchword. Beatty put in many hours reading through the John Reed collection in the Widener Library at Harvard, and in 1976, with Nixon gone but détente still the cry, commissioned a talented British playwright, Trevor Griffiths (The Comedians), to do a screenplay. History, however, would still not lie down and play dead. I will not summarize the international developments of these last few years, but I am sure that Warren Beatty more than almost anyone else was aware that relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were now—to be succinct—chillier, and that he was stuck with a hero who was a member of the first Executive Council of the Comintern and the most famous and open American Communist of all time.
Now it is perfectly clear that at no point did Warren Beatty, who is Reds’ producer, director, co-scriptwriter, and star, ever intend to convey the total and unqualified admiration for a Communist state expressed in Ten Days by John Reed. But Beatty must have thought that there was something, as they say, that Reed was doing right. And what he was “doing right” has been honed down for Beatty by the cruel events of these last few years. The Bolsheviks, we all know, brought into being a system of government—with Poland only the most recent reminder—that has comparatively few avowed advocates in the West these days. But Reed, boyish, romantic, sublimely ignorant of the theories of the Bolsheviks before their seizure of power, convinced that he was taking the side of the earth’s insulted and injured against their malign and only oppressor, capitalism, celebrated the Bolshevik triumph as a millennium. What are we to think of that?
The film’s answer was most clearly illustrated to me by the words of a well-known fellow film critic as, his face illuminated, we walked together out of one of Reds’ early screenings. He had loved it. “What was so great about the film,” he said emotionally, “was that it shows that all John Reed’s wonderful idealism was still a good thing, no matter what happened afterward.” He glowed for perhaps half a minute with the virtue of this idea, and then, an unexpected thought coming along, turned to me in genuine curiosity and asked, slightly troubled: “What went wrong over there in Russia anyway?” This was one of the critics who, at the annual meeting of the New York Film Critics Circle, voted Reds the best movie of 1981.
So even though Reds hardly endorses the Bolshevik Revolution (in fact at the end, in gentle tones, it even condemns it), the movie, it turns out, has politics after all. They are what can be called the “politics of intent,” as opposed to the politics of achievement. If one has noble intentions, and means well toward one’s fellow man, and one’s heart is pure, and generous, and filled with love, then that is what matters. If one’s ideas are unworkable, bring social disruption, disaster, and even tragedy on a colossal scale—one can’t be expected to foresee all that, can one?
The commercial success of Reds at this writing seems only moderate. Early reports had it successful in the affluent neighborhoods of big cities, but doing poorly in the South, heartland America, and even most suburbs. The film’s greatest triumph by far has unquestionably been with the critics (and with the members of the Motion Picture Academy who gave it 12 Academy Award nominations), and it is hard for me to avoid thinking that some of them love the movie so passionately precisely because it exonerates them from responsibility for some follies and unworkable nostrums to which they subscribed in the 60’s and early 70’s. Their heart, after all, was in the right place. That, Reds tells them, is what counts.
And indeed, Reds evokes quite a number of themes of the 1915-20 period that make a link with recent decades: the counterculture (then called “bohemianism”), the sexual revolution (then called “free love”), advocacy journalism (a variety of which was known as “muckraking”), and in a very large way feminism, which entirely takes over major parts of Reds through the love story of John Reed and Louise Bryant. In fact, it was mainly by putting that story into the foreground and pushing the strictly political issue into the background that Beatty hoped to overcome the problem of a movie with a Communist hero being released in the unfavorable climate of 1981.
John Reed’s life is rather better known than that of Louise Bryant. Reed’s family, or at least his mother’s family, was one of the richest in the state of Oregon. In his maternal grandparents’ grand mansion, in which he grew up, he was an isolated rich boy, a dreamer. The closest he ever came to the laboring classes of this world, aside from servants (Chinese and romantically exotic), was Portland’s shanty Irish, of whom he lived in mortal dread. Whenever he saw an Irish kid coming he ran for his life.
In one sense, however, Reed came by his radicalism honestly. His father lined up with Lincoln Steffens in supporting Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation movement, and since one of the movement’s principal targets was the timber interests, the basis of Oregon’s major fortunes, he suffered for it financially. Nor was there any lack of radicalism about at Harvard when young Reed got there in 1910, and Reed—in a fairly novel approach for the time—made strong efforts to establish himself as both a radical and an aristocrat. When his Harvard classmate Walter Lippmann later crossed swords with Reed, he wrote him a singularly disdainful letter saying: “. . . I have known you too long and I know too much about you. I watched you at college when a few of us were taking our chances. I watched you trying to climb into clubs and hang on to a position by your eyelids, and to tell you the truth, I have never taken your radicalism the least bit seriously.”
Reed first came to public notoriety by organizing the Madison Square Garden pageant to raise funds for the IWW silk workers on strike in Paterson, New Jersey. The strike also marked the beginning of his love affair with Mabel Dodge, who maintained the most brilliant salon in Greenwich Village, and who, it was said, had enough money to endow all of Greenwich Village forever. Mabel sponsored the Paterson pageant, and the following day, without waiting to discover the fate of their silk strikers (they were crushed), or even to see if the pageant had turned a profit (it had not), scooped up the poor, exhausted Reed and carried him off to Europe where he recuperated in a villa in Florence, bathing in a fountain designed by Michelangelo. Upton Sinclair called Reed “the playboy of the Revolution,” and, although he apologized for the remark, there was, as can be seen, some truth in it.
For the wider American public, Reed became an overnight celebrity with his reporting as a war correspondent on the Mexican Revolution, during which he attached himself to Pancho Villa’s brigand-guerrillas. His tales of wild cavalry charges amidst a hail of bullets and of colorful, illiterate peon-generals festooned with cartridge belts quite captured the imagination of U.S. readers. Reed admitted even at the time to “rearranging” his stories, and there is now substantial skepticism about his overall integrity, particularly regarding his account of close calls with death when, aside from the Mexican pointing the gun, Reed was the only witness.
When World War I broke out, Reed was inevitably sent as a correspondent, but after the turbulent excitement and exoticism of Mexico, with simple, savage men swooping down from the hills on their horses in daring attacks, singing afterward around campfires, Britain, France, and Italy were a big let-down: nations about as materially developed as his own (hence not romantic), engaged in a grim, static war of attrition.
Reed had no great enthusiasm for either party in what he called this “trader’s war,” but since Washington sympathized with the Western allies, most Greenwich Village radicals leaned somewhat to the other side, viewing Germany as the “underdog,” and when Reed journeyed around to the German side of the line (the U.S. then being neutral), his reports on the German occupation of French territory were largely favorable. One day in the trenches, handed a Mauser by a German officer, he even fired two shots at the French lines. When this action was reported in the press, the French, needless to say, did not consider the matter a joke and barred Reed from France for the remainder of the war.
He next appeared in Russia. Since he had written playfully in his U.S. passport, “I am a German and an Austrian spy. I do it for money. Reed,” the Russians immediately threw him in jail. Released, Reed found himself surrounded by a vast population almost as backward, emotional, and disorderly as his beloved Mexicans, and became an instant Russophile.
Disappointed in himself as a war correspondent, Reed returned to the U.S., had a bad kidney removed, and published a volume of bad poetry. On learning that the Czar had fallen, Reed’s spirits lifted again and he immediately sought an assignment to Russia. With funds provided by a wealthy Park Avenue lady, he arrived in Petrograd barely in time to catch the October Revolution, his eyewitness record of which, in Ten Days That Shook the World, was to write his own name into history.
Before leaving New York, he had written in an unpublished introspective essay: “I wish with all my heart that the proletariat would rise and take their rights. . . . I cannot give up the idea that out of democracy will be born the new world—richer, braver, freer, more beautiful.” And now here it was happening before his eyes. Reed had no, or next to no, Russian. As Bertram Wolfe said: “Of the awesome disputations of Russia’s intelligentsia he knew nothing. Of Lenin’s authoritarian party structure and organization machine even less: so much the freer was his fancy to endow the conflict and chaos he was to witness with the form and substance of his own dream.” Even his illustrator, Boardman Robinson, once complained to Reed, “But it didn’t happen that way!” To which Reed replied, “What the hell difference does it make!”
As can be seen, John Reed was a rather free-wheeling adept of the “New Journalism” (which of course was no more “new” in his time than it was when it reemerged in America in the 1960’s). He nonetheless left a book which, for all its “rearrangements,” lacunae, and unabashed partisanship, provides the most vivid eyewitness account of one of the great events in modern history.
Almost ironically, perhaps in accordance with the principle that “those who know don’t write,” early Soviet leaders found Ten Days That Shook the World the most coherent rendition of those October days written by anybody of any nationality, including Russian, and it became, for a time, one of their sacred books. Stalin later suppressed it because of the huge role it gives to Trotsky (hardly mentioning Stalin at all), and in the Soviet Union it remained a non-book for over 27 years. As for Reed himself, he died of typhus in a Russian hospital in 1920 at the age of thirty-three, and was accorded the singular honor of burial under the Kremlin wall.
Whatever his failings, John Reed is by any measure a far more imposing figure than the petulant young woman whose love affair with Reed has been pushed so alarmingly to the fore in Warren Beatty’s movie.
Louise Bryant was a sexual adventuress, a chronic liar, a self-styled “writer” who hardly wrote, an ambitious social climber described as “very eager to get on,” a thrill seeker, a character more out of Emile Zola than Theodore Dreiser. While using Reed’s connections to the fullest, she deceived him at every turn, usually with men either famous or handsome. After Reed’s death in Moscow she made a society marriage with none other than diplomat Wiillam Bullitt, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union and U.S. ambassador to Paris at the fall of France in 1940. Their divorce papers were sealed permanently at Bullitt’s request, so we will probably never know the full dossier Bullitt assembled against her.
She had actually had a brief career as a journalist, reporting from Europe for the Hearst press after Reed’s death, her major scoop being an interview with Mussolini. But she took to drink, then to narcotics. One of the last sightings of her was in the mid-30’s in Paris by an Americian writer who had known her while she was married to Bullitt. A “terrifying figure” rose “literally out of the gutter.” Emma Goldman saw her being carried out of the Sélect Café by two drunken Corsican soldiers. Within a few months she was dead.
Charitable souls have attributed Louise’s rather spectacular final decline to mourning for Reed, her true love. But her seven-year marriage to Bullitt, who maintained palatial homes in New York and Paris, would not at first glance seem an act of mourning. The plain fact is that Louise, along with her ambition, had always given clear signs of a dark, destructive, “mucker” strain in her personality. On her first trip to Europe in 1917, the U.S. passport official, who knew nothing about her, wrote resignedly on her application, “I suppose I will have to issue a passport to this wild woman.” The passport picture has been described as showing “an unkempt young woman, hollow-cheeked, with dark rings under her eyes, mouth agape. . . .” She was twenty-nine years old.
Why should John Reed fall in love with and marry such a creature? A fragment of an unpublished piece of fiction written by Reed and called Story About Celia offers a significant clue:
Celia belongs to a race of women who are the world’s great lovers. They seem less of the earth than of the spirit of the earth. . . . They respire habitually in the thin, high atmosphere that artists sometimes breathe. They see Truth, not in flashes, but as a steady white light; Truth often at variance with the world’s ideas. . . . They are as innocent as a swallow in mid-air, for even, when they know evil, they cannot understand it. They are always beautiful.
Such a woman is created for love alone. Although by breeding and delicacy she shrinks from vulgarity, yet she will give herself to a beast among men if she love him. . . . Deliciously human, they desire human love above all else. They are brimful of the joy of the world, shifting colors, jewels, robes, the pageant of lights and moving people. They are like chalices filled with unbounded passion and infinite faith in the love of men.
This fragment suggests, first, that literature, which was Reed’s first love (and to which he hoped eventually to return), suffered no great loss when he abandoned it for journalism and politics. Second, it would seem to indicate that sharp perceptions of female character were not Reed’s strong point. Neither Mable Dodge, nor Louise Bryant, nor any other woman with whom Reed is known to have been connected bore the slightest resemblance to “Celia”; indeed, one has the right to wonder if such a woman has ever walked the earth. But it appears evident that this description of “Celia” captures the inner essence of what Reed imagined an attractive woman to be. When he met Louise Bryant in Portland, he wrote to a friend: “I think I’ve found her at last. She’s wild, brave, and straight—and graceful and lovely to look at. In this spiritual vacuum, this unfertilized soil, she has grown . . . into an artist.”
The plain fact seems to be that Reed saw women through an idealistic haze. And I will carry the point further. Having read in Reed’s writings of the new life that would spring up on earth with the advent of socialism (“richer, braver, freer, more beautiful”), I am inclined to think that the idealistic haze through which he saw women was the same idealistic haze through which he saw the socialist future.
The bitter irony of all this is that there is a marked parallel (fastidiously avoided by Warren Beatty) between the ultimate destinies of John Reed’s two great loves. The political love of his life was the infant Bolshevik Republic, viewed in 1917, when hearts were young, hopes were high, and the brightest dreams seemed possible. This euphoric paradise degenerated into the Soviet Union we know today, which whatever a few persistent admirers may think of it, John Reed would unquestionably have loathed. The female love of Reed’s life, Louise Bryant, after her splendid time in the sun, degenerated by her forties into a moral derelict, a drug addict, a human wreck in the gutters of Paris. She died the very year of the first Moscow Trials. Where was that “Truth,” that “innocence,” that “joy,” that “steady white light”? Gone, alas, with the rest of John Reed’s hazy illusions.
Now many eminent men in history have had relationships with women of more slender substance. Literature abounds with examples, and even recent political affairs offer us, on varying levels of respectability: Pierre and Margaret Trudeau, Nelson Rockefeller and Megan Marshak, Wilbur Mills and Fanne Foxe. But stories like this, while not without their fascination, do not—cutting to what I think is the heart of the matter—offer attractive “role models” to the new woman of today. If the romantic hero John Reed was in love with Louise Bryant (Warren Beatty’s reasoning clearly went), the historic Louise Bryant must be pumped up to be worthy of the love of the romantic hero John Reed. Louise’s act, in short, would have to be cleaned up quite a bit. This pumping up of Louise with an eye to feminine audiences corresponds in my view to a phenomenon of recent years that could be called Zelda-ization, after Nancy Milford’s highly successful book on the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The technique is a slippery one. American history hardly lacks for colorful folk heroines, ranging from Susan B. Anthony to Annie Oakley, not to mention the quite incredible Claflin sisters, Tennessee Claflin and Victoria Woodhull, perhaps the most flamboyant and beautiful women ever to come out of Ohio, who preached free love, socialism, and women’s suffrage as early as 1870, were supported for a time by Cornelius Vanderbilt, published The Communist Manifesto, and both married rich, Victoria managing meanwhile in 1872 to be the first woman candidate for U.S. President—with Frederick Douglass as her running mate. But the Zelda school sternly ignores these women who achieved distinction on their own merits, preferring to select the wife or woman companion of some male celebrity, puffing her up to an unconscionable degree, and leaving the final impression that if she was less important than this celebrated masculine mate, it was only by a hair’s-breadth, and then perhaps because she was forced to sacrifice her own talents to his.
In the apotheosis of Louise Bryant in Reds, this calculated strategy to flatter the female public is what we are dealing with, and it involves distortion of the historical facts and suppression of some of the gamier details about Louise.
Louise Bryant told various friends at different times that her grandfather was the young son of an Irish lord, that her father was an officer in the British army, and that she was related to Oscar Wilde. She was born, in fact, Anna Louise Mohan, and her father, a one-time Pennsylvania Irish coal miner named Hugh Mohan, abandoned her mother, “a very plain, unremarkable woman” of Spanish origin, soon after the child’s birth. The mother remarried a railroad conductor on the Southern Pacific named Sheridan Bryant, and most of Louise’s youth was spent at desolate rail junctions in Nevada.
Ambition, certainly not scholarship, finally took Louise to the University of Oregon in Eugene, where she cast a veil of mystery over her earlier life. Upon arrival in Portland after graduation, she promptly sought the company of her well-to-do university sorority sisters and with their help secured a job as a society reporter on a local newspaper. Louise soon made a “good match,” marrying a handsome young dentist of good family named Paul Trullinger in an Episcopal ceremony (she was born Catholic). On a miniature scale, she followed much the same new line John Reed was taking in the fashionable East, mixing life among the well-born with “advanced” ideas, both political and sexual. Her husband allowed her to maintain a separate artist’s studio in downtown Portland where, tiring of reporting, she first did sketching, then wrote poetry, meanwhile carrying on a series of love affairs.
When she heard that Portland’s native son, John Reed—now a national celebrity thanks to his coverage of the Mexican Revolution—was about to pay a visit to his family, she calmly laid plans to ensnare him. Always supremely confident of her sexual attractiveness, Louise arranged a dinner through mutual friends. As it happened, they met before the dinner. The love affair—if that was what is was—took fire almost instantly. Reed invited her to come live with him in New York and, since this was Louise’s intention from the beginning, she did not need much convincing. In exactly three days, she was off to Greenwich Village. Within two years of her arrival there she was to become the wife of John Reed and the mistress of Eugene O’Neill, to get to know many of the most celebrated people in America, and to witness the October Revolution in Russia. Given that her assets were almost entirely sexual, and that this was all a long way from rail junctions in Nevada, it was a rather good score.
Reds sets out to give us something of the romantic sweep of the period 1915 to 1920, to be something of a Gone With the Wind of the American radicalism of those years. It has an excellent supporting cast: Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman, novelist Jerzy Kosinski as Grigori Zinoviev (first head of the Comintern), Paul Sorvino as Louis Fraina (Reed’s rival as head of the contending wing of the American Communist party), Gene Hackman and George Plimpton as different sorts of editors, and Edward Herrmann as Max Eastman. (It should be pointed out, in passing, that both the writing and casting of the Eastman character completely falsify the Reed-Eastman relationship, as the historical Max Eastman was not only more brilliant than Reed but, as it happened, far more handsome.) But the most extraordinary figure in the “supporting” cast is Jack Nicholson as Eugene O’Neill, who in my view walks away with the movie.
As for the principal characters, Diane Keaton is completely out of her depth as the upgraded Louise Bryant: fretful and peevish at her dignified moments, superficial and nervous when supposedly projecting emotion. If you want to see Annie Hall Takes the Winter Palace, this is the movie for you.
Warren Beatty, an actor far from without resources, is up against a different sort of problem. The trouble with Reds as a Gone With the Wind is that the average American moviegoer knows more or less what the Civil War was about, but when it comes to the Smolny Institute and Grigori Zinoviev, it is doubtful if one U.S. filmgoer in a thousand has ever heard of them. What’s worse, there are those doctrinal problems, as between the Communist party of America and the Communist Labor party, the AFL and IWW, etc., etc. Though for revolutionaries ideology is of supreme importance, Beatty proceeds in terror that the audience might be bored stiff by all the political doctrine or, even more dangerous, that it might actually focus on the violent upheaval being proposed and take fright.
Hence whenever Reed talks politics in the film—and a certain amount is unavoidable—Beatty’s voice is rapid, light, high; he trips along at such a rate that the viewer could hardly follow him if he wanted to. Time and again irrelevant distractions are introduced to lead the mind away. When Beatty can think of nothing else, the camera dwells on the face of Louise Bryant to see how Annie Hall is taking all this: anything to get away from what is being said.
In dealing with the love story, and Reed’s personal life, Beatty uses a different technique. Since one of the main purposes of the film is to show that even though his revolutionary ideas didn’t pan out too well, Reed was still a warm, idealistic, lovable fellow, Beatty’s performance, I am sorry to report, suffers from a horrible case of the cutes.
Jack Nicholson, on the other hand, doesn’t seem the least bit reticent about what he’s got to say. Unlike his friends, the real O’Neill—and I understate—never fell under the spell of the promised Bolshevik utopia. True to this, when he and Louise meet in the film after her return from Petrograd, Nicholson, faintly smiling, a glass in his hand, drawls out, taking his own sweet time: “Russia. Russia. Ah, Russia. Russia’s been good to you and Jack. It’s given you a means of leaving home, meeting people, lecturing. . . .” Agitated and indignant, Louise sputters, “Are you really that cynical?” Calmly, his eyes cold, but still smiling faintly, O’Neill answers, “I’m really that cynical.” On the printed page, the line seems unremarkable. But I have seen Reds twice, once at a fancy invitational screening on New York’s East Side, the second time a month later with a popular audience in Times Square, and on both occasions the line brought down the house. Most movies have only a single line that will have this effect, and for Reds, explain it as you will—Nicholson’s delivery, the thought, astringency amid so much soppiness—this is the one.
The film actually begins with a series of elderly people reminiscing about John Reed and Louise Bryant. First we hear only reedy old voices: “I’m beginning to forget.” . . . “Were they Socialists?” . . . “I’d forgotten all about them.” . . . “There was Mabel, then another gal, then Louise.” . . . We begin to see the faces as they speak. In all, there are about thirty real persons in this series and they reappear periodically throughout the film as a kind of chorus. Although never identified, they include a number of quite distinguished people, some no longer living: Roger Baldwin, founder of the ACLU; the old Hamilton Fish; Dame Rebecca West; Lady Dora Russell; Henry Miller; George Jessel.
Almost all the critics have testified to the feeling of authenticity provided by these real witnesses, and regretted their not being identified. I myself, although I agree as to their effectiveness, feel a little hocus pocus has been practiced upon the audience. Each of these people, it has been reported, was interviewed for something like four hours, but we only get them for two or three sentences at a time, on an average of about twice apiece. Four hours of Rebecca West out of which we are given a grand total of perhaps thirty seconds: what did she say in the other three hours and fifty-nine minutes? We hear her disparagement of Beatrice Webb, for example, but nothing about Jack Reed.
The snippets have obviously been edited very artfully. There are contradictions here and there to give an impression of heterogeneity. When a dignified old lady says, “In those days men respected women,” we cut straight to raffish old Henry Miller debunking, “There was as much fucking then as there is today!” But by and large, not surprisingly, the elderly chorus has been edited to leave very much the impression that the film as a whole is intended to leave. It all happened in another age. It was romantic. They were free souls, free spirits, a romantic couple. In politics, they meant well. They were idealistic.
The main body of Reds begins in Portland at about the time local beauty Louise Bryant meets the famous journalist John Reed. She takes him to her studio for an all-night interview. He rattles on with boyish excitement about one radical cause after another (there are lots of quick cuts in mid-sentence; you are not supposed to listen). Cup after cup of coffee is poured and in the morning light Louise, still pure, rushes the dismayed Reed out of the house.
Their second meeting leads to sexual union, but when Reed invites her to join him in New York, Louise is suddenly indignant, each word filled with biting scorn: “What would I go as, your girl friend? Your mistress? Your paramour? Your concubine?” The historical Louise Bryant, as I have already indicated, had no objection at all to such a position, and in fact had been plotting and scheming and deploying all her wiles to get Reed to bring her to New York in just that capacity.
Reds contains dozens of examples of artistic license taken with the lives of its two principal characters, but I shall only mention a few which suggest how the basic traits of these characters have been altered, particularly that of the heroine. When Reed in the film considerately introduces Louise to an important editor (“I’d like you to meet Louise Bryant. She’s a very talented writer”), she attacks Reed furiously afterward: “I don’t need that! I don’t need that kind of patronizing introduction!” The movie also gives the impression that Louise was a crackerjack news-woman—at the front, under enemy artillery fire, even earning Reed’s accolade, “You’re a hell of a journalist.” And when Reed urges her to come with him to Russia, she imposes strict conditions: “I want my own byline. And I want to be known as Miss Bryant, not Mrs. Reed!” Yet the real Louise wrote so little as to have a very weak claim to this professional description. When she went to France as a “war correspondent” during World War I, entirely through Reed’s connections but by herself, she wrote exactly one piece, which was deemed unusable, and returned to America without a single published story to her credit.
The movie, then, gives us a Louise Bryant for the 80’s, independent, successful, and successful in her own right, whereas the historical Louise Bryant was almost the pure prototype of a woman who achieved her success entirely by getting her hooks into one man, then another, then another. When the line of men ran out, it was the end.
Louise’s most interesting relationship was the one with Eugene O’Neill, perhaps because it was part of the most notorious “triangle” in American letters, but also because it was such a shameless, sometimes comic example of Louise at work. Here again the movie distorts by showing O’Neill taking the lead in the affair, whereas it was actually Louise. Good looks played a part. Even John Reed’s friend, Max Eastman, described his face affectionately as “rather like a potato,” whereas the looks of Eugene O’Neill as a young man—black-eyed, brooding, romantic—have been called “breathtaking.” One day at Provincetown (which the whole gang of them put on the map), while Reed was away on some assignment or other, Louise sent O’Neill a note slipped between the pages of a book of poetry: “Dark eyes. What do you mean?”
It didn’t take. O’Neill considered Reed one of his closest friends. Reed helped him tremendously to get a start. To deceive him with Louise would be the vilest treason. So Louise tried again, another note: “I must see you alone. I have to explain something, for my sake and Jack’s. You have to understand.” When O’Neill came, as he felt he must because of Jack, Louise told him that Jack, despite his apparent cheerfulness, was preparing himself for death because of his coming kidney operation. His sickness prevented their having sexual relations and they were living together as “brother and sister.” She loved Jack and could never leave him, she said, and was helping him to resign himself to death, but her own state was desperate. She was turning to O’Neill for consolation and for love. Jack, she assured him, understood.
It was said that the only person in Provincetown who believed this story was O’Neill (and strong evidence of his belief is that he used different parts of the story in two of his greatest Broadway successes, Strange Interlude and Beyond the Horizon). But it worked. She got him.
When Reed came back from his trip, he was chipper, gregarious, not at all like a man preparing himself for death. He acted lovingly toward Louise, comradely and admiring toward O’Neill, as ever. Great numbers of people considered it the most scandalous ménage à trois in America, but their closest friends were convinced that Reed didn’t have a clue. The final irony was that Reed wrote a one-act farce for the Provincetown Players called The Eternal Quadrangle to parody the current Broadway vogue for triangle plays, which he considered ridiculous.
Soon Reed and Louise were off to Russia for the October Revolution. The movie shows them returning to New York together, but in actual fact Louise had abandoned Reed in Russia two months earlier. This time she actually succeeded in publishing a number of newspaper articles, covering the Bolshevik Revolution from “the woman’s angle,” and, having spent four months in Russia, collected them together in a book entitled Six Red Months in Russia.
As soon as she arrived in New York, she wrote O’Neill in Province-town a series of passionate love letters, saying she had crossed three thousand miles of frozen steppes to come back to him, her lover, and pleaded with him to join her in New York and live with her, displacing Reed. As it happened, O’Neill at this point was living with another lady, whom he was about to marry, and he rebuffed Louise’s advances. She and O’Neill never met again.
In actual fact, then, the scenes in Reds between Louise Bryant and Eugene O’Neill after her return from Russia obviously never took place. Nonetheless, one of them is among the best things in the film: because it is grounded on what I think was O’Neill’s real character, because it is stunningly performed by Jack Nicholson, and because it provides a note of skepticism in what is otherwise a very syrupy movie. It is the scene in which he confesses he’s “that cynical,” and then goes on coolly pressing his point. “Something in me tightens,” he says drily, “when an American intellectual’s eyes shine at the mention of Russia. I say to myself, ‘Watch out. I am being offered a new version of Irish Catholicism.’” He concludes with ironic sadness, “It’s too bad, Louise. You had a lighter touch when you were touting free love.”
The degree to which these lines reflect Warren Beatty’s own feelings could be debated, but by the time we get to the film’s last sequences it is plain that Beatty is laying down Reds’ definitive view of Bolshevism. At a meeting with Reed in Moscow in 1920, Emma Goldman says in great distress: “The dream we had is dying, Jack. The centralized state has all the power. They’re putting anarchists like me in jail, exterminating all dissenters. I want no part of it. Nothing works. There’s starvation. Four million Russians have died.” Reed answers promptly, at first full of the old fight: “Those four million died because of the Allied blockade. What did you think anyway? It was all going to work right away? It’s a war, Emma! And we have to fight it with discipline, terror, firing squads—or give up.” Reed pauses, as if the seeds of doubt have been sown in his mind too, and turns to Emma Goldman, his face filled with childlike uncertainty: “Otherwise, what has your whole life meant?”
Nonetheless he is soon off with Zinoviev, Radek, and other leaders of the Comintern for the Congress of Oriental Nations at Baku on the Caspian. This Congress, called to foment anti-imperialism, was thronged with Persians, Turks, Caucasians, and Arabs, and the goal of Reed’s speech (the historical transcript of which shows few doubts) was to warn them that while they already hated the British and French colonialists, they should not think Americans were any better. “Don’t trust American capitalists. There is but one road to freedom. Unite with the Russian workers and peasants. . . . Follow the red star of the Communist International!”
In the movie, startled by a sudden roar from the mob with great brandishings of swords at his words “class war,” Reed persists in his confusion until he is informed that this expression has been translated for the audience as “holy war.”
The actual train trip to and from Baku was one of the first glimpses some of the foreign members of the Comintern were to get of just how rapidly the Bolshevik bureaucracy had adapted itself to its position as the new privileged class: expensive foods, rare wines, beautiful Caucasian prostitutes. According to a report attributed to Reed, old Muslim women boarded the train and stripped their charges, lovely girls, some barely fourteen years old, before the delegates—these idealists dedicated to destroying the rotten structure of capitalism and building a better world. It all ended, said Reed, in a drunken sex orgy led by Radek, all in an armored train riding through a countryside whose population was starving. What seemed to disgust Reed was mainly that the girls had been paid for. Now if they had been fine Russian girls who had chosen to engage in sexual intercourse with the delegates, he said, that would have been something else.
This whole historical episode is naturally far too raw for a movie that is edging into soft focus for its final sequences. In the film, we get only Zinoviev, Radek, and company, well-dressed, rather like modern corporate executives, eating good food off white tablecloths on the train. If it is a point, it is not exactly a lethal one, There are no shots of starving peasants.
In the train scene, on the way back to Moscow, Reed squabbles with Zinoviev over the translation of his “class” into “holy” war. “Nobody changes my text,” he exclaims righteously, as if arguing with one of his editors in New York. Zinoviev, unperturbed, confident, acts as if Reed is making a mountain out of a mole hill. Reed brings out hurriedly, “My text is the truth! When you separate a man from the truth, you separate him from what he loves the most, from what is unique. You purge dissent. And when you purge dissent, you purge the Revolution!” At which point he is saved, literally, by the cavalry. White troops are attacking the train. A Red Cavalry unit, riding in the train’s cattle compartments, disembarks and gives chase. Reed runs after them, tries to board a horse-drawn cart bearing machine guns, but fails.
An obvious allegory is intended here. In an earlier “memory” shot of Reed in his Pancho Villa days, we have seen him running after a similar Mexican cart and joyously catching it. This time he runs and runs, runs and runs, but the cart of the Red Revolution disappears into the dust and mist. Gone. At the train’s arrival in Moscow, the Comintern leaders disembark with some pomp at the station. But Reed is not with them. Symbolically, no doubt, he slinks off the train by another door, wasted by exhaustion, and perhaps also by disillusionment (who can tell?), to find to his amazement Louise, to whom he murmurs, “Please don’t leave me.”
And that, politically speaking, is it. From there on, the film is simply the end of their tragic love story, with Reed dying in a Russian hospital of “the movie disease,” sometimes known as “malady X”—with no conspicuous symptoms, the patient remaining pretty—the same disease Ali McGraw died from in Erich Segal’s Love Story. The real Reed was stricken by typhus, one of the dread killers. Paralyzed on his right side, unable to speak, at the end he was fighting for every breath, and died at two o’clock in the morning on October 18, 1920.
There has been extensive debate as to whether or not John Reed, America’s most famous Communist, was disillusioned with Communism when he died. With few exceptions, those hostile to Communism have been convinced that he was (Reed’s published letters to Max Eastman being particularly persuasive), while Communist sympathizers have tended to resist this view one way or another and, when they could, to ignore it.
The only real issue is whether Reed was disillusioned enough to make an actual break, for which there is evidence on both sides. I am prepared to accept the balanced judgment of Bertram Wolfe: “If disillusionment means a final accounting with the Communist movement and its ideology, there is room for differences of opinion. . . . But if disillusionment is understood intellectually and emotionally rather than organizationally, Reed was probably as disillusioned as it was possible to be and still remain in the movement.” To which he adds: “His disillusionment was cumulative, and it was headed toward a break on both sides if he had persisted in his course . . . the reins were tightening almost visibly month by month. If Reed had gone on fighting the new line and the old leadership, the Comintern would probably have saved him the trouble of resigning.”
Taking the long view, the statistics are eloquent. To my knowledge every single member of the first Comintern Executive Committee who was not physically present in the Soviet Union—such as its first secretary, Angelica Balabanoff, or Reed’s American colleague, Louis Fraina—became a bitter anti-Communist. Of those who actually lived in the USSR, few survived. Zinoviev was the chief defendant in the first of Stalin’s show trials and was executed in 1936, Radek was tried in 1937 and died in the camps. Bukharin was tried in 1938 and executed. Béla Kun died in 1939 in Lefortovo prison. It is a grim list.
In Warren Beatty’s Reds, Reed’s disillusionment with Communism is nothing if not tactfully handled, A look of uncertainty on Reed’s face. A quibble with Zinoviev over a translated word. A grand thought, hastily delivered in time for the cavalry. A symbolic cart run after and not caught. And a separate descent from the train’s back door. As disillusionments go, you can’t accuse Beatty of going overboard.
After Reed’s death, the film closes on quavering old voices, again, for the last time calling up the shades of the past. “It was October, I think. Someone told me Jack Reed died. You can imagine how I felt.” . . . “I’d forgotten all about them. Were they Socialists?” . . . “They were a couple. You always spoke of Jack Reed and Louise Bryant.” . . . “Lenin said to him, ‘Are you an American?’ And Reed said yes. And Lenin said, ‘An American American?’ Reed said yes.” And then Reds’ last lines, its last nostalgic old voice, its very last words: “Grand things are ahead. Worth living, and worth dying for. Jack himself said that.”
Well, we now know what lay ahead. According to the most recently published estimate, evenly reported by the New York Times’s Harrison Salisbury, during the Russian Civil War and from related famine and forceful repressions: 18 million dead. In the Soviet forced collectivization of agriculture and associated imprisonments and executions: 22 million dead. In the great Soviet purges of the 1930’s: 19 million dead. In Soviet executions after World War II: 9 million dead. Other authorities estimate that of Russia’s 30 million dead during the war itself, at least half, or 15 million, died at the hands of the Soviet state in massacres of labor camp populations and various ethnic groups during retreats, mass deportations, and continuing deaths in the Gulag. In all, no fewer than 83 million deaths. The fruits of Bolshevism. Grand things, indeed.
One report of John Reed’s last days had it that he was “terribly afraid of having made a serious mistake in his interpretation of a historical event for which he would be held accountable before the judgment of history.”
But he needn’t have worried. In the world of Warren Beatty’s Reds, where men are judged by good intentions alone, Jack’s as clean as a hound’s tooth.