It’s become a cliché to say that a film could not be made any more, even one that anyone of forty or over would have been old enough to have seen on first release, as I did. But Reds is such a film: both personal and epic, one of a kind that gets made when a filmmaker with access to the resources of a major studio is given the permission to use them as he sees fit. In the documentary on this DVD, Beatty wonders what changes he would have to make if he did make the film today: the (literal) thousands of extras would be CGI, the music score (by Stephen Sondheim and Dave Grusin) would be much more pumped up, and the ending would have to be happier. Hollywood movies have – with many notable exceptions – dumbed down considerably in the last quarter-century. A big, expensive movie like this one, not aimed at kids and respectful of its audience’s intelligence, might have a hard road to travel nowadays. Let alone making such a pro-leftist – but, crucially, not pro-Communist – film during a Republican presidency.
Reds is the story of John Reed (Warren Beatty), an American from Portland, Oregon, who wrote the classic eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World. He is the only American to be buried in the Kremlin. Although Reds had its origins in the Carter era (even if it was released during Reagan’s presidency, of which more below), a big-budget studio picture about a leftist during the rise of Communism would not be an obvious box office magnet. Cowriter Trevor Griffiths (an English playwright, mainly for stage and TV, of distinctly left-wing convictions) and Beatty’s strategy is to place the emphasis on a love story: between Reed and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), herself a writer and feminist who left her husband to be with Reed in New York. When he was detained in Russia after the revolution, she made a dangerous journey through Arctic conditions to find him again. In this way, Reds becomes an adroit mixture of an intimate story against the backdrop of enormous political and social change. It’s also a clearly personal work, dramatising a conflict between the demands of art and those of political commitment, something evidently close to home for Beatty.
The film’s masterstroke is the use of “witnesses”. These are men and women who were around at the time and who knew Reed and Bryant. As they are picked out against a black background and talk, it’s a moving experience watching these very old men and women talk about times and events from six and a half decades before. Some of them were dead by the time the film opened, and I’m unsure if any of them are now (January 2007) still alive. Their use is to take the load of exposition of time and place, leaving the bulk of the film free to concentrate on the drama with just a few captions establishing place and year. None of them are identified on screen except as a list in the credits. Beatty and consultant Jeremy Pikser give good reasons why this is in the documentary, but it’ll be a test of your knowledge as to how many you recognise. (I knew who Henry Miller was, and Adela Rogers St Johns had appeared in the previous year’s television series about the silent era, Hollywood.)
Of the film’s twelve Oscar nominations, it received one each in all four acting categories, the most recent film to do so. (In addition, Beatty became the first person since Orson Welles for Citizen Kane to be nominated as producer (the Best Picture category), director, (co)writer and actor for the same film.) Beatty gives an engaging performance, playing Reed not as a jut-jawed hero but as a fallible man. However, the acting honours in this film go elsewhere. Diane Keaton gives what could be her very best dramatic performance – if not, then certainly one of them – it’s her expressive face which holds together the snow journey sequence, which otherwise is in danger of wandering off into Zhivago territory. Jack Nicholson, who then was moving away from his triumphs of the Seventies into some increasingly hammy performances in the coming decade, is quite restrained here as playwright Eugene O’Neill and all the better for it. Bryant left Reed for O’Neill, and Nicholson is perfect casting for someone who could steal Beatty’s girl. However, the only one of the four to actually win was Maureen Stapleton, playing Emma Goldman. It’s not a showy performance by any means, and no visible “acting” from her. She gets to deliver a speech where the film’s political position is revealed: where she condemns the totalitarian response of the Bolsheviks to the economic crises and to the Allied invasions of Russia post-Revolution as a betrayal of ideals and something that simply cannot work. Reed himself faces his own conflict, where he finds his own words rewritten by Zinoviev (author Jerzy Kosinski in a rare acting role) for propagandist reasons.
Another Oscar, his second of three to date, went to Vittorio Storaro for his cinematography. Reds was his first of several collaborations with Beatty. It’s certainly a stunning-looking film, with considerable use of chiaroscuro. Storaro has said elsewhere that this was an early attempt to use his cinematography to tell the story in a symbolic way. He visualised the passionate convictions of the characters as they try to change the world for the better as akin to the growing of a tree. We begin in darkness, dominated by earth tones, the camera largely static, but as the film progresses (and the tree grows), the film become lighter in hue and the camera movements more elaborate. On a technical note, Reds was the first film to use the silver retention process that was later used notably on Se7en.
Reds was nominated for twelve Oscars all told. Beatty won for Best Director, an award which usually but not always goes with Best Picture. In this case, it didn’t - Chariots of Fire won, Colin Welland stood up and proclaimed “The British are coming!” and…well you know the rest. This was a surprise upset at the time, less so with hindsight. Chariots was the plucky David to the goliath of Reds. Also, Beatty’s film’s ideological bent seemed out of place in an America moving to the right after Reagan’s election in 1980. At the time, and all patriotism aside, Reds seemed to me the better film. I haven’t seen Chariots since the mid 1980s, but Reds, watched again, stands up very well. The pace falters in the second half, with too many political discussions, but the film as a whole wears its three hours plus lightly. Superbly made and acted, it’s an intelligent mix of romance, drama, and the vast movements of history in the making, and an epic of the old school. And they don’t make them like this any more.
This is the standard definition two-disc DVD release of Reds, and the affiliate link to the left refers to this edition.: HD-DVD and Blu-Ray editions are also available. This DVD is encoded for Region 1 only. The film is spread over two discs (103:53 and 91:10), dividing at the original intermission point.
A brief note about ratings. Reds was originally rated R by the MPAA, on the basis of four “fucks”, but was reduced to a PG on appeal. It would now rate a PG-13. I can’t imagine young children finding the film very interesting, but parents please note. In the UK, the BBFC passed the film in the old AA certificate, restricting it to over-fourteens only. Nowadays it rates a 15 or maybe even a 12. However, Reds has always been cut in the UK: three seconds of illegal horsefalls during the train battle sequence. This US release is uncut.
The DVD transfer is anamorphically enhanced in a ratio of 1.78:1, opened up slightly from the original 1.85:1. It’s just fine: true to Storaro’s generally muted colour scheme, though bright and colourful when it needs to be. Given that there are several quite darkly-lit sequences, the shadow detail is impressive.
Reds comes from a period where Dolby Stereo tracks were becoming more widespread, but was a few years away from them becoming ubiquitous. The film was released to cinemas in mono. On this DVD are a restored version of that original track, a mono French dub, and a remix into Dolby Digital 5.1. The remix is mostly monophonic anyway, with the surrounds used for some of the music, crowd noise and ambience. There’s not much call for the LFE track, except for some explosions during the train sequence. English subtitles are the only option for the feature: they are generally accurate but regrettably in yellow.
The only extra on the first disc is a DVD trailer (1:24) in 4:3 format. However, the original theatrical trailers and TV spots are not included, which is a pity. However, on the second disc is a documentary produced by Laurent Bouzereau. This is a seven-part feature (with a play-all option) called “Witness to Reds”. The seven sections are: “The Rising” (6:30), “Comrades” (13:30), “Testimonials” (11:58), “The March” (9:07), “Revolution – Part 1” (10:18), “Revolution – Part 2” (6:55) and “Propaganda” (9:13). The documentary is in 4:3 with optional English and French subtitles. (Oddly, French is not a subtitle option for the feature.) The format is much as you’d expect from other Bouzereau pieces: a chronological journey from inception via production to release, with interviews from as many participants still alive. (Diane Keaton and Trevor Griffiths are the most notable absentees.) In between the interviews are production photos, some outtakes including some unused material with the witnesses, and letterboxed extracts from the film itself. There’s plenty of worthwhile material here, though Bouzereau’s style is just a little bit pedestrian at times. However, in place of a commentary it will certainly do.
Released on DVD for its twenty-fifth anniversary, Reds holds up very well indeed, although it’s something of another era from today’s Hollywood. This SD release looks and sounds very good. The extras, while certainly acceptable, could have been a little better.