“Let no one build walls to divide us,
Walls of hatred nor walls of stone.
Come greet the dawn and stand beside us,
We’ll live together or we’ll die alone.”
— The Internationale
These lyrics, from that quintessential Marxist anthem, express a kind of hope that thrived throughout America’s counterculture years, even if it came to a screeching halt at the start of the 1980s. And, arguably, the same could be said of Hollywood. The blank checks, the auteur-driven productions, grew too risky as the public hungered for blockbuster fare, and the new corporate overlords of the movie business saw to it that audiences got what they wanted. In 1981, Ronald Reagan entered office, ushering in a new era of reactionary American conservatism that pushed any serious leftist discourse to the margins — where it is only now emerging from — and two of the biggest box office hits were a franchise starter (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and a superhero sequel (Superman II).
Even in this context, a surprising success emerged from the Hollywood machine as it waited to complete its newest upgrade: actor-turned-director Warren Beatty’s Reds. Making $40 million at the box office (roughly $135 million today) and earning a whopping 12 Oscar nominations (winning three), the 195-minute epic tells the true story of Jack Reed (Beatty), an American journalist who sought to bring the fervor of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution to his home country, along with the help of his partner, feminist writer Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton). It’s a masterpiece of modern Hollywood filmmaking, a genuine, big-hearted epic, finding the romance in revolution while exposing the cracks in that shiny surface. Most fascinating among Beatty’s choices behind the camera is the framing device of “witnesses,” contemporary interviews with Jack and Louise’s’ comrades. These interviews, shot up against a black background, one or two people per frame, are a stark contrast to the film’s mise-en-scene, which emphasizes the chaos of massive group shots. But this works for a particular reason. Beatty is, despite not nearly as far removed in terms of time, reflecting on his own era’s revolutionary ideals, but doing so through the experiences of Jack’s contemporaries. He becomes one with Jack, and the two eras collide in a number of illuminating ways.
Beatty’s career began as an actor, with his breakout role being in Elia Kazan’s 1961 drama Splendor in the Grass, and he went on to play one of the title roles in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, often considered the official start of the New Hollywood era. When Beatty made Reds, working as the film’s lead actor, director, co-writer, and co-producer, he was coming off of his peak, being his 1978 directorial debut Heaven Can Wait. A massive success, that film allowed Beatty to secure the funding for Reds, a project he had been sitting on for years at that point. Jack, as he is presented in the film, is a fairly clear analog for Beatty himself. Both men are extremely charismatic leaders, using their skilled voices to advocate for change, and Beatty’s own dedication to the politics of the Democratic Party mirrors Jack’s dedication to the Communist cause. Both artists use their platforms as opportunities to spread the word, and both find massive success early on in their careers. After Jack publishes Ten Days That Shook the World, he swiftly rises to the top of party hierarchy, only to find himself isolated and forgotten in Russia as popular political tastes swing against his favor. Arguably, the same could be said of Beatty himself. After the success of Heaven Can Wait, he won the Oscar for Best Director for Reds and some continued success through the 90s. However, his long-developed Howard Hughes biopic, 2016’s Rules Don’t Apply, rose from historic flop to auteurist cause-celebre.
It’s to Beatty and his collaborators’ credit that a film as contextually strange as Reds exists — a big budgeted, star-driven, part-documentary paean to the dreamers and activists that seek to make the world a better place. At least that’s the likely case. As explicitly leftist filmmaking and non-franchise epics grow rarer in Hollywood, stories about revolution won’t have the sweeping, romantic craft of Beatty’s grand project, and, arguably, no other major production on the subject has ever since. It’s a film that spends the majority of its runtime in dimly-lit rooms, packed with scores of passionate orators, debating the pros and cons of different direct actions.
Often, these discussions don’t really end up getting anywhere in particular, languishing in their theoretical divisions, but Beatty doesn’t see that as a bad thing. After all, dissent is in revolution’s DNA. He criticizes monolithic concepts of political change, just as he chastises his male characters for how they treat Louise. Keaton, another legend of the New Hollywood era, finds her analog in Louise, an outspoken, influential force to be reckoned with. However, as is custom for Hollywood and leftist circles alike, powerful men step on Louise’s words. An early montage showcases this, at first for laughs, but eventually Beatty hones in on how these microaggressive attacks are both unproductive and simply hypocritical. Isn’t it supposed to be a revolution for all, not just the few? Because of this ideological nuance, Reds earns the right for its flights of fancy, namely a sex scene between Jack and Louise set to “The Internationale” and a bombastic tracking shot that follows Jack as he sprints past a storm of rifle fire, and these hopelessly romantic, classically cinematic moments make the pair’s final embrace all the more devastating — as both the end of a love story and the end of multiple, intersecting eras.
Those eras overlap in chilling ways. In the decade after World War II, Hollywood itself marked the end of an era in American revolutionary politics. Hundreds of workers — writers, directors, performers and craftspeople alike — were blacklisted for (often dubiously claimed) ties to the Communist party, forcing the practitioners of motion picture arts to sneak their politics behind enemy lines. When the blacklist came to an official end in 1960, the American film industry gave a voice to a new generation of politicized filmmakers, but it wouldn’t last long. Government censorship evolved into shareholder sovereignty, and, by the time Reds was released, the era that gave birth to Beatty, Keaton and company was almost over.
Just as Reed’s real-life contemporaries reflect on the revolutionary ideals of their era in Reds, Beatty bears witness to his own, staring down a massive canvas of his contemporaries’ successes and failures, the romance of their innovations and the exclusionary nature of their excess. Now, in the last year of the 2010s, there hasn’t been room for a new Jack Reed in American politics –or a new Warren Beatty in American cinema — but there is promise to be found in the next generation of activists and artists. The struggle carries on, and they will unite the world on the page, on the screen, and on the streets.
Evan Amaral (@evandamaral) is a student of film, media studies and anthropology at Emory University. His writing can be found at the Emory Wheel, where he is the senior film critic. He also edits the journal Anthropos and works with the Emory Cinematheque.