TBT: Reds (1981)

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A three-hour movie about American communists in the 1910s and the Russian Revolution might not sound like a crowd-pleaser today, and it wasn’t a big box-office hit back when Ronald Reagan first became President either. But Reds (1981) was a critical success and still holds up as a fascinating historical film.

Warren Beatty had been a little obsessed with the biography of John Reed, a journalist and sometime activist who wrote Ten Days That Shook the World in 1919 as eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution. It took Beatty about 15 years to get his idea on film, eventually writing, directing, and starring in the movie himself. Everything about Reds was a huge production — Beatty took 30 to 50 weeks for shooting all over Europe and in L.A. Sources debate how much film was shot — up to three million feet is estimated, which would be two and a half weeks’ of screen time. Beatty demanded 50 to 80 takes for some shots, frustrating and angering his fellow actors. Vanity Fair has an extensive article about the making of Reds that chronicles what a wild road it was to getting the thing made.

John Reed, c. 1910-1915, via Wikimedia Commons

John Reed, c. 1910-1915, via Wikimedia Commons

I don’t know if all this really translates to the screen, except that Reds does have a beautiful, sweeping epic look and feel to it. The story, however, is less of the epic Great Loves and Great Battles genre — it’s smaller and more tightly focused, which makes it more interesting IMO. The characters are complex, flawed, realistic, and contradictory, and they weave their ways in and out of extraordinary historical events in a relatively believable fashion.

Reds is based on real people’s lives, but the plot does play a little fast and loose with history, of course. And yet, the film pointedly reminds you that memory — and history? — can be flawed and contradictory too by having essentially a Greek chorus of interviews with some who knew the real people portrayed in this film. These interviewees are referred as ‘the Witnesses’ and they range from novelist Henry Miller to the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. Their names are only shown in the final credits.

The story starts in 1915 with feminist and aspiring writer Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) meeting John Reed when he speaks in Portland, Oregon. She’s clearly bored with married middle-class life and Reed’s socialist talk stirs her up. They begin an affair, and she joins him in New York City where he’s part of a liberal, bohemian crowd including anarchist Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton) and playwright Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson). This first half of the film explores Louise and John’s romantic relationship and how it’s tangled up with each of their own journalism and artistic careers. While the couple eventually marry, Louise has an ongoing affair with Eugene and John admits to his own dalliances.

1913 portrait of Louise Bryant by John Henry Trullinger, via Wikimedia Commons.

1913 portrait of Louise Bryant by John Henry Trullinger, via Wikimedia Commons.

The second half of the film is more focused on the Russian Revolution and how it’s perceived by American liberals and communists. Many of the political discussions among John’s New York friends feel relevant today as they debate capitalism’s effect on workers and women’s equality. They’re hampered by the prejudices of their times and a certain amount of blind idealism that’s still found at both extremes of the political spectrum.

This is a long movie, and I think it could have been edited down a little bit more, but it’s still engrossing as-is. Between the small-scale romance, the historical background, and the complicated politics, I feel like this is the antidote to Dr. Zhivago (1965). Where the ’60s movie dealt in broad generalities concerning Russia and centered a wildly passionate romance, Reds gets very specific about the politics of the period and weaves a quirky, complicated romance in and out of the history.

Also, while both films are going for the ‘sweeping epic’ thing with stunning cinematography, Reds has a lot more historically accurate costumes than Dr. Zhivago! I couldn’t find anything about costume designer Shirley Russell’s work on this film, but she was nominated for both an Oscar and BAFTA for Reds. Her 2002 obituary in The Guardian noted: “She could charm stars into stuff their performances needed for veracity but their vanity feared — look at the revolutionary drabnesses she hung on Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton in Reds (1981), sincere in every seam.” I wouldn’t say the costumes are totally “drab,” but they’re well-suited to the characters in this time and place.

Reds (1981)

Louise’s fanciest clothes are in the first few scenes in Portland.

Reds (1981)

Hard to screencap this skirt, blouse, & vest/tunic outfit, but the versatile pieces are kind of her trademark & give her costumes a very real, lived-in look..

Reds (1981)

Same outfit, she’s taken off the vest/tunic, as Louise & John get casual.

Reds (1981)

It’s a little thing, but I appreciate that when she reaches over for her writing portfolio, you get a glimpse of her petticoat & stockings held up with garters. That’s both an appropriate historical costume touch, plus it shows how comfortable she immediately is with him.

Reds (1981)

Dinner at John’s mother’s house. Louise would benefit from a corset in this gown though.

Reds (1981)

But the back embroidery/beading is gorgeous.

Reds (1981)

John’s just all tweedy. His mom is old-fashioned. She has a Chinese servant, which is a little sad & telling, since this was during the Exclusion Act period & domestic jobs were one of the few things open to Chinese immigrants.

Reds (1981)

OK, a lot of what Louise wears in NY & Russia is simple, workaday stuff — blouses, sweaters, skirts. But it’s appropriate. Also, she always wears hats outside. Someone knew that Diane Keaton can wear a hat like nobody’s business & did this character right for the period!

Reds (1981)

As the only other major female character, Emma Goldman also wears hats correctly. It’s just the leading men that don’t get period headgear.

Reds (1981)

Louise wears this elegant black number to meet with a sleazy magazine publisher.

Reds (1981)

Fab embroidery!

Reds (1981)

There’s this whole middle part of the movie set at a Cape Cod beach house, where the gang performs their own plays & have sex with each other.

Reds (1981)

All the pale ’10s outfits are fantastic!

Reds (1981)

See, all the women have hats, even if the guys don’t.

Reds (1981)

The love triangle.

Reds (1981)

Louise’s white dress with circles/dots is adorable.

Reds (1981)

Check out the graduated pattern at the hem! And she’s wearing stripey stockings!

Reds (1981)

The sailor-style neckline is perfect for the beach scenes. The makeup & hair in this movie, however, are not on-point for the period.

Reds (1981)

Yeah, the costumes do get darker & more serious in towards the end of the film. But still with period details like that collar & a hat.

 

Have you seen Reds?

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Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

16 Responses

  1. Lily Lotus Rose

    No, I haven’t seen Reds, but based on what you’ve screencapped I agree with you that costumes are not drab. They look quite lovely, and I say that as someone who is usually bowled over by the fashion of that period.

    Reply
  2. MrsC (Maryanne)

    Interesting that the film is Reds, but there’s not a scrap or hint of anything red or red based until that last coat. Everything is neutral through blue to black. Is this part of the story arc?

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      “Reds” is a derisive nickname for Communists, although it’s only used a couple times in the film. It was pretty common in the U.S. from the 1950s-1980s (don’t know the entire linguistic history tho!), & I bet that’s why it was used as the title.

      Reply
      • Nzie

        Red was an international communist symbol/used in communist symbols for decades before the revolution, so it’s a pretty natural step from how they symbolized themselves/their ideology to others using it to refer to communists.

        Reply
  3. mmcquown

    Red was the colour used by the Bolsheviks during the revolution. That period is not so far from us s we might think; my first wife went to school with Trotsky;s nephew. Trotsky’s real name, BTW, was Lev Nikolayevitch Bronstein. Lenin’s last name was Ulianov, Stalin’s was Djugashvili. Stalin comes from the Russian word for “steel,” Lenin from “iron.” Political writers sometimes referred to Stalin as “Joe Steel.”

    Reply
    • Nzie

      Another good one was Kamenev. Kamen is stone. Moloto is hammer, although I don’t remember off hand if Molotov adopted a revolutionary name or was born with that.

      Reply
  4. Terry Towels

    I loved Reds, even though it was too long, and I’m not a fan of Keaton. It really caught the glamour of and then disillusionment with communism. The hats! I saw it in the theater, and now will have to look for it streaming.

    Reply
    • Terry Flows

      Oops forgot. I met a woman (then in her 70’s) who had worked across Russia building railroads during their ‘everyone employed’ period. She came back to America, and got a PhD in anthropology/archeology and was a curator in a museum. So, Reds really struck me, giving me a glimpse of her life.

      Reply
  5. Nzie

    I am definitely interested. And I agree, the costumes look great! But I am curious about the ending. Seems like it might be interesting to pair this with the recently released (but not in the US due to Covid) film Mr. Jones, which is about a reporter who discovers the horrors of the famine caused by the awful dekulakization program (hidden by Duranty and others who liked their access to big wigs and didn’t want to put communism in a bad light).

    I also read an interesting article lately about trips by Langston Hughes and others to visit Soviet Russia during the 20s and 30s. I would be very interested to see that, in all its complexity, explored on film someday. (The article also noted that Soviet materials included invented godless spirituals as African-American folk tales.)

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Well, no spoilers in history, John Reed dies in 1920, & that’s the end of the movie. But before that, he does have a sort conflict about the ideals of the Russian revolution & what’s really happening. Even Emma Goldman comes to this realization in the film.

      Reply
      • Nzie

        Well then that sounds like more reason to pair those films. Maybe with Death of Stalin as a chaser ;-) (hilarious that one!).

        Reply
  6. M.E. Lawrence

    As the granddaughter of a Socialist labor organizer, I was eager to see “Reds” back in 1981, and remember it as well made and pretty respectful of the subject matter, apart from the occasional Old-Hollywood touches. (I don’t think Bryant really struggled through sleet and snow to reach Reed’s bedside–i.e., prove her womanly devotion–though she probably would have done so if necessary.) Still, “Reds” probably passes the Bechdel test: there’s actual attention paid to the relationship between Bryant and Emma Goldman! And those beautifully designed dresses and hats…looking back, I could have done without Warren Beatty and just hung out with the female reds.

    Reply
  7. Laura Boyes

    I was obsessed with this film when it came out, with all the clothes, and the history! It inspired a gigantic reading jag about John Reed, Louise Bryant and his early patron, the astonishing Mable Dodge Luhan.

    Reply
  8. Penny H

    Shirley Russell was married to Ken Russell from 1956 to 1978. The DVD commentary to Women In Love (1969) said she used pieces from her own personal collection of period garments in the costuming for that film.

    Haven’t seen Reds; you’re making me think I should.

    Reply
  9. Hypnotist Collector

    Yes, old person here, it’s one of my favorite movies. I remember that Louise, in the movie, talks about how women who are traumatized will often later have luxurious wardrobes.

    Reply

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