To complement our feature article on the screenwriter as historian, this issue’s analysis concerns 1981’s Reds, which tells of John Reed, an American journalist and radical who chronicled the 1917 Russian Revolution…
Director: Warren Beatty
Screenplay: Warren Beatty and Trevor Griffiths (currently unavailable)
Based on: It’s not explicitly based on any one source, but Robert A. Rosenstone (who is credited as a ‘historical consultant’ on the film) wrote Romantic Revolutionary: Biography of John Reed (1990), and you can also take a look at Ten Days that Shook the World by John Reed (find it online here, courtesy of Project Gutenberg)
Synopsis: *Spoilers* Oregon, 1915. Married socialite, Louise Bryant, hears radical journalist, John Reed, give a lecture. Later, Bryant, also a writer, meets with Reed for an interview. Inspired by Reed’s idealism, Bryant leaves her husband and joins Reed in New York City’s Greenwich Village where they become involved with local activists and artists, including dramatist, Eugene O’Neill, and radical, Emma Goldman.
Later, Bryant and Reed move to Massachusetts. Bryant becomes a radical activist in her own right, while Reed becomes involved in labour strikes with the Communist Labor Party of America, or ‘Reds’.
When Reed goes to St Louis to cover the 1916 Democratic Convention, Bryant becomes involved in an affair with O’Neill.
Upon Reed’s return, he and Bryant marry and move Croton-on-Hudson, NY. Problems ensue and Bryant eventually leaves for Europe to work as a war correspondent.
Later, Reed and Bryant reunite and become caught up in the fall of Russia’s Czarist regime and the 1917 Revolution. Reed publishes the landmark, Ten Days that Shook the World.
Reed attempts to bring the spirit of Communism to the US and is increasingly drawn into politics. He returns to Russia in a bid to achieve recognition for his own American Communist Party. While attempting to leave Europe, he is briefly imprisoned.
Bryant hears of the imprisonment and embarks on a perilous journey to find him. Reed is released and upon his return to Russia, he is reunited with Bryant.
Ill health strikes Reed and Bryant nurses him until his death in 1920.
How does the film achieve authenticity?
This is a film that works hard to be authentic. Clearly a labour of love by Beatty and the other filmmakers, Reds does it’s best to be both a relationship drama and a chronicle of its time.
The authenticity is ramped up by the use of oral testimony, in the form of older people who lived through the same period talking to an unseen interviewer about their (sometimes contradictory) recollections of Reed and Bryant and the events taking place during this time. These recollections are intercut with the fictional action, adding another layer of believability and giving context to the narrative.
How is Reed’s life portrayed on screen?
It’s worth pointing out that this is three-hour plus film, which means it can devote as much time to the ‘history’ as it does to the characters, allowing both to develop and offering interesting parallels and contradictions along the way.
As such, the main role of the screenwriter (and director) was to give the story structure. John Reed packed much into his short life and while Robert A. Rosenstone’s biography was able to cover it in detail, even at three hours, the film needed to be focussed and structured to bring out the drama. Therefore, the finished film is anchored by the relationship between Reed and Bryant, while chronicling his increasing devotion to his Communist cause.
Secondary characters. such as O’Neill and Goldman, serve the drama by adding colour, mirroring aspects of Reed’s character, and helping out with the exposition and context.
What about the historical detail?
What comes across most vividly in Reds is the amount of historical data that’s packed in. While you can watch the film and enjoy it as an epic love story, it can also provide a window into the events going on at this time in history.
If you go into this film with scant knowledge of the politics at play, by the time the end credits roll, you’ll have a greater understanding of Reed’s cause and the impact of the Russian Revolution and Communism, in both Russia and the USA. Reds doesn’t feel like a history lesson, but it’s certainly packed with historical detail.
So, is Reds a successful ‘history film’?
While Rosenstone is listed as a ‘historical consultant’ in the credits and had some active input into the film, in 1982, he also wrote an essay (referenced below) in which he drew out some criticisms of Reds and its accuracy, such as the liberties taken with the timeline. He also commented on the lack of motivation displayed on screen by Reed. Just why did he do the things he did? Why did he believe in the Communist cause so strongly? According to Rosenstone, this aspect is crucial to understanding history and the action taking place on screen.
However, it’s interesting to note that in 2013, in a chapter in the collection of essays entitled, A Companion to the Historical Film, Rosenstone critiques his own critique, suggesting he himself mistook the film for a biography and that “films by necessity present a highly condensed version of the past”.
He also noted that the use of the oral testimony is “historically misleading” as it equates memory with history – suggesting that contradictory recollections indicate the real truth about history can never be known (giving filmmakers carte blanche to go to town obfuscating historical events).
What’s the verdict?
Is Reds a 100% accurate, blow-by-blow account of Reed’s life during this period? No.
Does it encapsulate all the attitudes, politics and movements going on at that time? No.
Does it paint a vivid, compelling and largely historically accurate portrait that also works as a dramatic narrative? On the whole, we’re going to say, yes.
All of this demonstrates the challenges of putting historical events on the screen. It can sometimes appear to be like trying to bang a round peg into a square hole, forcing historical facts into a screenplay template.
While the history film isn’t a documentary or history lesson, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t maximise the rich opportunities history offers to tell layered and significant screen stories. If the narrative is strong and the characters well developed, you can weave in the history and make it an integral part of the story.
As such, you should never discount the importance of thorough historical research when writing the history film. Details add vital colour and authenticity to your screenplay, as well as helping you to fictionalise events and keep alive the spirit of the real people you portray.
Assignment: To help you write your own history films, it’s worthwhile devoting some time to studying Reds. You might also find it helpful to look at the writings of those who have commented on the film, as well as further writings about Reed’s life, and, of course, Reed’s own work, such as the book linked to above. This will help you see how an epic story can be shaped and refined into an epic feature film.
Issue 5 of RSL is out on 20 July.
For more on Reds, see:
- Shadows on the Past: Studies in the Historical Fiction Film (Culture And The Moving Image) by Leger Grindon (1994)
- ‘Reds as History’ by Robert A. Rosenstone in Reviews in American History (Vol. 10, No. 3 (Sep., 1982), pp. 297-310)
- ‘The History Film as a Mode of Historical Thought’ by Robert A. Rosenstone, in A Companion to the Historical Film, ed. Rosenstone & Constantin Parvulesca (2013), pp 71-90