Every once in a while we come upon a name or figure with historical relevance that has somehow, despite school, books and Internet escaped notice. Obviously, we can’t know about, or be aware of everyone in the pages of history, and so it happens that we bypass the occasional interesting character. For me, early 20th century journalist and activist, John Reed was one of those. His life, writing and influence passed me right by until just recently.
John Reed was born in Portland, Oregon in 1887 and attended Harvard, where he got an introduction to socialist causes. After graduation in 1910 he set off to see England, France and Spain, returning to the US after six months to take up residence in New York’s Greenwich Village. There he began making a name for himself as a socialist minded journalist. Given his location and the tenor of New York’s liberal society at the time, Reed moved in circles that included radical journalist Lincoln Steffens, poet Edna St Vincent Millay, playwright Eugene O’Neill and anarchist Emma Goldman. They were heady times and saw the first stirrings of an American Socialist Party.
In 1916 Reed met and fell in love with Louise Bryant, who left her husband and moved to New York to be with Reed. The next year saw the two of them off to Russia, where they found themselves smack in the middle of the 1917 October Revolution, the globe changing event in which Bolsheviks, led by Lenin toppled the Russian government and established a communist state. This experience became fodder for Reed’s most popular and enduring book, Ten Days that Shook the World. (The photo above shows a marvelous cover on the 1922 German edition.) Reed died in Moscow in 1920 of spotted typhus, Louise Bryant at his bedside clasping his hand.
In 1981, Hollywood stepped in and Warren Beatty wrote, directed and starred in a movie covering the years of Reed’s and Bryant’s lives from 1916 to 1920. It was this movie that brought John Reed to my attention, and I was fascinated by Beatty’s sensitive handling of his material. It is an exceptional film, though it’s 194 minute length requires a comfortable chair. The movie is called Reds and stars Beatty as John Reed, Diane Keaton as Louise Bryant and Jack Nicholson as Eugene O’Neill. Maureen Stapleton won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Emma Goldman, as did Beatty for his screenplay and his direction. Reds is one of those epic films that has been beautifully crafted to achieve the best possible harmony in what is a huge collaboration. Watching the picture you get the sense that every element was lovingly mixed to create symmetry with the next. One of the better touches was the way the director interspersed commentary on Reed and Bryant and the social era from notable people of that time.
This film is great entertainment for an evening, if you can handle the two-disc length. It is especially informative on the socialist movement both here and abroad during the years between 1916 and 1920. And the whole thing is so very pretty to look at.