Filmmakers who embark on historical epics do so at their peril. The history can easily overshadow the drama, thereby reducing the characters to mere puppets enacting a series of events whose outcome is already known. The flipside is equally problematic: strong characters, given wills and interior lives, can overpower important historical events.
One of the many brilliant attributes of Reds, Warren Beatty’s 194-minute drama about journalist John Reed and his involvement in the Russian Revolution, is the way the film incorporates interviews with real people who bear some connection to the story. These “witnesses,” an eclectic list that includes historian Will Durant, writer Henry Miller, and politician Hamilton Fish, take on all the expository duties and also put a very human face on the drama. This device enables the film’s characters — Reed (Beatty); his longtime companion, Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton); Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson); Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton); and a great many other historically significant figures — to emerge as fully fleshed-out people whose personal dramas don’t presume to overshadow historical events.
Paramount recently released Reds on DVD for the first time, more than 25 years after the film’s theatrical release. (The film is also available on HD-DVD at a slightly higher price.) Unfortunately, this “special collector’s edition” calls the meaning of that designation into question, given that it is short on supplements. There is no audio commentary, and the film’s original theatrical trailer, a fairly standard supplement in such packages, is not included. (Instead, the DVD trailer is featured.)
Beatty has not discussed Reds publicly very often; at a recent screening of a new print in Los Angeles, he explained that he didn’t want to do press interviews in 1981 because he feared the questions would all focus on his personal life, and he said he didn’t want to do a DVD commentary on this disc “[because] I don’t like to look back like that.” Although spare, his comments on this DVD do help put his monumental creative effort into perspective.
Director of photography Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, who won an Academy Award for his work on the picture, also weighs in on the disc in its lone supplement, a documentary featurette called “Witness to Reds” that is divided into several 8- to 10-minute chapters. (Supporting actors Nicholson, Edward Herrmann and Paul Sorvino and editor Dede Allen, ACE also appear briefly.) In his remarks, Storaro refers to an early iteration of Technicolor’s ENR process, which he tried for the first time on Reds to enrich the colors and create very deep blacks; he explains that he envisioned the witness interviews as “memory coming through from the black.” Storaro collaborated with Technicolor to create new prints for a limited theatrical re-release of Reds in 2006; he used a combination of flashing and ENR as part of the re-timing process.
Reds is certainly among Storaro’s finest achievements. Thanks to his work and Richard Sylbert’s production design, every frame of the film feels very much of another time and place yet also vibrant. The subtlety of this work comes through beautifully on this transfer.
That Reds was made at all is something of a miracle, as Beatty was quick to admit. “It was a $35 million movie, which would be like $150 million today, and it’s about a communist revolutionary who dies at the end!” he said at the Los Angeles screening. Beatty credited Charles Bluhdorn, Barry Diller and Michael Eisner, the heads of Paramount at that time, with being willing to take an enormous chance on his dream project.
Beatty had begun filming the witnesses on his own in the early 1970s, long before Paramount ever greenlit the film. Reed’s story fascinated him, and he wanted to get as many of Reed’s aging contemporaries on the record as possible. In discussing these interviews, which present the subjects against a black background, Beatty explained that he staged them that way “so I could later superimpose [the witnesses] over other scenes in the film.” But once he started seeing the dailies, the director decided to leave these shots just as they were. The reason? “I knew right away I couldn’t do anything that would cover up any of Vittorio’s work.”