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History And The Imagination

July 2024
5min read

Ragtime and Reds

Hollywood ordinarily leaves American history well alone. But two of the winter’s big movies turn out to be meditations on early twentieth-century America. Ragtime , drawn from E. L. Doctorow’s novel, is set in the period from 1906 to 1908; Reds , based on the lives of John Reed and his wife, Louise Bryant, from 1915 to 1920. Ragtime ’s theme- the dangerous tensions building up under the syncopated cheeriness of American society before the First World War—predicts the revolutionary explosions of Reds . Indeed, the two films nearly had the anarchist Emma Goldman in common as a major character, though in the end the Goldman sequences were cut from Ragtime . The films differ, however, in cinematic style and in attitudes toward history.

As a novel, Ragtime imbedded its theme in a charming and ingenious historical fantasy, playfully mixing real and invented people in fluid dramatic kaleidoscope. The movie, reviewers have commented, is less cinematic than the book; and this is so. Perhaps Robert Altman, the original director, might have managed to transfer the kaleidoscope to the screen and give us a turn-of-the-century Nashville . But Altman was replaced at an early point by the Czech director Milos Forman.

Forman has his own virtues. He brings to Ragtime an immigrant’s fresh eye for the color, bustle, and idiosyncrasy of the American scene. He has a fine sense of atmosphere. But his imagination is more linear than Altman’s, and, whether because Forman was unacquainted with the history of the times, or was uninterested in it, or was baffled by the technical problems of integrating history with plot, he makes only perfunctory gestures at reproducing Doctorow’s intricate panorama. One feels a deficient historical sensitivity from the opening titles when the movie, which after all is called Ragtime, is introduced by a waltz. There is some effective but very limited use of simulated black-and-white newsreels; but the film soon minimizes historical background and concentrates on domestic drama. Not only Emma Goldman but Henry Ford, John J. McGraw, Freud, and Jung disappear, J. P. Morgan is a passing presence, and Houdini becomes so sketchy as to be pointless.

The focus is reduced to two families—the white middleclass family in Scarsdale and the black family of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. The third family in the novel, the immigrant family of Tateh, is a marginal remnant. Still, though indifference to history impoverishes the effect, Forman does preserve Doctorow’s vision of dark destructive urges bursting through an ostensibly optimistic time. The film is a tale of three murderously obsessed men—Harry K. Thaw, obsessed with Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White; Younger Brother, obsessed with some incomprehensible personal quest of his own; Coalhouse Walker, Jr., obsessed with the vindication of his human dignity. The siege of the Morgan Library provides an appropriately violent climax, and one watches it as a forecast of greater violence to come.

The acting—especially Howard E. Rollins as Walker, James Olson as Father, Robert Joy as Thaw, and Kenneth McMillan as the Irish bully who persecutes Walker—is unusually good. Norman Mailer makes an assured and engaging Stanford White, and James Cagney returns a little improbably as a police commissioner named Rheinlander Waldo. But there is something schematic and unreal about it all. The movie grips momentarily. After it is done, the impression fades, and one recalls a shiny and stylish contrivance.

Where Ragtime evades history, Reds revels in it. Reds is the personal creation of Warren Beatty, who brooded about John Reed for a decade, filmed interviews with everyone he could find who had known him, produced the movie, directed it, wrote the screenplay (with the British writer Trevor Griffiths), and acted the leading role.

Beatty’s use of his “witnesses” is a genuine and exciting innovation. The dramatized re-enactment periodically stops to let these survivors offer their own recollections of the Reeds and the times. Harsh lighting brings out every line and wrinkle, and we see a succession of marvelous nonagenarian faces groping through mists of memory to recapture the past: Roger Baldwin, Rebecca West, Henry Miller, Dora Russell, George Seldes, Jay Lovestone, Scott Nearing, Will Durant, even Hamilton Fish, who was a classmate of Reed’s at Harvard and captain of the football team for which Reed was cheerleader. Beatty also interviewed Walter Lippmann, another classmate, but Lippmann regrettably declined to appear on camera.

There are thirty-two witnesses in all; their remarks are brilliantly edited; and their testimony gives an exceptional sense of both immediacy and authenticity. A curious defect is the rather snobbish failure to identify the witnesses, except in an unhelpful list of credits at the end. If it seemed too obvious to subtitle each witness on first appearance, why not flash faces with names in the closing credits, as they used to do in the Warner Brothers films of the thirties? Also one hopes that Beatty will deposit the uncut interviews among the other Reed memorabilia in the Widener Library at Harvard, where they will edify historians of the future.


Where Ragtime begins with a waltz, Reds begins with ragtime. It is 1915, and John Reed, revisiting his native Portland, attacks the First World War at a civic luncheon.

Louise Bryant, the wife of a Portland dentist, interviews Reed, is fascinated by him, and soon leaves her husband to join Reed in Greenwich Village. A series of very short takes—too many and too short perhaps to establish relationships with full solidity—conveys the atmosphere of political and artistic Bohemia in the Village and later in Provincetown. Louise has her affair with Eugene O’Neill but marries Reed anyway. Then the war comes. Both go to Europe as correspondents and on to Russia in time for the Revolution. The first half of Reds, after opening with ragtime, concludes with the “Internationale,” underlining the great trajectory that carried Reed from Bohemia to Bolshevism.

The second half deals with Reed’s life as a Communist—factional struggles in the United States, a mission to Moscow to resolve the divisions in the American movement, arguments about the Revolution with a disenchanted Emma Goldman, discomfiture at the hands of Zinoviev and the Comintern, Louise’s arrival in Russia, and John Reed’s death in 1920 from typhus, three days before his thirty-third birthday.

The film is faithful to history in portraying Reed at the end as a man whose mounting frustrations with the Soviet bureaucracy had not quite carried him to the point of breaking with Communism. The single time in which Reds departs flagrantly from the record is its least credible sequence. The movie has Louise Bryant joining her husband in Moscow after a preposterously arduous journey across the snows of Finland on skis. In fact, she arrived via Stockholm and Murmansk and, as described in Robert Rosenstone’s authoritative biography of Reed, without notable incident.

Though revolutionary politics pervades Reds , it should not be mistaken for a political film. Beatty’s concern is to tell the personal story of the Reeds with fidelity (except in that one sequence) to the facts. His refusal of politics will doubtless irritate critics who want to read into the movie an insidious pro-Bolshevism or (more accurately) a subtle anti-Bolshevism. Beatty is aiming for something different; and he succeeds triumphantly in presenting two talented, self-centered, competitive, passionate people, a star reporter and a New Woman, loving, testing, and exasperating each other amid great events, storm-tossed in a revolutionary age.

Some may object that Beatty himself portrays Reed less as the committed revolutionary than as the idealistic undergraduate. But contemporaneous accounts emphasize Reed’s boyish ardor—“the invincible romantic,”” his friend Louis Untermeyer called him—and this is what Beatty properly gives us. In a more complex role, Diane Keaton does not fear to render Louise Bryant not only as loving but as posing, pouting, and nagging. Especially in a sharp exchange with Eugene O’Neill, this delicious comedienne proves herself a strong dramatic actress. Jack Nicholson, an actor of contained power, gives O’Neill a mordant, bitter edge. Maureen Stapleton seems oddly cast; but if Cagney can play somebody called Rheinlander Waldo, why cannot Stapleton play Emma Goldman? Her splendid performance transcends ethnic incongruities. Like Ragtime, Reds gives writers a chance to release repressed desires to act. Jerzy Kosinski, despite an unconvincing wig, is a dogmatic and evil Zinoviev, and George Plimpton contributes a nice bit as a jocosely lecherous New York editor.

The film has its share of comfortable tag lines and repetitive banalities—Reed and his ever-waiting taxi, the dog always snuffling at the bedroom door, Reed’s head hitting the chandelier in the Petrograd flat, O’Neill forever looking for the whisky. But such concessions to sitcom taste do not seriously compromise the dash and sweep of a grand movie. Reds is beautifully photographed with impressive attention to period detail. Above all, Reds is a humane, generous-hearted, touching film. And its impact derives no more from Warren Beatty’s formidable artistic skills than from his conscientious determination to respect the truths of history.

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