Updated: Sep 11
One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 16
By Laurence Lerman
I revisited Warren Beatty’s celebrated 1981 epic historical drama Reds this past holiday weekend, as both an acknowledgement of the American labor movement and as a nod to the city of Portland, which for more than 100 days has been the epicenter of a series of intense civic protests and marches—or, as they’ve been reinterpreted and transmogrified by a certain President, unending riots, arson, destruction and violence.
The central figure of Beatty’s Reds is Portland native John Reed, the journalist and communist activist who first garnered attention as a correspondent during WWI and who later witnessed Russia’s October Revolution firsthand, which yielded his landmark 1919 book Ten Days That Shook The World.
The first half-hour or so of Reds quietly unspools in Portland, where Reed meets the feminism-charged journalist/activist Louise Bryant, who’s brought to life in the film by a focused and far-from-Annie Hall-ish Diane Keaton. After that, things get louder as the action moves to New York City and the growth of the Socialist movement in Greenwich Village, then on to Provincetown and Croton-on-Hudson, and then finally to Russia itself.
The politics and history of the Russian Revolution and the growth of the anti-capitalist movement in the U.S. are chronicled and Reed weaves his way through both. Running in tandem is Reed and Bryant’s extended romance and marriage, which, like many affairs of the heart, don’t always conform to its participants’ ideas of commitment, in both a political and personal sense. This is particularly apparent when Jack Nicholson’s Eugene O’Neill gets involved with Bryant.
The first film directed by Beatty on his own (he shared the credit with Buck Henry on 1978’s Heaven Can Wait), which he also produced and co-wrote, Reds remains his crowning achievement (though 1968’s Bonnie and Clyde, which he produced and stars in, remains the more significant cultural cornerstone). From the energized party meetings to the intimate scenes between the two activist lovers to the teeming crowd protests in the streets of Petrograd (actually Finland, standing in for Russia) to Keaton’s Doctor Zhivago-like trek across the Finnish tundra to rescue her scurvy-ridden imprisoned man, Reds delivers the dramatic arc, epic moments, romantic aspirations and comprehensible history that are required for this kind of large-scale entertainment.
Okay, so I led off my Labor Day weekend streaming schedule with a three-hour-plus film celebrating an American communist, but the weekend didn’t end that way. His personal politics aside, John Wayne still remains one of the most symbolically American movie stars to emerge from Hollywood’s Golden Age, as well as one of its most famously conservative and vocally anti-communist. Regardless, as my proficiency in Hollywood’s classic westerns is nominal at best—I’m much more familiar with the revisionist ones—I decided this was the weekend for me to finally catch up with a pair of The Duke’s most famous pictures, 1939’s Stagecoach and 1959’s Rio Bravo.
Stagecoach is one of the films to emerge from what film historians often term “the greatest year in the history of Hollywood”—the one that yielded Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gunga Din, Ninotchka, Dark Victory, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, The Women, not to mention the year’s other great western, Destry Rides Again and, from across the pond, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. To say that Stagecoach deserves to be on the list is an understatement—it really is one of the greats.
A potent western drama that’s as sweeping as it is tightly knit, Stagecoach showcases mid-career director John Ford in top form (he also helmed two other 1939 classics, Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk). Adapted by Dudley Nichols from a 1937 short story by Ernest Haycox, it presents a group of travelers on the move between two frontier settlements. Among those in the coach’s close quarters are Claire Trevor’s driven-out-of-town dance hall girl forced to leave town, Thomas Mitchell’s inebriated doctor, John Carradine’s mysterious Southern gambler, Berton Churchill’s embezzling banker and—last to board—a lean, iconic John Wayne, who’s introduced in a slow zoom close-up as the Ringo Kid, a cowboy who’s recently escaped from prison to avenge the murder of his father and brother. It’s the eighth collaboration of what would be 24 of them between Wayne and Ford, and it’s the one that made the actor a star.
A straight-ahead story about American life on the ever-expanding frontier—indeed, the horse-drawn stage’s route travels from East to West—Stagecoach set the template and tone for a zillion movies in its wake, the ones featuring a disparate group of strangers thrown into a unique and possibly dangerous situation where strength, guts, cooperation and good old American ingenuity are tapped to save the day. In this case, the danger comes in the form of an Apache war party attack, a climactic high-speed battle that holds up 80 years after it was mounted, and Wayne’s showdown with the outlaws who killed his family. Great stuff.
Twenty years and more than fifty movies later, Wayne saddled up for producer/director Howard Hawks for the 1959 western adventure Rio Bravo. A decade earlier, Wayne had worked with Hawks as a tyrannical cattle rancher on Red River (1948), another classic, but this time out, the superstar’s well-established heroic persona leads the charge. As a Texas sheriff who must hold a murder suspect in jail for days until the U.S. Marshal arrives, Wayne unleashes his Winchester 1892 carbine on all manner of bad guys, aided by newly deputized crippled townie Walter Brennan, town drunk Dean Martin and young hotshot Ricky Nelson. In the saloon, a game Angie Dickinson makes herself available for kissing as a mystery lady named Feathers.
Sturdily directed, soundly structured and filled with generous dollops of action, suspense, drama, sadness, romance and a good deal of humor, Rio Bravo is pure entertainment. There’s never a lagging moment or questionable plot point during its nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time, which zips right on by. And it’s shot in Technicolor, so the frontier never looked so zesty.
As for Dino (he and Ricky contribute a couple of songs), it’s great to see him taking himself seriously during what were to be regarded as his most fertile years—the ones between Jerry Lewis in the late Forties and Fifties and the Rat Pack and his self-parodying persona in the mid-Sixties and beyond.
For a few minutes there, he had me nearly forgetting about Cannonball Run. Or was it Cannonball Run II?
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.