by Dianne Bennett
Robert A. Rosenstone, who describes himself on his Web site here as “Biographer – Historian – Novelist – Lecturer,” is Professor of History Emeritus at Caltech (California Institute of Technology). His scholarship took a turn from leftist history to history and film, “because of Warren Beatty,” as he says. Rosenstone spent 8 years on and off advising Beatty on his award-winning 1981 biopic of John Reed, an American journalist turned revolutionary. Rosenstone is the author of the award-winning book, “Romantic Revolutionary: a Biography of John Reed.”
Left, the cover of Rosenstone's
award-winning biography of
Rosenstone came to Hollywood almost by accident. Born in Montreal, his parents moved his family to Los Angeles when he was 10. He went to his “neighborhood school,” UCLA, and then into journalism, working for two daily Los Angeles newspapers before a 6-month stint in the California National Guard, followed by a compressed graduate school education where history became his focus. His first book was on Americans fighting in the Spanish Civil War. He was working on his second, on John Reed, when he got a call from Beatty.
Right, historian and Reds
consultant Robert A. Rosenstone
The rest, as they say, is history. Rosenstone’s “Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History,” published in 1995, and the edited volume “History on Film / Film on History,” in 2006, are two of his many works on the historical film and history in film. His ideas have changed dramatically over time, as his comments below reveal.
Reds, for which Beatty won a Best Director Oscar, was released last month by Paramount Home Entertainment in a remastered Blu-ray edition. The prominent film magazine, “Cineaste” led off its most recent issue with an article by Rosenstone: “Warren Beatty, Reds, and I.”
I caught up with Robert by telephone from his Los Angeles home.
When did you get interested in film?
After graduate school, film was just an entertainment to me, but sometimes a serious art. For me, as an historian, film was a very late development. I mean it really happened because of Warren Beatty.
The Beatty film, Reds, took 8 years to make—or something like that.
Yes, mostly to raise the money. The shoot and the editing took about a year and a half. But it was really hard to raise money for a film about the communists.
Reds won Best Director for Beatty. Wasn’t that a surprise? He was kind of a pretty boy.
Yes, that was his image—as a pretty boy, and he was. He was actually beautiful. But Warren was also smart. He was active politically with anti-Vietnam War candidates. He wasn’t learned like a PhD would be, who would know all the books in a particular field, and that’s why he called on me. He had gone to Harvard where the John Reed papers are. He learned there that some, then-young historian was writing a biography of Reed. I just got a phone call one day, and so our romance began. I was still writing the book at the time. It was 1972; I was just finishing the research and beginning to write.
What was John Reed’s—who was American—interest in Russia?
When Reed was covering the Bolshevik Revolution as an American journalist, he called himself a Bolshevik, worked for the new Russian government, and then came back and wrote his book “Ten Days that Shook the World,” which was not only a great piece of personal reportage; it’s something like the new journalism of the 70s because he’s a character in it. He was turning reporting or instant history into a kind of art form. I found that fascinating.
Was Beatty starting from “Ten Days that Shook the World,” or did he start with your material?
I can only tell you what friends of his and a cousin of his who was a producer of the movie told me. Beatty never told me this himself; he was sort of cagey. I was told by these people that his girlfriend at the time was the singer Carly Simon. And at a party on Martha’s Vineyard—very upscale in those days, and still I guess—where Carly Simon had a house, he met some radicals who were talking about John Reed. Beatty had never heard of John Reed. Once he heard Reed was a revolutionary, great lover, famous journalist, Beatty got interested.
And where did you come in?
When he first called me, we went out to dinner for a couple of nights and met a number of times. He said, ‘I want you as my historical consultant when we get the money to make a picture,’ which was six or seven years later. In our early talks, it seemed to me he didn’t really know a lot about John Reed. Having gotten to know Warren over a few years, he’s not a person to sit down and do research. Not because he’s not smart but it isn’t a part of his way of functioning in the world. For the first few years, we needed to talk only occasionally, or usually it was three days in a row, and then I wouldn’t see Warren for eight months. Then he’d call me on the phone and say, ‘let’s get together.’ All these sessions were really me giving mini-lectures on John Reed and him asking questions.
Did he take notes or did somebody take notes?
No. He just absorbed it.
Could you see aspects of what you told him in the film?
It would be hard not to, because I told him a lot about Reed. I can see one thing very specifically—it’s so much characteristic of the mythical Warren Beatty and maybe the real one. I had found a photo among Reed’s papers of Louise Bryant—Reed and she weren’t married yet—the summer of 1914 on the dunes at Provincetown. She’s stark naked and posing for the camera, and these photos fell out of a letter that she had written to Reed which he kept and is now in the collection. And when I told Beatty about that he got very excited. ‘Oh get those photos! We probably can use them for the film!’ They never used them, but—I can’t quite remember in the film now if she’s totally naked on the dunes, I think she is at one point—there are scenes in the dunes with her and other people, and those scenes probably came out of that photo.
What did you and Beatty talk about?
A lot of what we talked about over the years was not just Reed but the context of the first World War, the background of American radicalism and Russian radicalism and how the revolution all came about. He could have read other books and he may have, but it’s very hard to specify since it’s a joint project. On the micro level, his sense of Greenwich Village and the growth of Reed, I think I had an influence in all that. It was just such a collective project.
How did you feel about Reds when it came out?
My career after Reds became one of writing about historical films. And partly because at first I was asked to write about the film by various historical journals. Then I got into writing about films. It seemed like a whole new area of history to write about, and so my views on those things would have been very different when I was working on the film than what I believe to be the case now.
So tell me both; tell me how you felt then and how you feel now.
When I saw the finished product, I was quite excited by it. Obviously as a biographer, I see a lot of things which had been changed or invented or compressed from different events. Compressed, just because, in a film, even a film as long as Reds, which is 3 hours and 15 minutes, you can’t get all that stuff in as you can a book that’s 400 pages long. So when I first saw it, I thought ‘this is much better than I thought it was going to be. It really raises issues of radicalism. It doesn’t shy from the fact that he became an organizer of the Communist Labor Party of America.’ Just envisioning, for example, the Greenwich Village scenes and the scenes in Russia—that was quite exciting to me when I first saw the film.
I thought you were critical of Reds at first.
I was asked to write about it after it came out by the editor of “Reviews in American History.” I said okay, well, I have to really think about the film. So I saw it again, and I started thinking, ‘why has that been done?’ As a result, in my first essay about it, I wrote that it was a very important and strong film, but it didn’t take the risks of art that a great film would take. I said it was good, a really good film, but not as good as I hoped it would be or as I fantasized sometimes it would be. And I did point out some of the things which I said it had gotten wrong.
Little did I know at the time that 30 years later, I would write another essay criticizing my first essay. This time I said, ‘you just can’t get everything into a film, you have to compress and you have to sometimes make up characters to get a plot moving.’ The parallel between film and written history, even academic history, is that they both tell stories. They both are based on data from the past, and they make stories out of it. And of course the story itself, it’s the way we do history in the West, and all the other sub-fields of history; they only make sense if they’re part of a story. That’s the point I’ve come to. I realize that a film is accurate in different ways. It should give you the feeling of what the Germans call the ‘Zeitgeist’…the feeling of that period, the play between, in this case, Bohemian radicalism and political radicalism and the move from one to the other.
Would you in any way criticize Reds now?
My view of the film is very different now. I still think it has its problems; to me the chief problem is a matter of focus. It tends to focus a great deal on Jack and Louise and the love affair and then their marriage. That’s very much in my book about John Reed, but it doesn’t become the central theme. Again that’s an historian’s judgment. When you look at your data and you’re going to turn it into a history, you choose what you’re going to emphasize. Emphasizing the love affair and then Louise as ‘somebody’ is very interesting. In the film, she grows as a character, and in a sense Reed doesn’t grow. He takes in new issues but he takes them in from Greenwich Village to the labor strikes, to Mexico, to Russia. It’s all the same—justice for the little people. And she starts out as being a not very impressive character; she has written a couple articles for the newspaper in Portland.
Right, Warren Beatty
as John Reed and Diane
Keaton as Louise Bryant. Their love affair takes up too much of Reds, per Rosenstone.
Louise Bryant does sound interesting in her own right.
You see her in Reds through the Greenwich Village scenes, when the great anarchist Emma Goldman asks Louise at a party, ‘what do you write about?’ And Louise goes, ‘oh I write about everything. I write about nothing.’ And Emma Goldman, a very serious type, turns away from her, and says ‘let’s get back to something important.’ But by the end of the film, what does John Reed call her just before he dies? He says, ‘we’re comrades.’ That’s a little nod to the feminist movement, more of a nod to the feminist movement at the time the film was coming out. That’s kind of radical for a film back then, and a big Hollywood film. I still think there’s too much of her there, but that’s my judgment as an historian. I wouldn’t have said that 40 years ago. I would have said Beatty was wrong. Now I’m more open to different ways of telling the past within the vocabularies of what the telling can be, and telling on film is different from telling on paper.
Left, Maureen Stapleton as
"the great anarchist
who found the early
Louise Bryant unserious.
My “2 Film Critics” partner, my historian husband William Graebner, does not like historical fiction, because—in part—he feels people take every piece of it as true. Do you have sense of that?
I’m not a huge fan of historical films. I think that’s one reason I can write about them so much. I like some of them; I don’t like others. I think it’s the same issue with written history. I don’t like historical novels very much; I’m with Bill on that. So occasionally I read one. But we’re both trained as people to write history so that weighs on us too. I just think film does something different.
So did Reds turn out better than you expected?
Yes. When you’re making a film, it’s really hard to tell what the results are going to be. I think making films is often an incredibly boring process that I have no desire to be part of. As an historical consultant I wasn’t there all the time, thank goodness. But I was on location for a while; I saw the different versions of the script; I even have a few words in the script. But you don’t really know what’s going to happen. I kept thinking this is going to be a really lightweight Beatty for the American audience. And there’s some of that. Obviously, he had to fictionalize. I now have the theory that the fiction in historical films is actually what makes them historical. Which may sound too clever, but at length I’ve worked it out that the way a film communicates the past cannot be the way a book communicates the past, because the medium is different, the traditions are different. They both tell stories, but film can’t generalize. It always has to show you an image of something. In words you can say, ‘The Nazi Army marched into France.’ In film you actually have to show some people who look like they’re in the Nazi Army moving into what looks like France. So very different things. I didn’t know that at the time. That’s one of the things I learned not just from Reds, but from beginning to write about films after Reds.
Keaton and Beatty, center, on the set with the cast of hundreds.
Yes, I got that out of your piece in “Cineaste,” that your view of this particular film and of this kind of historical fiction changed after Reds.
It changed enormously. To me the best history films tell you something about the era in which they’re made. You don’t go to them for facts. And I think part of teaching history now should be teaching film but also teaching how to defend ourselves against film because of the way it functions. And also teaching that history itself is not a cut-and-dried story, because, if you showed 5 historians the exact same database, they’d tell you 5 different stories.
Right, there’s not one truth.
Yes, there’s no one truth…the values of the historian get involved, his or her predilections—whatever they are, and then they’re trying to compress something into 2-3 hours. At the same time they have to answer, in film—not so much in books, although you find it in a lot of the books—they have to answer to the demands of the form, which is drama in the case of film. And drama is an old form. In the West, 2,500 years. It’s a very powerful form that they draw on. It’s different, but I don’t think either gets to the truth. It gives a truth which you can argue with. History is basically not about the facts, but a debate about what the facts mean. At least, again, you’re getting the Rosenstone version now, though I’m hardly the only one who thinks that.
I was particularly struck in your article about your experience on the Reds set at Alcazar in Spain—which is a stand-in for Russia in the film. It was like that was a revelation to you in terms of making a film versus writing history.
For the months in pre-production, I was just one of the guys there. I was given little jobs to do or big jobs to do, but there is a kind of chaotic coming and going as people walked in and walked out. People knew who I was, people were nice to me, but I didn’t have a lot in common with most of them; it was like two different worlds basically—academia and Hollywood.
I think you even used the word ‘alien.’
Yes. Then they asked me to come over to Spain. I jumped at the chance, and several things happened. One, that first scene, where I actually felt transported to the Congress of the Peoples of the East. The scene on the patio, both watching it being shot and then looking at the takes immediately afterwards— it was exciting. I thought ‘My God, this is really good.’ Everyone on the set was reading copies of my book, which for any writer has to be, you know, pretty thrilling.
I would think so.
The sublime moment was when this great cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, kind of bows to me in an elaborate way, and calls me ‘maestro,’ and says, ‘I never light a scene or set up my camera until I’ve read the passage in your book.’ So, I was walking around on air for the next couple of days, probably still am. I knew Storaro’s films [Storaro won the Best Cinematography Oscar for Reds, Apocalypse Now, and The Last Emperor]. They were just masterpieces that he was turning out…did you see The Conformist [Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970]? It was also in those 10 days I was with the company that it suddenly seemed real. Before we were talking about making a film; now a film is being made, a really big film, with lots of extras and big stars. A lot of things went into that excitement that sort of stayed with me. I still see that scene, and the others, in my head. That was the excitement; it was just somehow I’m part of this. Before that, I was more the guy they called on to learn certain things; so I wasn’t really a part of it. With all those books flying around and people coming up and saying ‘God, it’s a great book you wrote,’ it was a feast. For the ego, I guess.
I would think so. It sounded to me like you had almost an epiphany that this was just a different way of…
Telling the past.
And maybe a better way for some actions in the past.
Yes. I would never say films are better than books. Given the choice, I’d probably read a book rather than see the film, but that’s me; I’m an historian. It was a slow-moving epiphany. It kept coming back to me later when I was writing on film. In my early writing on films, I write about how they got this fact wrong. ‘Why did they make up this character? Otherwise it would be good.’ Then I began to think, as I looked at more of them and began reading film theory and began thinking about historians of the past, ‘why do we have to tell in words?’ It took me about 15 years. I wrote a lot of essays and thought about things. Then it kind of paid off. I thought, ‘why isn’t this history?’
You were rethinking history via film, it seems.
There has been a rethinking of history by some who were pointing out that the way we do history, written history, is in the guise of a 19th-century novel. The form makes its own demands. That was my first step in realizing how complex a film is, and that whatever truths it gives us, they are not the same truths that is written history, but neither of them gives the truth. I didn’t believe that when I was writing on Reds. I’ll give you an example of a film that was fairly popular in its day, Glory, which is about the 54th Massachusetts Regiment of black soldiers in the Civil War.
Glory, with Matthew Broderick, 1989.
Yes, with Matthew Broderick as the white commander. What’s interesting about that is that we have two full histories of the 54th, and the filmmaker, Edward Zwick, or the screenwriters, decided to throw out everything we knew about the characters and then invent a whole new set of them. We know that two of Frederick Douglass’s children fought in the Massachusetts 54th, but they aren’t in the film. The director and screenwriters chose to make 4 really stereotypical characters. The one that Denzel Washington plays is sort of the angry black character, refuses to carry the American flag; Morgan Freeman is the old Pap, the old wise man. Then there’s a country bumpkin, and the fourth one is a friend of the commander who is a very educated free black who has gone through Harvard. On the one hand, I might find fault with that, but on the other hand, it gives a sense of different possible, or real, black attitudes towards the Civil War itself. Why were they fighting? In one character’s case, it’s just to get back at whitey and the slave system from which he’s escaped. And for the commander, it’s to preserve the Union, although he’s also an abolitionist. At the same time, he mentions there’s a terrible cultural gap between him and his soldiers.
How do you think a Civil War historian would react to those inventions?
The interesting thing is Jim McPherson, who was the preeminent Civil War historian in the United States, said, ‘This is a wonderful film! Everybody should see this! It’s the best film anybody’s made on the American Civil War.’ Well, okay. But it’s fiction. The only historical character is actually Matthew Broderick as the colonel who commanded the regiment. All the other characters are invented. Except for Frederick Douglass, whom you see in a momentary scene for 30 seconds. Even there it’s been invented, because we see the picture of Frederick Douglass as an old man with a white beard that has appeared in all history books, but actually, at the time of the Civil War, he was young man with a black beard. Again, the film is inventing facts and yet telling you about the era.
We’re wrapping up here. Is there anything else you’d like to say?
People should go out and find a copy of my book “Romantic Revolutionary: a Biography of John Reed,” and read it if they want to get a more complex view and a more detailed view of Reed than they get in Reds.
As you would expect, right?
Yes, but in Reds you certainly get an introduction to the man and his passions and his political movement and his sacrifice for the revolution. He volunteered to go on the trip where he caught typhus, of which more than a million people died in Russia, because we Western powers were blockading the new country and they couldn’t get medical supplies to save people, including Reed, from typhus, which is treatable. [John Reed died of typhus in Moscow in 1920 at age 32. He’s one of 3 Americans buried in the Kremlin wall.]
So Reed, in a few words, on screen or in your book?
John Reed was very vibrant, very inquisitive, loved adventure. He was larger than life.