history and homage
by Judith and John Hess
Cut, no. 1, 1974, pp. 7-8
REED: INSURGENT MEXICO (Paul Leduc, 1972, Mexico) is an homage to John Reed, the American writer, journalist, and intransigent radical who covered the Mexican Revolution for four months in the winter of 1913-14. Before this film can be placed in its proper context we must introduce John Reed and the revolution he witnessed. John Reed (1887-1920) graduated from Harvard in 1910 and joined Lincoln Steffens, Eugene O'Neill, Max Eastman, Mabel Dodge, and many other American artists and intellectuals who lived the bohemian life in Greenwich Village. He began his career in journalism as an assistant editor of the American Magazine. In those days, the bohemian life had a large political component and Reed became involved in the I.W.W. and, in 1913, joined the group of young socialists who had started The Masses. In that year, too, Reed became involved in the long and bloody I.W.W.-led strike of silk workers in Paterson, New Jersey and was thrown in jail as a result. Once out, he directed a mass pageant for the benefit of the silk workers in Madison Square Garden; the pageant included more than 1000 of the strikers and speeches by Big Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
In the winter of 1913, Reed crossed into Mexico and for four months he reported on and participated in the march south to Torreon, a strategically important town which was finally taken by Francisco “Pancho” Villa’s famous Northern Division. This revolution, which ended with the establishment of the Mexican Republic in the summer of 1914, was only the last in a series of revolutions and coups which began when Francisco Madero, a wealthy landowner, overthrew the reigning dictator, General Porfirio Diaz, in 1910.
Madero, however, failed to carry out the land reform so urgently needed and so desired by the peons who had supported him. Thus, in November, 1911, the peasant leader Emiliano Zapata rose up unsuccessfully against Madero’s government. In February, 1913, some rightist generals revolted against Madero in an attempt to restore the old dictatorship. With the help of the supposedly loyal General Huerta and with the open advice and urging of the U.S. ambassador, the generals defeated Madero and assassinated him. Huerta took over the government but his future was sealed when, in March of that year, Villa, known throughout the United States as a vicious bandit, crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico with seven companions and quickly built up the Northern Division. By January, 1914, Villa had established himself in Chihuahua and was preparing to march south to Torreon with General Tomas Urbina, the Lion of Durango, Reed’s first contact in Mexico, on his right flank. This was the operation Reed witnessed first hand and, two months after he left Mexico, the Huerta regime crumbled and the Republic was established.
Reed went directly to Ludlow, Colorado, after leaving Mexico and took up arms on the side of the striking miners. In the summer of that year, Reed and illustrator Boardman Robinson covered the Eastern Front in Europe; as a result of these experiences, Reed wrote THE WAR IN EASTERN EUROPE (1917). At home again in Greenwich Village with his wife Louise Bryant, Reed became increasingly involved in socialist politics, speaking out and participating whenever he could and involved in the literary avant-garde in Provincetown. The Russian Revolution seemed to Reed and to many of his friends the beginning of a world socialist revolution. In August of 1917, he left for Russia and arrived in time to witness the October Revolution. He returned home in April of the next year, stood trial with the other editors of The Masses, and wrote TEN DAYS THAT SHOOT THE WORLD, which was published in 1919. In September, he helped found the Communist Labor Party in opposition to the American Communist Party and, as the government began a massive crackdown on radicals, he left the country illegally and hurried to Moscow in order to gain recognition for his party. Although he was warmly received in Russia and made a member of the Executive Committee of the Third International, he lost favor to the representatives of the American Communist Party. Reed was disillusioned by this rejection which he never fully understood, and by evidence of corruption in the new state he had so warmly welcomed.But before he could act he fell ill at the age of thirty-three on October 17, 1920. He lies buried beside the Kremlin wall in Moscow.
The movie’s title indicates that Leduc’s concern is limited to Reed’s account of the Revolution in INSURGENT MEXICO and its author. The opposing forces which created and sustained the Mexican Revolution are never clearly defined. There is no sustained political analysis—events are arranged so as to give a picture of Reed’s development, not the nature of the Revolution. The rebels themselves remain little more than foils for Reed as the movie centers on Reed’s changing perceptions about his own function as journalist.
Although Reed was an experienced reporter by the time he went to Mexico, we are given the impression that he is a novice. When he confronts Urbina in his stronghold, Reed does not appear to have a strong commitment to the rebel forces. After waiting fruitlessly for Urbina and his rakish troops to go to battle, Reed decides to head for Chihuahua. He is refused permission to leave and ultimately goes off with Urbina’s army on top of a mule drawn cargo of dynamite.
Apart from inserting a few truisms about social justice, Leduc practically ignores the commitment to socialism which brought Reed to Mexico in the first place. In the film, Reed’s initial lack of involvement is superceded by a strong emotional feeling for the rebel cause, and for his Mexican soldier comrades. Drunk after a fiesta, he expresses fears about his own courage, and at Cadena, the scene of their first battle, he awkwardly attempts to participate in the fighting; he ends by losing his camera and becoming separated from his rebel group. Leduc implies that Reed did not at this point have the political perspective to respect his role of reporter, even though the men with whom he traveled were aware that their story must reach all people. In several other instances, Reed tries to fight, but he is stopped by the more experienced peasant soldiers.
In Nogales, Reed interviews Carranza (a rigid figurehead) and later, in Chihuahua, he meets Villa, shown as a rough and appealing leader of the people. We first see Villa in a bakery where he has put his soldiers to work, believing that they should help the people and not stand around idle. We are led to assume that Reed is becoming increasingly aware of the historical significance of the struggle. In a conversation with two U.S. reporters he says that objective reporting of events is impossible once one believes in the revolutionaries’ cause. The implication is that he had discarded traditional methods of reporting and is evolving ways to communicate his fierce commitment to the peasants and their cause. Our last view of Reed, which a freeze frame holds for us, is of him breaking a shop window to steal a camera. He now, implies Leduc, has come to terms with his role. His reportorial function has become a revolutionary activity.
However, although Reed’s life as a whole does reflect a growing political understanding and involvement, the compression of this growth into his reactions to several incidents in the Mexican Revolution oversimplifies and distorts. both Reed’s personal history and his experience in Mexico.
Because the movie focuses on Reed rather than on the Mexican Revolution, it presents Reed’s own biases towards it. Instead of trying to discern the class interests of the opposing forces, Reed became totally sympathetic toward the idealistic but unrealistic goals of the peasant rebels with whom he lived. The movie accepts Reed’s relatively naive view.
REED: INSURGENT MEXICO’s impact is marred by various technical inadequacies—the images are often indistinct, the lighting changes from shot to shot and even within single shots, the sound is tinny and uneven, and the graininess of the image suggests that the film was shot in 16mm and then blown up to 35mm. The combination of these shortcomings often makes the film very difficult to watch. Also it becomes hard to tell what effect the director intended to convey. That the entire film is tinted sepia suggests that the director’s aim was to recall the past, accurately. This supposition is born out by the lead actor’s eerie physical similarity to John Reed. It is harder to tell exactly what Leduc wants his audience to derive from the many awkward close ups—the are often startling but serve no apparent purpose. Thus although the film is a much deserved homage to John Reed, its political and aesthetic failings force us to wish that a mach better film had been made, either about John Reed or about the Mexican Revolution.
Paul Leduc (b. 1942) studied film directing and writing before becoming film critic for El Día. He studied with Jean Rouch, and in 1968 directed 16 documentaries shot on location at the Olympic games. REED: INSURGENT MEXICO, his first feature film, is distributed by New Yorker Films.