The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming
Ah, for the heady days of the Cold War. Where, even if you weren’t conscious of the comprehensive Hegelianism at work, it was perfectly acceptable to hold moderate views of East-West relations. Sadly, though, the best thing about The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming is its title.
Pete: Don’t tell them anything! He hasn’t even tortured you yet!
Pauline Kael, perhaps surprisingly, gave the movie the free pass of “warmly rambunctious entertainment”. Alas, this Best Picture Oscar nominee’s less than illustrious forbears are revealed in the choice of screenwriter, who adapted 1961’s The Off-Islanders by Nathaniel Benchley (Jaws writer Peter’s dad). Then Jersey-resident William Rose scripted The Ladykillers – in his considerable favour – but also, more tellingly, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Only a year later, he’d build further facile bridges of common understanding with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? The Russians, are Coming, the Russians are Coming skews much too closely to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’s brand of strained, undisciplined rowdiness for comfort (and also features that movie’s Paul Ford – Colonel Hall in The Phil Silvers Show).
Alexei Kolchin: He want to look at America.
Walt Whittaker: What for?
Alexei Kolchin: He never saw it.
A Russian submarine runs aground on a sandbar off Gloucester Island on the New England coast, and a landing party led by Lieutenant Rozanov (Alan Arkin) is sent to locate a motor boat to free their vessel. The initial detention of musical theatre writer Walt Whittaker (Carl Reiner) and his family fails to deliver the goods, so they venture into town, inevitably leading to word of their titular “invasion” getting out and the natives becoming restless, if not to say trigger happy. There might have been considerable juice for fish-out-of-water and cultural difference comedy here; instead we have to settle for successive bursts of hamstrung hysteria. Such strains can only sustain themselves so far, meaning the material is sorely stretched over a two-hour running time. The result is a little like a benign version of Went the Day Well? or The Eagle Has Landed, but “funny” (“Suppose they start raping?”)
Pete: I bet I’m the only kid in the fourth grade whose father is a famous trader.
Indeed, the entire enterprise is so very, very thin. Reiner is encouraged to work his way through a range of tired sitcom dad schtick; weak as that is, his is the only character you could call fleshed out. Bits work: laboriously riding a bicycle into town like an Americanised Monsieur Hulot; his poisonously pugnacious offspring Pete (Sheldon Collins, also Bing Quantrell in The President’s Analyst) engineers much talk of dad being a traitor and “just like Arnold Benedict” for collaborating with the enemy. Which is amusing, as far as it goes (“If you wanna hit him, it’s alright with me” he tells wife Eva Marie Saint, such is the fate of former – by Hollywood standards – glamorous starlets: reduced to playing Carl Reiner’s wife).
Pete is, essentially, the average islander in miniature. After all, “All they’re trying to do is borrow a motorboat”, yet the entire world’s against the Soviets (one might variously substitute taking out biolabs and elite strongholds; either way, Russia remains the evergreen enemy du jour, always obligingly on hand to fire up international discord, particularly to distract from plandemics going off the boil and global financing up the swannee, in order to pave the way for – again global – digital currency).
Model Andrea Dromm embarks on a romance with John Philip Law’s sensitive submariner. Jonathan Winters has a few choice moments as the police chief’s assistant; the chief is played by Brian Keith, wearily au fait with the islanders’ aptitude for leaping to conclusions. When the sub shows up and there’s a confrontation at the harbour, with Theodore Bikel’s captain presenting an ultimatum, director Norman Jewison briefly shifts into gear and The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming hints at how good it might have been. Arkin suddenly gets to be funny and offhand; elsewhere, he’s allowed very little to work with. But wouldn’t you know it? Once preconceptions and embroidered animosities are put aside – thanks to a distressed child bringing out universal protectiveness that knows no national boundaries – everyone gets along jolly well.
Rozanov: This is your island, I make your responsibility you help us get boat quickly, otherwise there is World War III and everybody is blaming you!
A certain sensibility is needed to pull off something as knockabout as this. John Landis had it. When you don’t… Well, Spielberg’s 1941 is in the same lineage. Of whom, his recent redundant West Side Story remake repeated the conceit of employing no subtitles for the foreign-language scenes; Alan Arkin and Theodore Bikel are/were fluent Russian speakers (Brian Keith too, although he didn’t need it). Jewison wouldn’t tackle anything so goofy again – the picture’s success gave him the clout to make In the Heat of the Night the way he wanted, and the rest is history – but if his film never takes off quite the way it should, its success in both box office and awards spheres testifies to its zeitgeist quality.
Rozanov: I am wounded in dignity only.
The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming was the sixth biggest movie of 1966 (per Wiki, so pinch of salt required). While all that year’s Best Picture nominees were among the Top 10 hits, the comedy went unrewarded at the Oscars. It received four nominations, the others being Arkin (Best Actor), Screenplay and Editing. A Man for All Seasons won all those bar Editing (which went to Grand Prix). The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming’s lack of profile today says it all. Most know the title, but even an international incident won’t get the unalloyed interested. It’s no Dr. Strangelove when it comes to biting satire.
First published by Now in Full Color on 14/04/22.