The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming

The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are ComingSynopsis: When a sightseeing Soviet commander runs his submarine aground off the New England coast, the crew’s attempts to find a boat to dislodge them almost start World War III! Alan Arkin leads and all-star cast – including Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint, Brian Keith, and Jonathan Winters – in this “riotous uproarious [and] side-splitting” (Cue) comedy!

Russian Lt. Rozanov (Arkin) and his crew hit the beaches of Massachusetts unaware of the panic they’re about to start. Despite the Russians’ harmless intentions, the folks in town think a full-scale Soviet invasion has been launched! What’s worse, their police chief (Keith) has left his hysterical assistant (Winters) in charge…and the one man who knows the truth (Reiner) is only stirring up more chaos!

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The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming 7.0

eyelights: its anti-war message.
eyesores: its simplistic delivery. the opening credits.

“It doesn’t make sense to hate people. It’s such a waste of time.”

‘The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming’ is a 1966 comedy by Norman Jewison. Based on a novel by Nathaniel Benchley, it tells the story of a Russian submarine crew who accidentally run aground in Cape Ann, MA, and wander about a small coastal village trying to find a motor boat to help release their submarine.

Inevitably, the Russian crew are forced to interact with the villagers, some of whom are city-folk on holiday. Tensions build and humorous situations take place but, when word gets out that the Ruskies are in town, the situation becomes dire: a small mob of gun-tottin’ hicks gathers to fight off this Commie invasion!

And only the country bumpkin cops can stop the growing conflict!

The picture was made in the heart of the Cold War and right at the beginning of the sixties’ Peace movement. Its core message of borderless brotherhood resonated with members of both the US and USSR governments: the movie was screened at the Kremlin and a mention of it was officially recorded in Congress.

‘The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming’ was a box office and critical success, claiming nominations and a few awards for Best Picture, Screenplay and Actor, ensuring that Jewison became a hot property for years to come and that Alan Arkin, in his big screen debut, became a star pretty much overnight.

I guess you had to be there.

Personally, I found the picture okay, but nothing special. In fact, the first time that I watched it (on glorious VHS), I was quite bored by it. I found some plot developments trite, the acting not especially stellar, and the humour either too subdued or well over my head. Maybe it was both. Or neither.

This time around I enjoyed it more, but most notably for its peacenik message, even though it was heavy-handed. For instance there’s the conventional love story between and all-American girl and a tall, handsome blonde Russian. They’re the core of the anti-war message, that the language of love is universal.

Yes, I cringed a bit too.

But the film’s message of peace is also delivered in more outrageous ways, like when Officer Jonas (played by Jonathan Winters), is stuck in a melee and out shouts out “For God’s sake, why is it we can’t learn to live together?”, before decking a guy who came up to take his side, saying “You’re right, Norman!”

I know that it’s quite a silly moment, but it’s not altogether out of the ordinary for this type of film – especially in that era. In fact, I suspect that the picture was intended to be farce, as it gradually grew in that direction: by the final act, it injected pure farce elements, with the music emphasizing it whenever possible.

For example:

  • Walt Whittaker, vacationing New York playwright, and Alice Foss, the town’s frazzled phone operator, are tied together by the Russians and wind up hopping about and contorting themselves in uncomfortable positions to try to wrest themselves from their bonds.
  • The town drunk is persuaded to find his horse and go alert people of the Russians’ arrival. Naturally, he can’t get his horse to cooperate, and spends the rest of the picture tumbling about trying to get his darned ride stay put long enough for him to get on.
  • The Russians, using a version of English that would make even Pavel Chekov wince, decide to disguise themselves as locals and warn people to get out of the way by telling them, “Emergency! Everybody to get from road”.  As can be expected, this doesn’t work wonders.

One thing I found gutsy about the picture is that Jewison decided to let the “Russians” speak in their native language (to the best of the American actors’ abilities) without any subtitles; he let their actions speak for themselves, instead. I thought this was a flaw on the DVD, but an interview in the extras confirms his intention.

The problem for me is that I was so busy trying to figure out whether or not the subtitles were missing that I wasn’t entirely focused on the proceedings, so I couldn’t tell whether or not the actors properly translated the action with their body language. Having said this, the action was broad enough that I didn’t miss a beat.

I found the cast enjoyable. Although they weren’t by any means stellar, for whatever reason I do love me an ensemble cast (is it because I was exposed to tons of them during the ’70s, my formative years?), something that frequently skews my perception. And this picture has a ton of characters -and many subplots at once.

Naturally, I have my favourites:

  • For all my reservations about his interpretation of Inspector Clouseau, Alan Arkin is actually quite good here, even if he often looks as though he’s concealing laughter. He seems unable to do physical comedy convincingly, but he barely has to here.
  • Brian Keith was terrific as Police Chief Mattocks: the guy is incredulous, cool, calm most of the time and he doesn’t take crap. Although he eventually gets into a silly kerfuffle with the mob leader, an ex-general, Keith’s Mattocks is tops in my books.

I also have my least favourites:

  • John Phillip Law plays Alexei Kolchin, the young Russian who falls in love with the American girl. He’s at his best when he’s stoic, which is a short period of the film, sadly. The rest of the time he feels artificial; he’s clearly acting, not being.
  • Similarly, Andrea Dromm is a tad vacant as Alison Palmer. She’s delicious to look at, a natural beauty, but she’s far too delicate to be real.  I suppose she’s a good counterpart for Law, but that’s also part of the problem given that the couple are central to the plot.

My favourite part of the picture is actually in its first few moments, when the group of nine Russians are aground and wandering about the Whittakers’ backyard. Their son tries to warn his dad that they’re under imminent attack but the dad won’t have any of it – he won’t even bother to look just to humour him.

This leads to the son’s disappointment and eventual disrespect for his father as he continues to ignore his warnings. Eventually, he ends up calling him a traitor, a coward, …etc. The dynamic between him and his father is quite amusing, even if the whole situation is taken to a ridiculous extreme.

The mid-section of the picture is decent enough but the whole thing is spoiled by a contrived ending that sees a boy falling out of church steeple. Firstly, it couldn’t have happened. Secondly, why didn’t the men just climb up from inside, like the kids did? Why? To show the Americans and Russians working together, that’s why!

Le sigh…

To make matters worse, after a stalemate with the Russian Captain, the villagers decide to save their skin from an oncoming Air Force attack by escorting the Russian submarine out to sea with their own boats. With the warmongering ex-general isolated in a dingy (as if he would join them in the first place!).

Yes, it’s one of those feel-good movies. Ack. Still, on the whole, ‘The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming’ is a mildly amusing motion picture. It’s not exceptional, but it’s certainly a better picture than ‘The Mouse That Roared‘ (another anti-war picture), even if I didn’t laugh as much.

And it’s an award-winning classic which deserves to be revisited. It’s not just a portrait of a tense place in time when two superpowers were at war, but it shows how much people wanted something more from their governments. The fact that the film was even made and that it was such a success is testament to that.

It may not be extremely provocative, but its heart is in the right place. And sometimes that’s enough.

Post scriptum: While watching it, I wondered if it was in any way an inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s ‘1941’, which has similar elements to ‘The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming’ – except dialed up, with a significantly larger budget, and less of the anti-war sentiment. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that it was.

Date of viewing: October 19, 2014

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