I recently had the opportunity to see Norman Jewison’s extremely silly and sometimes smart 1966 comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming for the first time in about 20 years when it played on TCM. When I was a kid The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming was one of my favorite comedies for reasons I can’t really explain, except it seemed to portray adults as I saw them then – easily frightened big kids who projected their fears onto their children and conformed to every bad idea that society and the government tossed their way.
I was afraid the film wouldn’t hold up after such a long period of time between my last viewing so my expectations were extremely low going into the movie but once it ended my appreciation for it remained. I really admire its undeniable charm and the way it manages to cram complex ideas into easily digested entertainment that the whole family can enjoy. Simply put, it’s a lightweight version of Kubrick’s brilliant Dr. Strangelove (1964) and it works.
The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming opens with a Russian sub running aground in a small New England coastal town. Naturally chaos erupts because the U.S. is in the middle of the cold war and only four years have passed since the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis. The Americans think the Russians are invading and the whole town pulls out their guns and comes together to form a modern day militia in an effort to stop them. Of course things aren’t exactly what they seem since the Russians in the sub are merely trying to get back home. After bouts of hysteria and plenty of violent outbursts, the panicky town’s folk and the frazzled Russian soldiers manage to come together to save the life of a young child in peril and the sub returns home.
There are some standout performances in The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, including Carl Reiner’s terrific turn as a comedy writer trying to calm the paranoid town and the very funny Alan Arkin playing a smart Russian Lieutenant who’s trying to get a handle on the slowly escalating events all around him. Brian Keith is also very good as the town Sheriff who can’t believe the situation he’s found himself in. Arkin’s Russian Lieutenant and Keith’s small town Sheriff could have been roles written purely for easy laughs but they’re not. Viewers are asked to sympathize with both men in some ways and we do. The gorgeous John Philip Law also shows up as a Russian solider who speaks a little bit of English and ends up falling for a perky American blond played by Andrea Dromm. The two young lovebirds make a cute couple and their romance echoes themes found in Shakespeare’s classic play Romeo and Juliet, which gives the film an emotional core that I personally found rather sweet and appealing.
The beauty of The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming seems perfectly clear today as we deal with some vaguely defined idea of an enemy we’re supposed to fear enough to give up our Constitutional Freedoms and basic human compassion for. The film has often been unfairly criticized for its dated jokes, simple plot and silly slapstick style humor. But if the ideas presented in Norman Jewison’s film are so dated, simple and silly, why are people still making the same absurd mistakes outlined in a movie made some 40 years ago? If anything, the film’s basic premise and themes are as pertinent as ever. Underneath all the movie’s jokes and gentleness, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming knows that war is a nasty business and there are rarely any victors.
The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming has often been compared to It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) due to it’s title, characters and a large cast that happens to have some similar actors including Jonathan Winters, but I think The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is a much stronger film that is willing to explore big ideas that were not very popular at the time that the movie was made, while keeping its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. Apparently the movie was banned in the USSR after its release, but it was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1966.
The script is based on a novel called The Off-Islanders by the American author Nathaniel Benchley who happens to be the father of Jaws author Peter Benchley. I find it amusing that both men wrote books set in small New England towns where they were raised. And both stories focus on a town being terrorized by some unknown scary “other.” It’s also worth noting that one of my favorite American filmmakers, the great Hal Ashby, also acted as an editor on the movie.
These days it can be hard to find anything worth smiling about but if you haven’t seen The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming I recommend giving it a look. It just might make you laugh. The movie is available on DVD from Amazon and it’s playing again on Turner Movie Classics Nov. 28th when the great actor Brian Dennehy hosts four of his favorite films. I really like Brian Dennehy so I was happy to discover that he selected the film to play with two other films from the sixties, Karel Reisz‘s gritty British drama Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and Bryan Forbes‘s British comedy The Wrong Box (1966). I’ve wanted to see The Wrong Box for years, but it isn’t available on DVD yet so I’ll be watching it on TCM Nov. 28th.