I recently had the opportunity to revisit Norman Jewison’s extremely silly and very smart 1966 comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming for the first time in 20 years. When I was a kid it was one of my favorite comedies for reasons I can’t fully explain. But 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 the government and polite society 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 when it ended my appreciation for it had grown. I really admire its 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 submarine 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 have no interest in invading America and are merely trying to return 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 submarine leaves without incident.
There are many standout performances in the film including Carl Reiner’s unforgetable performance as a comedy writer and family man trying to bring calm to the paranoid town. And the very funny Alan Arkin plays a smart Russian Lieutenant who’s desperately 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 and we do. The gorgeous John Philip Law also shows up as a Russian solider who speaks very little 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 Romeo and Juliet, which gives the film an emotional core that I personally found rather sweet and enduring.
The beauty of this mid-60s era comedy 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 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 gentle humor and uncynical sweetness, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming knows that war is a nasty business and there are rarely any victors.
The film has often been compared to It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) due to its title, characters and a large cast that happens to have some similar actors, including funnyman Jonathan Winters, but I think The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is a stronger movie that is willing to explore big ideas that were not very popular at the time it was made. How unpopular were these ideas? Apparently the film was banned in the USSR after its release but managed to earn a Best Picture nomination, which was highly unusal for a comedy.
The script is based on a novel called The Off-Islanders by 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, worked as an editor on the film.
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. The movie is available on DVD from Amazon and it’s playing on Turner Movie Classics Nov. 28th when the great Brian Dennehy plays host to four of his favorite films. I love Brian Dennehy so I was happy to discover that he selected this atypical comedy 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).