The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming

Dir: Norman Jewison, 1966. Starring: Alan Arkin, Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint, Brian Keith. Comedy.
The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming

Written by William Rose, who was also responsible for the loud, brash and big It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World a couple years earlier (as well as the overrated Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is also a big ensemble comedy, but much better executed and focused than his previous script, with more heart and less mean-spiritedness. It also helps that it has a very able director at the helm, the nearly forgotten Norman Jewison, whose socially-conscious films still hold up (In The Heat of The Night, A Soldier’s Story, The Hurricane; The Russians Are Coming could also be considered part of that group). He had a number of films which were popular and respected in their day (The Cincinnati Kid, The Thomas Crown Affair, Fiddler on the Roof, Agnes of God, Moonstruck) and some fascinating curios (Jesus Christ Superstar, Rollerball and F.I.S.T.). He falls into that group of directors who emerged in the sixties like Arthur Penn, George Roy Hill, John Boorman and John Schlesinger who had a lot of acclaim and made some classics, but never became brand names like Polanski and Coppola, or even to a lesser extent Mike Nichols and Sydney Pollack. Jewison has as many solid films as his peers, though looking back none reach that same level of transcendence as a Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy or Deliverance. For my money, though many would disagree, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is his film that holds up best today.

Based on a novel by Nathaniel Benchley (whose son Peter wrote the novel Jaws), set in a little New England beachy island community (very similar looking to that one in Jaws, though surprisingly actually shot in Northern California), where a Russian submarine gets stuck in a sandbar, leading to havoc in the town. This was a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, so this was the height of cold-war hysteria (think Dr. Strangelove), so even just having likable Russian characters was enough to make this film subversive to some. The film has dozens of characters, with top character actors of the day in peak form.

In a nut shell the plot goes something like this. The Russian sub commander (Theodore Bikel) sends Yuri Rozanov (Alan Arkin, wonderful in his first film role) and a small crew onto the shores to commodore some boats to tow the sub off the sand bar. Meanwhile, renting a summer beach house is bumbling New York playwright Walt Whittaker (television hall-of-famer Carl Reiner in his best screen role) along with his wife (Eva Marie Saint of On The Waterfront), his obnoxious son and adorable daughter. The Russians show up at his door posing as Norwegian fisherman, trying to find out info on where the local boats are. But eventually they admit to being Russians and tie the family up, leaving the younger, hunky sailor Alexei (John Phillip Law, also remembered for roles in the culty films Danger: Diabolik and Barbarella) to guard them. When the kids' cute babysitter Alison (Andrea Dromm) shows up, Walt is able to fight Alexei off. Walt hides on the beach and takes off on a bicycle to warn the town. (Eventually Alison and Alexei hook up for a little bicultural Romeo & Julieting.) Meanwhile, with the Russians sneaking about town, rumors of their presence get out and send the town into a panic. Police Chief Link Mattocks (the always wonderful Brian Keith) and his deputy Norman (comedy legend Jonathan Winters) try to quell a posse forming, led by the loud-mouth Fendall Hawkins (Paul Ford). Mayhem ensues, most famously as Reiner is tied up to a large telephone switchboard operator (Tessie O’Shea) and the town drunk, Luther Grilk (Ben Blue), while trying to get on his horse to warn the town that the Russians are coming. 

Things come to a head when the sub manages to dock in town, but luckily, as we learned from the philosopher Sting, the "Russians love their children, too." So when a couple of rambunctious kids (one of them is Johnny Whitaker, who would become a '70s kid-actor staple, most famously on Family Affair and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters) get into danger, both sides of the Iron Curtain band together to put some ice on the Cold War and a lot of heart into a potential international incident. (Supposedly the film was screened for higher-ups in both Washington and Moscow. The Americans took exception to it and the Russians were brought to tears, or at least that’s how the legend goes.) Politically pretty simplistic, it's really about the laughs, and there are plenty. But the ending, though maybe forced and even a little fast, is actually moving. Liberal propaganda? Maybe, but propaganda is rarely so entertaining. More importantly it brings down the It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World “bigger is better” brand of comedy--at least by a few notches.

Interestingly, just over a dozen years later young hotshot director Steven Spielberg (fresh off of the massive hits Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) would get carte blanche from the studio and try to combine Mad and The Russians with a similar WWII paranoia in the comedy 1941. It was his first real box office miss. (I loved it when I saw it as a kid, but it hasn’t held up for me too well over the years.) Spielberg got Mad’s big, long and loud just right (even turning it up) but here’s the problem: the secret sauce in The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is the heart. It’s not easy to get right. It helps if you have a heart, which Jewison’s body of work has proven he does. Hell, he made the Kremlin cry, how many other directors have that credit in their portfolio?

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 17, 2014 2:09pm
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