The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming! (1966) is a rollicking comedy set in the fictional sleepy little Massachusetts island community of Gloucester. This is a wonderful family film. Get some popcorn and explain the Cold War to your kids, and watch this film.
Directed by Norman Jewison, this film has the look and feel of a well-made Disney live-action movie of the time. While it is 50 years old at the time of this review, it holds up well. It’s a fantastic string of one mishap after another, beginning with a Russian submarine running aground because the captain wanted to get a close look at America. When the Russians send a nine man expeditionary team onto the island to find a motor boat to swipe in order to tow the sub off its shoal, hilarity ensues.
The men come ashore on the sparsely inhabited far end of the island where comedy writer Walt Whittaker is spending a relaxing work-weekend with his family. Whittaker is played by real comedy writer and legend Carl Reiner, and his character is very well acted and written. He reminds me of Jimmy Stewart. ‘Vittaker Valt.’ as he is called by the Russian top-dog, is then pressed into action as a reluctant hero. He somewhat bravely sets forth for town to alert the authorities that, for some unknown reason, the Russians have landed.
The beauty of this film is the dialog, especially the subtle and swift humor written into bad English spoken by the Russians. It’s an old trick, but such a trick never gets old, it’s a comedy staple. Some of the humor is corny, but overall, its got all the makings of a classic blunder-fest. We find in this yarn the simple, wool-wearing townsfolk; the purple-haired gossip telephone operator; the local VFA and its blustery war-veteran leader, the incompetent deputies, and the macho and cool chief of police with that John Wayne vibe. On the Russian side, standing out is the leader of the ground expedition, Lt. Rozanov (Alan Arkin). He is a competent man but often extremely frustrated by the ample awkward circumstances he finds himself in. Trying to communicate with locals and keeping his team on-task is a great source of laughter. His acting in this film make the whole thing wonderful.
When Rozanov and his men leave Whittaker and his family under the custody of ‘marksman of prize winning caliber’ (said in a thick Russian accent) Alexei Kolchin, Whittaker overtakes Alexei, takes his submachine gun, and then leaves on a rickety bicycle to get to town. The remaining story is a comedy of errors, exaggeration, panic, hysteria and alarm. And Alexei… he falls for a local girl.
In the end, during a terribly tense standoff in the town harbor, the Americans and the Russians experience an unexpected peace when a child falls and is hung up in serious, life-threatening predicament. The Russians and the Americans work feverishly together to rescue the child, thawing the standoff and making a happy peace. The sub is escorted to sea to thwart the Air Force from bombing them, and everyone lives happily ever after.
The interesting part of the film is its levity during the height of the Cold War. It is difficult for people who did not live in these days to comprehend the tension. As a kid, I was taught the Russians were evil and would kill me just for breathing. I fully expected to die in a nuclear blast, living in the fourth largest city in the nation and close to strategic targets like NASA, an Air Force base, and a vast region of petroleum refineries. It’s difficult to imagine such a grim expectation if you were not around then. Really, I expected to die by vaporization in a nuclear blast. To see Russians portrayed as peaceful humans in the mid-sixties is a real surprise.
An interesting result of this portrayal is how the film affected the Americans AND the Russians. On IMDB, in the trivia section of this film’s entry, we find this:
The film had a profound impact on both American and Soviet leaders. It is one of the few films actually mentioned in the Congressional record. Norman Jewison was also personally invited to Moscow, where he reported that the Russian crowd was transfixed by the scene featuring the little boy who falls from the bell tower, and the Soviets and Americans cooperate to save him. (source)
What a testimony to the peace-making ability of every-day human concern and love for one another. This film is a great comedy, but also a great teacher about what really matters.
This film remains a great comedic film, its good for a number of laughs, and will also illustrate to those who are not familiar with the Cold War just how afraid each side was of the other. I recommend this as a family fun night film, its filled with laughter for all ages.