Written by Nathaniel Benchley and William Rose
Directed by Norman Jewison
For a generation that’s been pretty much removed from all of the hysteria we lived through during the Cold War, it might be hard to understand the comedic points of the film The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. Even trying to, say, translate it into a group of Middle-Easterners in the roles doesn’t work as we’ve become a more multicultural society, plus, as far as I know, Al-Queda doesn’t have their own submarines.
So basically, if you’re under 40 there’s a lot about this film you won’t get. That aside, it’s pretty funny to the rest of us who lived through those days. It was funny then, in a black comedy sort of way. It’s funny now even more because those days of tense standoffs are over. We can honestly believe that there wasn’t all that much difference between ourselves and the Russians, where back then they were simply categorized as “the enemy” and we would have expected them to emerge from the submarine with horns or something.
The storyline of The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is this: during the apex of the Cold War, a Russian submarine malfunctions and runs aground not far from the town of Gloucester in New England. The first house they come upon is occupied by the Whittaker family who are staying there on vacation. Walt Whittaker (portrayed by Carl Reiner) initially cooperates with them and sends most of the crew off in search of a boat. Later on, at the prodding of his son, Pete (portrayed by Sheldon Collins) who has deemed his father a traitor, Walt overpowers the one crewman left behind to guard the family.
The crew in search of a boat is led by Lt. Rozanov (portrayed by Alan Arkin). They encounter a little old lady who manages to sound the alarm in town, although at first she is not believed. The townsfolk gather to defend their town while the Russian crew members hide out. All the while, all the crew wants is to get back to their submarine and crawl back into deeper waters.
The movie is funny because it’s a comedy of errors all around. From the captain of the submarine (portrayed by Theodore Bikel) who wants to get a close look at America because he believes it’s something akin to hell to behold to the town’s police chief (portrayed by Brian Keith) who deals with the hysterical townsfolk who are apt to shoot at anything that moves.
The movie works quite well and was nominated for Best Picture in 1967, which says something about the times. Despite it being such a tense time in our history, people were hungry to laugh about what was going on. That the film managed to do that without insulting people’s intelligence is a credit to those who worked on it, especially writer William Rose and Director Norman Jewison who really crafted a film that worked back then when people could have been more upset by what they saw on the screen, and still makes me laugh now, more than forty years later.
There’s also an incredible list of comedic talent that worked on the film. Both Arkin and Reiner are comedians known for their fantastic work through the years. For Arkin, this was a fairly early time in his great career. Reiner was already an established star of the smaller screen and fit perfectly into this role. Eva Marie Saint portrays his wife, and although it’s a minimal role for her, she’s good at not being overly fearful or too unconcerned. I would have never thought of her as a comedic actress, but she’s fine here.
The townsfolk are good as they believe they are ground zero for an invasion and rally to fight them off. It might seem insulting to some the way they are portrayed, but living up here I can tell you a lot of it is spot on, even now. Throughout the film the timing is perfect and it’s packed full of laughs at the little misunderstandings that occur or the way something so simple evolves into something much more complicated.
The DVD is pretty good, although you’ll want to make sure you get the widescreen version of it, not the awful pan-and-scan version that’s available in some areas. Other than that, I have no complaints about the picture and sound. The DVD contains a couple of good extras. The featurettes are pretty funny in and of itself. The trailer for this is unlike most trailers you’ll see in a theater and worth a look, even if you normally skip those.
You might not get all of the jokes in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, or why some of this was such a tense situation, but it’s still something funny to watch. To those of us who relate to these days, it’s especially funny and enjoyable.
• The Russians Are Coming to Hollywood (featurette)
• Theatrical Trailer
Categories: Movie Reviews