' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (1966)

Friday, July 07, 2017

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (1966)

“The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!” was released in 1966, smack in the middle of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, rendering the film extremely topical which no doubt aided in its reaping of six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for Norman Jewison. It comes on like a farce, opening with a frenzy aboard a Soviet submarine that inadvertently runs aground just off the coast of a New England vacation island and leading to a panic amongst the inhabitants about an invasion they increasingly think is underway that really isn’t. Yet the further it goes, “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!” stops serving the Cold War to us as a spoof and slowly turns more serious, proffering a solution, of sorts, to the Stars & Stripes/Hammer & Sickle standoff by reminding us that (gasp!) we are all The Same.


Amidst a sprawling ensemble, the emergent principal character is Walt Whittaker (Carl Reiner), a writer on something like a working vacation with his family of four in a scenic home set all on its lonesome on the tip of the island, quietly underscoring America’s isolation still vulnerable to the Russian attack, which happens when a small crew from the stranded sub led by Lieutenant Rozanov (Alan Arkin) semi-politely infiltrates the Whitaker home. Walt becomes something less than the resistance, more like a reluctant cooperator willing to believe Rozanov when he says that the Russians merely want to jostle their sub free and make haste for friendlier waters. And the film’s omniscient viewpoint makes clear that this is true, though Walt is a bit more prone to emotional whims than is his Russian counterpart, underscored by the performances, with Reiner playing at a broader comical pitch and Arkin, who was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award, finding humor in his character’s increasing exasperation even as he deftly manages to exhibit a believable threat to the characters onscreen while simultaneously communicating to the audience that he means no harm.

Rozanov stands in stark contrast to Fendall Hawkins (Paul Ford), a Gloucester local and veteran who, swinging around his vintage sword, is a caricature of a war hawk, more than ready to lead his amateur troops, beer-guzzling, nameless lackeys, into what he’s absolutely certain is the onset of WWIII. They are not inconspicuously more gung-ho about going to war than the Russians, and their noisy presence seems to indicate a movie barreling toward a comic reckoning, though the way Jewison gets there and what actually happens once he does are not necessarily part and parcel to the set-up.

Indeed, many of the film’s funny bits, like Walt’s semi-heroic bike ride from his cottage into town, like the town drunk trying to make like Paul Revere and failing, are conveyed in long and wide takes, the editing rather restrained than rapid fire, straining the momentum on the ride to the inevitable showdown. What’s more, an odd romance blooms between Alison (Andrea Dromm), the Whittakers’ neighbor, and Alexei Kolchin (John Phillip Law), tasked with standing guard at the Whittakers’. There is a shot, in fact, of them walking hand-in-hand on the beach, and if you twist that just one degree you might have Lt. Frank Drebin and Jane Spencer walking hand-in-hand on the beach in “The Naked Gun”, but Jewison is oddly intent on playing this little subplot straight, which means every time it pops up it drains precious fuel from the farce.


This occasional earnestness means that the film’s climactic showdown, Americans and Russians standing across from one another in raggedy battle lines with guns drawn and frowns on their faces, does not exactly emerge from nowhere, though its solemnity is nevertheless still rather jarring. “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!” spends most of the lead-up to this moment lampooning the idea of war, only to stop dead in its tracks and turn the other way, asking us to take it very, very seriously. It’s made worse because the film itself doesn’t seem to know how to resolve this tonal twist, evoked in the way the scene goes on and on, like it is trying desperately to think its way out of this narrative jam in which it finds itself. It escapes, sure enough, with a nameless child tagging in for the god of the machine, a less than graceful wrap-up, true, though still one that fanned the flame of humanity and left me, because I was watching this movie 51 years after its release and specifically because of America’s recent reinvigoration of the Cold War, wondering how it might play today.

Modern critiques of “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!” often deem it “dated”, which likely is directed at the film’s aesthetic though I half-suspect it also targets this Pollyannish resolution, as if the thought that we really all could get along with just a little push in the rightful direction is so laughable these days as to seem obsolete.

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