Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Savant was there in a planning meeting back in 1978 for 1941, when Steven Spielberg
said his crazy comedy epic was going to be just like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and
The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming - only good. Spielberg blended
the basic theme of one film with the anarchic chaos of the other, but his picture didn't turn
out as good as either of them. Back in 1964, the Mirisch company and young
Canadian director Norman Jewison concocted this sweet & silly comedy out of the Cold War headlines
of the times. The Cuban Missle Crisis was still on people's minds, and the idea of nuclear
armageddon was finally taking a prominent place on the editorial pages, thanks to shows like
Jewison surprised everyone with what was basically a family sitcom enlarged to accomodate the issue:
if the Russians landed today, how would your neighborhood react?
On Massachusetts' tiny Gloucester island, just after the tourist season, vacationing
musical comedy writer Walt Whittaker (Carl Reiner) and his wife Elspeth (Eva Marie Saint) wake to
find a shore party of Russians on their doorstep: the sailors' submarine has innocently run aground
and they have to 'borrow' some boat big enough to pull it free. The officer in charge, Lieutenant
Rozanov (Alan Arkin) tries to keep things under control, but the island is soon alerted with the
notion that a full-scale invasion is taking place. Police Chief Link Mattocks (Brian Keith) can't
keep the lid on, with loose cannons like pompous citizen Fendall Hawkins (Paul Ford) and his own
skittish deputy Norman Jones (Jonathan Winters) agitating the already panicked crowd. The
overreaction may actually cause a tragedy, as Rozanov's scared crew, especially boyish seaman
Alexi Kolchin (John Phillip Law) are carrying real machine guns.
There was a time in the 60s when some kinds of liberal optimism went unopposed. The Russians are
Coming ...'s immediate tension comes from the realization that America and Russia weren't at
war, even though political and economic competition had both populations convinced
that they were. Released just before the big Vietnam callout, and several years before
the Pueblo incident, Russians envisioned a simpler world where a Soviet sub snooping
off Cape Cod would have a doltish commander, no electronic surveillance equipment, and only one
crewman with any knowledge of English. Technically, it's as stacked a deck as 1940's 49th Parallel,
Michael Powell's tale of an equally diminuitive Nazi sub (even 1940 submarines were rather large ships)
whose crew murder and slogan their way right across Canada.
But Americans, as ever, were emotionally ready only for a fairy tale version of the Cold War, and
The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming used good humor to point out just how insulated,
isolationist, and paranoid we had become. In the Whittaker vacation cabin, 1
father's masculinity is repeatedly challenged by his bloodthirsty son Pete (Sheldon Golomb), who's
always asking when the shooting's going to start. 2
The Whittakers sense that the Russkies are basically just trying to get the hell out of Gloucester
without starting WW3, but the family's too hepped up on anti-Russ hysteria to keep their grip.
The rest of the town behaves with remarkable realism, considering this is a 'wacky' comedy. Those who
get the exaggerated news of invaders falling from the skies pack up and run, or converge on the town
with shotguns in hand. A vigilante army that operates more like a lynch mob (their leader fetishizes
a memorial sword just like the General of The Ox-Bow Incident) then fans out to oppose the
enemy. If they'd run into any unidentified foreigners, the show could have become a tragedy.
All of the characters in Russians are pretty loveable; the only exceptions are the grating
Paul Ford, and a running gag with old-time comedian Ben Blue, which just seems tedious now. The
epic scope of the picture contrasts the guns'n pitchforks hysteria in town, with two freshfaced kids
babysitting on the beach and falling in love. Andrea Dromm is perfect as the Whittaker's babysitter,
and John Phillip Law is remarkably effective as the coltish, innocent sailor Kolchin, who
grins like a dope while scarfing down chocolate cake and milk. This was Law's breakthrough role, and
he handles Kolchin's limited vocabulary as if he had to be taught the part phonetically.
Although Reiner is a predictable okay guy, and Brian Keith does his wincing 'I'm surrounded by
well, the movie belongs 100% to Alan Arkin, whose Lieutenant Rozanov is one of the most adorable
characters ever in a comedy. Rozanov is special because he's a sane everyman who knows darn well
that eight Russians off a stranded boat asking for help better come armed. He has to threaten people
but it's obvious every step of the way that he's doing it completely out of fearful necessity. Arkin's
improvisatory ability to play verbal games with his 'Russian' comedy impersonation goes
way beyond Bill Dana's thin Jose Jimenez, and Peter Sellers' inconsistent (and demeaning) French and
Indian stereotypes. Hailed as a possible new Alec Guinness, Arkin went on to be used mostly in
whimsical ethnic roles, never establishing a star persona of his own.
Here, he's great fun to watch, whether reacting with sullen frustration to bad news, or excitedly
coaching his (not too clownish) gang to to say, "Emergency Emergency. Everyone to get from street."
Screenwriter William Rose's credentials were rock solid, what with having his name on the classic
The Ladykillers. He also wrote It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and either learned the
lessons of that film or did better when not under the yoke of producer/director Stanley Kramer. For
a man who made a comedy during the Civil Rights movement that had a black man pop his
eyes and crash his Oakie truck with the flabbergasted retort, "We never shoulda left Mississippi!",
Kramer got a lot of credit for liberal wisdom.
Russians doesn't have Mad's hit-and-miss wildness, but it has consistent characters
we like, and pays off with a simple but poignant point.
Rose and Jewison play fast and slippery with the sentimentalism at the end, using an irrelevant
sidestep into Saving An Endangered Child, as an easy-out from a particularly impossible plot trap.
Russians and Yankees are muzzle-to-muzzle in a nervy standoff, and it looks as if the movie has
painted itself into an tough corner. Having the enemies suddenly unite
together in a common cause works because it's what we didn't know we wanted to see - a moment of
hostility suddenly transformed into the best of all possible pacifist worlds. Cornball, yes,
but it's Billy Wilder's 'situation hopeless - but not serious', and brings some hopeful thrills into
what could have been a limp noodle of an ending. A narrative trick that rarely works, can sometimes
be made to shine.
Norman Jewison's direction is assured, even if many of the ensemble scenes now seem a bit drawn out
or overplayed. Johnny Mandel's score combines riffs that sound a lot like they should be in
The Great Escape, with alternating Russian/Yankee Doodle motifs too nicely modulated to become
obnoxious. In the cast are many interesting actors, including an unbilled pre- Bonnie & Clyde
Michael J. Pollard, and Phillip Coolidge from The Tingler. One of Arkin's shore party is played by
the notorious & ill-fated Milos Milos, of
Incubus. Tessie O'Shea is cute
as the telephone operator, but the wonderful-uh Doro Merande steals-uh the show-uh, as a woman who
gets gagged and hung up on a coatrack. 3
MGM's DVD of The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming is a handsome 16:9 transfer that
is almost without blemish - almost. In the very first scene, Savant saw what look like superimposed
stars blinking in the night sky over the heads of Theodore Bikel and Alan Arkin, and thought, 'Well,
it wasn't done first in Jaws after all." It turns out that the 'stars' are about a dozen little white
dots clustered in the top center of the frame, an optical flaw that runs through the entire picture (!).
While not all that distracting, they do call attention to themselves and are pretty weird. In
our digital world, you'd think that such a regular flaw might be easy to erase with some clever
Chief among the extras is a docu centered around a thorough interview with director Jewison, who
gives the show some needed context for 2002 viewers. His comments on how the movie was received
in Moscow are interesting, along with the news that the U.S. government kept him (a Canadian) from
entering the States for quite a while after this. Land of the Free, folks.
For the trailer, Alan Arkin and Carl Reiner do a classy standup comedy riff, in which straight man
Reiner interviews Arkin's hilarious Rozanov character. For the record, Arkin says that 23,000
Americans visited Russia in 1964, when almost no Russians visited America.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming rates:
Supplements: Docu, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 14, 2002
1. Reiner's vacation house and garage setup, with a submarine
parked off shore, were lifted intact for 1941. Both movies stage somewhat similar scenes
with people hiding in the garages! A nostalgic desire to return to a crazy
WW2 world of propaganda and panic, 1941 was a good simple script by Robert Zemeckis and Bob
Gale that ran away with itself. In all the up-sizing, expanded subplots and multiplied explosions,
its modest satire was lost entirely; with the panicked citizenry of Los Angeles bearing no relation
to human beings, let alone the soldiers, zoot-suiters and Dagwood Bumstead-like citizens of the
original. If Russians had been released a year later, with 500,000 American boys in Vietnam,
the public reception might have been much different. 1941 thought of itself as Animal
House with explosions; it premiered in 1979 not a month after the American Embassy was seized in Teheran.
In addition to dunning the movie for not being funny, many reviews lambasted Spielberg for having
the gall to make light of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Making
movies on topical subjects is a risky business.
2. Sheldon Golomb (Collins) played the same rotten kid character as a
waspish little Judas in The President's Analyst a couple of years later. Politically,
Theodore J. Flicker's flip spy satire now seems as prophetic as Network.
3. Doro Merande's vocal comedy style-um has to be heard to be
believed. She plays a great nudism-loving health food restaurant waitress in The Seven Year
Itch, and has a terrific, hilarious scene almost all to
herself in Kiss Me, Stupid. There she sits on her porch swing, a sour harridan
(called Godzilla by her husband) haranguing poor
daughter Felica Farr.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson