When I first looked through the list of Best Picture nominees at the 39th Academy Awards, there was one film that struck me as particularly out of place. Amongst the relentlessly scathing marital drama, the dark and sleazy British comedy, the period war epic and the hefty 16th century morality play, was Norman Jewison’s ludicrous Cold War comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming. Perhaps it’ll follow in the dark, sardonic, satirical footsteps of fellow war comedy Dr. Strangelove? Absolutely not. This film merely brushes by the specter of Dr. Strangelove and the more contemporary drama Bridge of Spies and instead hones in on the Mel Brooks, Caddyshack brand of humour and tone.
Adapting Nathaniel Benchley’s novel The Off-Islanders, Jewison transports us to the beautiful island of Gloucester where frustrated playwright Walt Whittaker (Carl Reiner) is vacationing with his family. The island is so beautiful in fact that the captain of a passing by Russian submarine decides he and his crew have to move in for a closer look at America, only to run themselves aground a sand bar. The Captain, Theodore Bikel, dispatches a team onto the island headed by Yuri Rozonov (Alan Arkin in a first major and Oscar nominated role) to find a way to free the sub before their Cold War rival assumes the worst.
Not long after the Russians make their first stop at the Whittaker’s house and leave the family under the completely incompetent watch of comrade Alexei Kolchin (John Phillip Law), word has somehow virally spread throughout the island that a full blown Russian invasion has begun. World War III is on Gloucester’s door step, and the town spirals into a chaotic, fear fuelled frenzy without so much as a sighting of the enemy. Police Force and community alike hijack bars, build a cavalry, devise defense plans, sweat a lot and try to reach the president over a hotline, while the fish-out-of-water Russians, who might as well have crash landed a UFO traveling from another galaxy, bumble their way to an escape plan.
It is in the lunacy of the plot that both the comedy and the film’s optimistic dogma converge. If only somebody had the presence of mind to actually try and talk to the other side like human beings, we could have all saved ourselves a lot of fear and trouble.
Walt soon escapes and makes a break for the town to alert everyone of the Russians, however through more goofball encounters he and Yuri only continue to inconvenience one another. The Russians are so completely without villainy or threat that the interactions of Walt and Yuri feel more fraternal than dangerous. They’re a nuisance to one another, but there isn’t any malice behind it, and Alan Arkin’s hilarious broken-Englished, headless chicken routine is irrepressibly charming as he plays off Carl Reiner’s acute comedic physicality. The sibling-like rivalry of Reiner and Arkin encapsulates the greatest strength of Jewison and screen writer William Rose, a deep down sensitivity and humanism which perfectly complements the hopeful ideology underpinning all the chaos. But I don’t want to harp too much on the ideas of this film. This is first and foremost a goofball comedy, and at a distant second a moral lesson. There mightn’t be any great staying power behind The Russians Are Coming, it is after all a simplistic dime a dozen comedy, but the physical humour works and there is that little extra something there to give it purpose.
It mightn’t be notably subversive, it mightn’t have the blistering cynicism of Dr. Strangelove, or the ethos and visceral character of Bride of Spies, but on the other hand, this picture doesn’t try to be any of these things. What this film is, just like the land ridden Russians and the island locals who populate it, is benign and goofy fun, with a hint of optimistic humanism thrown in for good measure.
I’m surprised that the Academy ran with The Russians Are Coming as a nominee in 1967, but I’m glad they did.