The Oscar-nominated Cold War comedy, The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!, is now available on Blu-ray. Unfortunately, the film’s slipcase lists it as receiving an Best Director nomination but this is an error.
Filmmaker Norman Jewison was wise to think that Nathaniel Benchley’s 1961 novel, The Off-Islanders, would make for a great comedy. It was the height of the Cold War and Dr. Strangelove had yet to come into existence and the Cuban Missile Crisis had yet to happen. The idea of a Russian submarine running aground along the US coastline is a situation that can go in any direction. Interestingly, Benchley’s son, Peter, opted for thrills along the Long Island coast with his 1974 novel, Jaws. But what’s even better is that William Rose wrote the WGA-winning screenplay screenplay. It took some time for the script to get to a place where Jewison liked it. Let’s just say it was worth it because the film picked up four nominations at the Oscars including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.
It is hard to imagine a film like this picking up a Best Picture nomination today. And yet, this is exactly what happened back in 1967. Unfortunately, it didn’t win a single award at the Oscars. But still, a Cold War comedy picking up a Best Picture nomination really speaks to the Academy interests prior to New Hollywood beginning to take over a few years later. It’s a strong satire and certainly has something to say in its approach. Can enemies find a way to get along? I’m not so sure that one can make this film today especially with world events being what they are. Regardless, there is always the potential for humor, farce, or satire in every situation and the film ends much differently than the other Cold War comedy as the ending here is not bleak but optimistic.
Russian Lt. Yuri Rozanov (Alan Arkin) and company do not realize the chain of events being set off when their Soviet Navy submarine, Sprut, runs aground in New England. The captain (Theodore Bikel) would prefer to avoid an international incident, quietly sending a small crew ashore. All they want to do is free themselves from the sandbar. But because it is the Cold War, the town is going to lose its mind and think that the Soviets are invading America. Wouldn’t you?!? It certainly does not help that the police chief, Link Mattocks (Brian Keith), has an assistant, Norman Jonas (Jonathan Winters), running the shop. It is only a recipe for disaster especially with playwright Walt Whittaker (Carl Reiner) knowing way more than they do.
Walt, his wife, Elspeth (Eva Marie Saint), and their children, Pete and Annie, are planning to return to New York. With summer over, there’s no need to stay on the island. Before they know it, they’ve handed over their station wagon to Rozanov. Despite saying they won’t harm them, they still pull their guns on them and then have Alexei Kolchin (John Philip Law) stay behind to prevent them from leaving. Things get even worse when the station wagon runs out of gas, forcing the Russians to steal a sedan from perhaps the one woman that would cause them more trouble. It’s that one single incident that further propels the town into chaos, thinking that the Soviets are invading.
Perhaps the most surprising part of the film’s storyline is an American teenager, Alison Palmer (Andrea Dromm), becoming interested in Alexei. Alison is a babysitter for the Whittaker children but she and the Russian somehow see something in one another, showing that two people can have common interests even when their country leadership might be seconds away from pushing the button so to speak. While they’re falling in love, other chaos is happening around the island. Rozanov later captures Walt, who manages to free himself. The Whittakers, Rozanov, and Alexei have no choice but to clear things up with the townspeople. Unfortunately for them, there is now a civilian militia. But right when it is about to get explosive, a boy falls from the steeple tower, only to get caught by the gutter. Both Americans and Russians work to free him and the film later ends with hope.
This film features a strong cast especially with performers that are very talented with comedy, especially improv. When you have performers like Carl Reiner and Alan Arkin in leading roles, the film is sure to be funny. Hell, it made Arkin’s career especially with an Oscar nomination! Arkin definitely puts in the work with studying Russian for the role. Interestingly, it took Eva Marie Saint’s casting to get the studio to be okay with Reiner’s casting. Jewison had also worked with Reiner a number of times during the 1960s.
One of the funniest parts about the film is Ben Blue playing the town drunk, Luther Grilk. This isn’t to say anything insulting about being an alcoholic but Blue had previous been a silent film comedian. Well, a comedian in general. It’s those efforts that strengthen his role in the film, let alone how Jewison is using his comedy talents. The film continually intercuts to Blue riding his horse and shouting, “The Russians are coming!” In this way, he is the Paul Revere of the film. While he serves as the comic relief during an absurdly outrageous situation, it would probably be offensive to do such a thing today as far as making him the town drunk.
Behind the scenes, Jewison teams up with cinematographer Haskell Wexler while working with editor Hal Ashby again. They would reunite on In the Heat of the Night. Ashby and co-editor J. Terry Williams would pick up an Oscar nomination.
In an ideal situation, they would have shot the film in Massachusetts with Cape Cod standing in for the fictional Gloucester Island. Unfortunately, it was too cold. As a result, they turned to the Pacific coast. This also meant having to get tricky with the sunlight. But hey, it’s a great credit that they were able to recreate Cape Cod in Fort Bragg, California. Anyone familiar with the filming location would probably realize that it’s definitely not Massachusetts.
The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! addresses serious themes in a farcical manner and gets a breakout performance from Alan Arkin in the process.
- NEW Audio Commentary by Film Historians Michael Schlesinger and Mark Evanier
- The Russians Are Coming to Hollywood: Featurette with Director/Producer Norman Jewison
- Theatrical Trailer
- Optional English Subtitles
DIRECTOR: Norman Jewison
SCREENWRITER: William Rose
CAST: Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint, Alan Arkin, Brian Keith, Theodore Bikel, Jonathan Winters, Tessie O’Shea, John Philip Law, Ben Blue, Andrea Dromm, and Paul Ford
United Artists released The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! in theaters on May 25, 1966. Grade: 4.5/5
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