The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966)
Written by William Rose
Directed by Norman Jewison
In the 1960s, the Cold War was at a wild peak. Just three years before this film, the United States & Cuba went through a terrifying week of possible nuclear war. In the 1940s & 50s, dozens of Hollywood screenwriters, actors, and other people in the industry were labeled as communists or sympathizers to the Soviet Union. Jewison never really hid his left-leaning political views but knew to reveal them slowly as he became a more prominent director in Hollywood. For The Cincinnati Kid, he worked with blacklist screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. on the script. Going even further was this film, a comedy that reveals Americans’ twisted ideology during this manic period. Jewison still finds empathy for these people and seeks to find a place of mutual understanding.
A Soviet navy submarine gets too close to the Massachusetts island of Gloucester, and it gets stuck on a sandbar. A group of about nine sailors goes ashore to find a boat to help tow them to freedom, led by Yuri (Alan Arkin). They end up taking hostages in the vacation home of Walt Whitaker (Carl Reiner) and his wife Elspeth (Eva St. Marie). Yuri leaves Alexei (John Phillip Law) to keep the family in place, so they don’t notify the authorities about the Russians’ presence. It becomes clear the Soviets are terrified of what will be done to them and behave in a way that shows their fear. Of course, they get spotted, and word begins to spread around the island, leading Sheriff Mattocks (Brian Keith) and his deputy Norman (Jonathan Winters) to keep the townsfolk from becoming thoroughly carried away like an angry mob.
This is not the best comedy I have ever seen, and it is certainly way too long, clocking in at over two hours. There are many characters and several subplots, but so many of them could easily be cut out. It’s also not that funny; the comedy is pretty broad for the most part. The best scenes come from Carl Reiner, especially one sequence where he’s been bound and gagged with the island’s telephone operator, and they attempt to escape. What surprised me most about the picture was how it got dire in certain moments. Jewison clearly doesn’t see the Soviet Union’s people as North America’s enemies and makes sure they are fully developed characters and not caricatures.
This theme is what makes The Russians Are Coming feeling relevant even today. The islanders are absolutely apoplectic over the possible presence of Russians. The majority of the characters don’t even see them until the end of the second act. This parallels the continued xenophobia Americans express for every other from another culture. Right now, there’s a big stink being made over a manufactured crisis at the southern border of the United States. Any analysis of the statistics shows this is regular seasonal migration plus more from those who hesitated to cross last year when the pandemic began. The real crisis at the heart of this situation is not that people are entering the country but how our government is treating them. They are seen as suspect for having done nothing other than seeking out better economic opportunities for themselves and their families. And of course, there is zero national discourse on how American military and economic actions often destabilize many of these people’s home countries and lead to them having to seek refugee status here.
Jewison’s overarching theme through this picture is about seeing the humanity in strangers, pushing aside our fears to engage with those who are unlike us as fellow inhabitants of Earth. It’s no surprise for me to learn that the U.S. Navy refused to loan a real submarine to the production, and so they had to build a facsimile. This movie wasn’t going to further the Red Scare propaganda of the time, so it would not be assisted. How things have changed with the ever-present threat of brown-skinned terrorists in American cinema and the military-industrial complex’s glorification in every popular I.P. from Transformers to Marvel.
The Russians Are Coming does an excellent job of presenting and mocking the casual fascism of the United States. There aren’t leather uniformed goosestepping Nazis in your neighborhood but people engaging in quiet agreement about the undesirables from other nations, seeing their fellow workers as their adversary rather than the people at the top who keep them broken & needy. When I reflect on my life, I was never wronged by a single Russian, Chinese, or Mexican person. Every time I’ve been harmed in my life is was by a fellow white American. Jewison asks us to learn a person’s character before deciding if they are our enemy or not.