THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING was hugely popular back in 1966, the year’s 7th most-seen movie, and the biggest hit of the more than three dozen comedies released. The success with critics is harder to peg, as are three of its four Oscar nominations. Up for Best Picture, Screenplay and Film Editing, it hardly qualified for any of those against the likes of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? or The Sand Pebbles. The Best Actor nom to Alan Arkin did make sense, the 31-year-old newcomer’s first feature performance is a comic gem, easily the best thing in the frantic, fitfully amusing, venerated yet overrated picture. Like the repeat title, the script and direction take okay joke setups and too often pound them numb. One of those movies that was an event at the time; a fresh look reveals it plays better in the memory.
A Soviet sub grounds itself on a sandbar off an island on the New England Coast. ‘Lt. Yuri Rozanov’ (Arkin) leads a small team ashore to try and find a motor launch to free the vessel and avoid an international incident. The desperate but good-natured Russkies don’t bargain on the panicky response of the frightened, heavily armed (natch) locals who respond in true Minute Man fashion.
“E-maer-gency! Everybody to get from street!”
The script by comedy vet William Rose (The Ladykillers, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) was adapted from “The Off-Islanders”, a 1961 novel by Nathaniel Benchley (Robert’s son, Peter’s dad). A cute idea, also basically a “shaggy dog” joke drawn out too far. Director Norman Jewison lets the verbal gags (most are not very good) from the fearful Yankees go flat, requiring most of the actors other than Arkin to rely on amping up the volume to try and energize dull dialogue: the continual shouting wears weary. The sight gags work better.
Arkin’s just great, his timing delicious. Another new face, handsome and genial John Philip Law, 28, is disarming as one of the Russian sailors who sparks with a comely local girl. But as the rattled locals, other cast members struggle. First-billed Carl Reiner is too aggressive here to warm up to, Eva Marie Saint is adrift as his wife, there to play straight-lady and little more. The durable Brian Keith is stuck doing a weaker rehash of his flustered character from The Hallelujah Trail. The much-missed Jonathan Winters is poorly utilized; his best bit involves a quick lecture to his kids, with an affirmative squeak from a baby that gets a chuckle. On top of being too noisy, at 126 minutes, it’s a good half-hour too long.
Still, all looks swell, the $3,900,000 production using spacious seaside locales in Mendocino, California as a handy scenic substitute for the fictitious ‘Gloucester Island’. Johnny Mandel’s score is zesty, especially the title tune, a fun blend of America’s “Yankee Doodle” with Russian anthems “Meadowlands” and “Song Of The Volga Boatmen”, poking gentle fun at the foolishness of Cold War friction between peoples that would get along great if wasn’t for their politicians. The topicality, zaniness and essential heart of the romp and its wistful dollop of hope caught a vibe in the nervous zeitgeist of the time and the larking grossed $24,400,000. You couldn’t make this silly yet hopeful movie now, with the insane ramp up of venom against Russia (and China) rivaling the worst of the 50’s anti-Commie pantloads but with potentially suicidal stakes.
“Remark to this, Whittaker Walt. We must have boat. Even now may be too late. This is your island, I make your responsibility you help us get boat quickly, otherwise there is World War III, and everybody is blaming YOU!”
With Paul Ford (ably doing his pompous blowhard schtick),Theodore Bikel, Tessie O’Shea, Ben Blue, Andrea Dromm, Sheldon Golomb (might as well be ‘Gollum’, he’s that obnoxious, playing Reiner’s militant, pestering son), Michael J. Pollard (pointless, there just to be weird), Cliff Norton, Doro Merande (funny), Cindy Putnam, Guy Raymond, Vaughan Taylor, wee Johnny Whitaker, Peter Brocco.