Classic Film Review: A Cold War Comedy for the Ages — “The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!” (1966)

Anyone who grew up during the first Cold War remembers “Duck and Cover” drills, the “Domino Theory,” the proven-accurate warnings of communist enslavement and the Red Baiting by a political party that would later come to embrace minoritarian rule and Russian strongarm fascism as its creed.

The stress of living in the shadow of that produced some of the most enduring cinema of that age — the Bond films and all manner of more serious espionage thrillers, the grim warnings of “Failsafe” and its satiric flipside, “Doctor Strangelove, of How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

And there were classic comedies that came out of the Cold War as well. Billy Wilder’s Coca-Cola Cold War lampoon “One, Two Three” (1961) might be the greatest, for my money one of the funniest films ever made. And Norman Jewison’s “The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!” gives it a run for its money.

A fish-out-of-water farce about a Russian sub that runs aground Down East, just off a fictional Massachusetts island, it is cultures clashing at their most comical and a grand Make Work Project for every character actor in Hollywood in the style of that “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World” era.

A jaunty Russo-American score by Johnny Mandel, elbow-jabbing cameos left and right, grand slapstick spinning around Carl Reiner, in his finest Everyman big screen performance, with an antic turn by legendary comic Jonathan Winters and seething slow-burn by Brian Keith, it was the also the big screen debut of one the greatest character actors of our age — Alan Arkin.

This trailer from the time sold it, then and now, and lets Reiner trot out his “roving TV reporter” shtick from the early TV and “The 2,000 Year Old Man” routines with Mel Brooks. Did Reiner write it? It sure plays like that.

This movie was a beloved piece of my childhood (I only ever saw it on TV). And when I grew into my big boy pants and could start collecting movie posters, it was the first I bought, a “Mad Magazine” style illustration by the great cartoonist Jack Davis.

When the Florida Film Festival lined up the Oscar-winning Arkin for “An Evening With” tribute some years back, this was the movie Arkin chose to show and talk about afterwards. He ended up calling in sick for that appearance, but not before I got him on the phone to talk about it, a thrill-of-a-lifetime interview with one of my heroes.

Watching “Russians” last night what hit me the hardest was how brilliantly-acted the thing is, top to bottom.

The most hilarious scenes are the Keystone Comrades ones among the Russian crew. Jewison, a seven-time Oscar nominee who went on to make “Moonstruck” and “The Thomas Crown Affair,” was best known for his socially relevant dramas — “In the Heat of the Night,” “The Hurricane,” “A Soldier’s Story.” He instantly creates friction, paranoia and disconnection in scenes that on some prints of the film have no translated subtitles, which heightens their alienation.

We get comical, irritable shouting matches in Russian between Arkin, who grew up speaking Russian thanks to his immigrant parents, and the great multi-lingual character player Theodore Bikel, who plays the reckless “just wanted to see America” (through the periscope) captain to Arkin’s sub “political officer,” the only English speaker in the crew.

Bikel makes the captain’s CYA lashing-out panic palpable, and Arkin launches his screen acting career with the forced-patience of seething, exasperated dismay at idiots-all-around-me that became something of a trademark. He was still trotting it out as the Old Man of Hollywood in his Oscar-nominated turn in “Argo.”

And establishing the cast’s Russian language bonafides (a Russian speaker supporting player also served as dialect coach) makes the Russian-accented fractured English trotted out by Arkin and his comrades that much more authentic, and hilarious, when they must interact with the Gloucester Island Yankees.

“Plizz to remain absolutely good behaved so zat zis man, marksman of prize-winning caliber, will not have the necessity of shutting you to small pisses!”

Emehrgancy! Everybody to get from STRIT!”

There are nuances to Keith’s performance as the increasingly frustrated “let’s everybody calm down” police chief. The part, as written (by “Ladykillers” screenwriter William Rose, adapting the Nathaniel Benchley novel) and played by Keith, begins as sleepy and indulgent, a character who makes the journey to exasperated and furious thanks to the rising level of chaos around him, the literal sabre rattling by the foolish old vet who appoints himself “leader” (Paul Ford, more hilarious than usual) and the shenanigans of Russian sub crewmen, sneaking about town, wrecking the phone system, taking locals hostage and trying to “borrow” a motorboat to pull their (replica) sub off the sandbar that Kapitan Klumsikov has run them onto.

The young Russian sailor (John Phillip Law of “Barbarella”) who holds the playwright (Reiner) and his family (Eva Marie Saint is criminally under-used as the put-upon wife) hostage, and falls for the blonde American babysitter (Andrea Dromm) is a pleasant-enough distraction from the island-wide panic and convoys of locals either fleeing or hunting for Russians.

Winters is in fine form as the dizzy top cop under the chief. Veteran players Dora Murunde, Tessie O’Shea and Parker Fennelly make cute/crank impressions as dotty locals. Everywhere you look on this coastal California shoot, there are funny and familiar faces from the films and TV of the era.

And Keith’s future “Family Affair” TV co-star Johnny Whitaker plays the child who is the focus of the film’s still-touching climax.

Jewison uses crane shots to capture the growing chaos of a village of delusional descendants of “Minutemen” swarming hither and yon, often running past or over Reiner’s Walt Whitaker, the “reasonable” man of the city who knows what this is all about and how to couch it in the least harmful terms, if only he can get the rubes to listen to him.

The title and the whole Paul Revere angle to it gives the film one hilarious recurring gag, the tipsy yokel (silent cinema vet Ben Blue) chasing his recalcitrant horse all over the island so that he can mount it to cry out the alarm. The horse’s teasing, just-beyond-my-owner’s-reach game is maybe the subtlest pratfall in the film.

The whole West Coast subbing for the East coast thing, and the choice of film stock, gives “Russians” the look of a film whose every exterior looks as if it was shot at about 7 am. Given its real-time/reel-time, that isn’t out of order. The idea is that all of this happens before everybody is wholly awake, although of course the bar can open early, “CASH only,” for Winters’ cop to preach “We’ve got to get ORGANIZED” in.

Perhaps Saint wouldn’t have been up to anything more comic in her high-billed/little-used supporting role. She’s not remembered for her comic chops. The only genuine time-wasting bit is stopping to give then-unknown character player Michael J. Pollard close-ups for his mannered, fussy bit role as mechanic who runs the airport.

But this picture still plays, amusingly anchored by Reiner, playing the fish MOST out of water, exasperated at every turn at his family, his TV-violence-addicted son (Sheldon Collins, gloriously obnoxious), the menacing Russians and almost-as-menacing locals.

I don’t know what the film has to say to people today (the Canadian Jewison could certainly have made that case), with the country at its most divided and a full third of it admiring Russia, Russian influence-money and envying its single-party rule. Maybe it’s the escape to a simpler time, when we all had a notion of who we were and where the real threat lay, that has value in this 56 year-old classic.

What matters is it is aging beautifully, that Arkin may have won his Oscar decades later, but he was never better than in this epic comedy, slow-burning in Russian and English with the funniest people in Hollywood surrounding him.

Wish I hadn’t lost the poster.

Rating: unrated, some violence, lots of threats

Cast: Carl Reiner, Alan Arkin, Eva Marie Saint, Brian Keith, Jonathan Winters, John Phillip Law, Andrea Dromm, Paul Ford and Theodore Bikel — with Ben Blue, Dora Murande, Parker Fennelly, Guy Raymond, Cliff Norton, Tessie O’Shea, Richard Schaal, Oscar Maxwell and little Johnny Whitaker

Credits: Directed by Norman Jewison, scripted by William Rose, based on the novel by Nathaniel Benchley. A United Artists release on Tubi, Roku, Amazon and elsewhere.

Running time: 2:06

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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