ithout hostile intent, a Soviet sub runs aground off New England. Men are sent for a boat, but many villagers go into a tizzy, risking bloodshed.
REVIEW:The surest sign that a film has captured the cultural mood is a comedy being nominated for Best Picture. Although The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming lost to the more Academy-friendly A Man For All Seasons, Norman Jewison’s film was the perfect vehicle for representing America’s (and more certainly Hollywood’s) growing ambivalence over the Cold War. The movie artfully uses humor to show a country beginning to question the paranoia and fear that had dominated the culture since the end of World War II.
Based on Nathaniel Benchley’s novel The Off-Islanders, The Russians Are Coming … depicts the attempt of a Soviet submarine officer, Lt. Rozanov (Alan Arkin) to secure a boat to unmoor a submarine that has accidentally run aground off the coast of a New England island town. From his first confrontation with a vacationing New York playwright’s family, Rozanov quickly realizes that his main obstacle in his covert operation will not be the U.S. government but rather the town’s eccentric citizenry.
The film has an unusual start to an American comedy - the Soviet submariners speaking in Russian without subtitles before the submarine runs aground. The audience must rely on the body language and inflections of the actors to understand what is going on. Jewison’s faith that the audience will be able to do this sets up what will be a recurring theme of the film: our similarities as humans ultimately outweigh our differences.
Once Rozanov starts his mission Jewison provides picturesque views of the fictional Gloucester Island (parts of the film were shot on Nantucket) but these scenes are not merely for aesthetic purposes. (If some observers note a similarity to the seaside town terrorized by Jaws, Benchley’s son, Peter, wrote the novel on which that film was based.) The town becomes a vital character itself in two respects. First, as an off-season vacation island, the town is cut off from mainland America, which benefits the plot and provides a shorthand for explaining the quirks of the locals. More importantly, the obvious New England location provides a connection to revolutionary America. In fact, when the local “militia” prepares for battle, there is a comical echo of the colonial belligerents at Lexington Green. The music underscores this idea by playing variations of Yankee Doodle Dandy when the townsmen are on the march (and as a counterpoint, traditional Russian music is played when the Soviets are on screen).
All of this would be ineffective, though, if the movie were not funny. Luckily, the film is blessed with top notch comedic talent. Carl Reiner plays Walt Whittaker, who is Roznov’s first contact on the island. Reiner is excellent as a father trying to keeping his family safe while dealing with both the Soviets and crazed locals. Jonathan Winters provides his own comedic genius as an incompetent deputy, and Paul Ford is the comedic heavy as the blowhard leader of the militia.
Two performances, though, stand out beyond mere comedic talent – Brian Keith as the police chief and Arkin’s Lt. Rozanov. Keith’s police chief appears to be the only sane individual on Gloucester Island and our sympathy with his character provides the needed heft when the film takes a dramatic turn, it’s his character that shows true courage. Arkin was nominated for Best Actor for his depiction of an officer desperately attempting to avoid an international incident and yet constantly being hampered by the lunacy that surrounds him.
The film is not without its flaws, particularly the naiveté of some of its themes. Are we really meant to believe that all that stood between the United States and the Soviet Union was a failure of understanding? (The impossibility of an equivalent film being released in the Soviet Union should be a sufficient answer). However, much of the humor that is still resilient today shows the incongruity between how people believe they should behave in certain roles - father, citizen, authority figure, soldier, patriot – and their true emotions. The film does not suggest that these roles are insincere or unimportant. Quite the contrary, the only two competent individuals on the island, Rozanov and the police chief, see themselves as doing their duty. The lasting humor comes from the film’s pointed observation that no matter what mask we put on our true character will be exposed. As the ancient Greeks knew well, the mask of comedy reveals more than it hides.