Skip to main content

We are, of course, Norwegians.

The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming

(SPOILERS) Ah, for the heady days of the Cold War. Where, even if you weren’t conscious of the comprehensive Hegelianism at work, it was perfectly acceptable to hold moderate views of East-West relations. Sadly, though, the best thing about The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming is its title.

Pete: Don’t tell them anything! He hasn’t even tortured you yet!

Pauline Kael, perhaps surprisingly, gave the movie the free pass of “warmly rambunctious entertainment”. Alas, this Best Picture Oscar nominee’s less than illustrious forbears are revealed in the choice of screenwriter, who adapted 1961’s The Off-Islanders by Nathaniel Benchley (Jaws writer Peter’s dad). Then Jersey-resident William Rose scripted The Ladykillers – in his considerable favour – but also, more tellingly, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Only a year later, he’d build further facile bridges of common understanding with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? The Russians, are Coming, the Russians are Coming skews much too closely to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’s brand of strained, undisciplined rowdiness for comfort (and also features that movie’s Paul Ford – Colonel Hall in The Phil Silvers Show).

Alexei Kolchin: He want to look at America.
Walt Whittaker: What for?
Alexei Kolchin: He never saw it.

A Russian submarine runs aground on a sandbar off Gloucester Island on the New England coast, and a landing party led by Lieutenant Rozanov (Alan Arkin) is sent to locate a motor boat to free their vessel. The initial detention of musical theatre writer Walt Whittaker (Carl Reiner) and his family fails to deliver the goods, so they venture into town, inevitably leading to word of their titular “invasion” getting out and the natives becoming restless, if not to say trigger happy. There might have been considerable juice for fish-out-of-water and cultural difference comedy here; instead we have to settle for successive bursts of hamstrung hysteria. Such strains can only sustain themselves so far, meaning the material is sorely stretched over a two-hour running time. The result is a little like a benign version of Went the Day Well? or The Eagle Has Landed, but “funny” (“Suppose they start raping?”)

Pete: I bet I’m the only kid in the fourth grade whose father is a famous trader.

Indeed, the entire enterprise is so very, very thin. Reiner is encouraged to work his way through a range of tired sitcom dad schtick; weak as that is, his is the only character you could call fleshed out. Bits work: laboriously riding a bicycle into town like an Americanised Monsieur Hulot; his poisonously pugnacious offspring Pete (Sheldon Collins, also Bing Quantrell in The President’s Analyst) engineers much talk of dad being a traitor and “just like Arnold Benedict” for collaborating with the enemy. Which is amusing, as far as it goes (“If you wanna hit him, it’s alright with me” he tells wife Eva Marie Saint, such is the fate of former – by Hollywood standards – glamorous starlets: reduced to playing Carl Reiner’s wife).

Pete is, essentially, the average islander in miniature. After all, “All they’re trying to do is borrow a motorboat”, yet the entire world’s against the Soviets (one might variously substitute taking out biolabs and elite strongholds; either way, Russia remains the evergreen enemy du jour, always obligingly on hand to fire up international discord, particularly to distract from plandemics going off the boil and global financing up the swannee, in order to pave the way for – again global – digital currency).

Model Andrea Dromm embarks on a romance with John Philip Law’s sensitive submariner. Jonathan Winters has a few choice moments as the police chief’s assistant; the chief is played by Brian Keith, wearily au fait with the islanders’ aptitude for leaping to conclusions. When the sub shows up and there’s a confrontation at the harbour, with Theodore Bikel’s captain presenting an ultimatum, director Norman Jewison briefly shifts into gear and The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming hints at how good it might have been. Arkin suddenly gets to be funny and offhand; elsewhere, he’s allowed very little to work with. But wouldn’t you know it? Once preconceptions and embroidered animosities are put aside – thanks to a distressed child bringing out universal protectiveness that knows no national boundaries – everyone gets along jolly well.

Rozanov: 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!

A certain sensibility is needed to pull off something as knockabout as this. John Landis had it. When you don’t… Well, Spielberg’s 1941 is in the same lineage. Of whom, his recent redundant West Side Story remake repeated the conceit of employing no subtitles for the foreign-language scenes; Alan Arkin and Theodore Bikel are/were fluent Russian speakers (Brian Keith too, although he didn’t need it). Jewison wouldn’t tackle anything so goofy again – the picture’s success gave him the clout to make In the Heat of the Night the way he wanted, and the rest is history – but if his film never takes off quite the way it should, its success in both box office and awards spheres testifies to its zeitgeist quality.

Rozanov: I am wounded in dignity only.

The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming was the sixth biggest movie of 1966 (per Wiki, so pinch of salt required). While all that year’s Best Picture nominees were among the Top 10 hits, the comedy went unrewarded at the Oscars. It received four nominations, the others being Arkin (Best Actor), Screenplay and Editing. A Man for All Seasons won all those bar Editing (which went to Grand Prix). The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming’s lack of profile today says it all. Most know the title, but even an international incident won’t get the unalloyed interested. It’s no Dr. Strangelove when it comes to biting satire.

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

People still talk about Pandapocalypse 2002.

Turning Red (2022) (SPOILERS) Those wags at Pixar, eh? Yes, the most – actually, the only – impressive thing about Turning Red is the four-tiered wordplay of its title. Thirteen-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds herself turning into a large red panda at emotive moments. She is also, simultaneously, riding the crimson wave for the first time. Further, as a teenager, she characteristically suffers from acute embarrassment (mostly due to the actions of her domineering mother Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh). And finally, of course, Turning Red can be seen diligently spreading communist doctrine left, right and centre. To any political sensibility tuning in to Disney+, basically (so ones with either considerable or zero resistance to woke). Take a guess which of these isn’t getting press in reference to the movie? And by a process of elimination is probably what it it’s really about (you know in the same way most Pixars, as far back as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc . can be given an insi

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

We could be mauled to death by an interstellar monster!

Star Trek Beyond (2016) (SPOILERS) The odd/even Star Trek failure/success rule seemed to have been cancelled out with the first reboot movie, and then trodden into ground with Into Darkness (which, yes, I quite enjoyed, for all its scandalous deficiencies). Star Trek Beyond gets us back onto more familiar ground, as it’s very identifiably a “lesser” Trek , irrespective of the big bucks and directorial nous thrown at it. This is a Star Trek movie that can happily stand shoulder to shoulder with The Search for Spock and Insurrection , content in the knowledge they make it look good.

He's not in my pyjamas, is he?

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) (SPOILERS) By rights, Paul Mazursky’s swinging, post-flower-power-gen partner-swap movie ought to have aged terribly. So much of the era’s scene-specific fare has, particularly so when attempting to reflect its reverberations with any degree of serious intent. Perhaps it’s because Mazursky and co-writer Larry Tucker (also of The Monkees , Alex in Wonderland and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! ) maintain a wry distance from their characters’ endeavours, much more on the wavelength of Elliott Gould’s Ted than Robert Culp’s Bob; we know any pretensions towards uninhibited expression can’t end well, but we also know Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice have to learn the hard way.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998) An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar. Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins , and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch , in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whet

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

There is a war raging, and unless you pull your head out of the sand, you and I and about five billion other people are going to go the way of the dinosaur.

The X-Files 5.14: The Red and the Black The most noteworthy aspect of this two parter is that it almost – but not quite – causes me to reassess my previous position that the best arc episodes are those that avoid tackling the greater narrative head-on, attempting to advance the resistant behemoth. It may be less than scintillating as far as concepts go, but the alien resistance plot is set out quite clearly here, as are the responses to it from the main players.