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The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming

Ah, the good old days of the Cold War. Even though the planet's two most powerful adversaries threatened to bring everyone to nuclear annihilation, from our perspective today those sure look like simpler, purer times. At least it's difficult to imagine today's international tensions being lampooned by a dozen familiar character actors in a middlebrow comedy about enemy soldiers accidentally stranded in an apple-pie American town. What saves 1966's The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming from being just a cloying, farcical fossil is a clever screenplay by William Rose (The Ladykillers, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), director Norman Jewison's steady hand on the tiller, and especially Broadway actor Alan Arkin's presence as the hapless Russian lieutenant, the role that made Arkin a movie star.

After a Soviet submarine runs aground near a Norman Rockwell New England coastal village, nine sailors (led by Arkin) venture ashore, posing as Norwegians, to quietly borrow a motor boat for a tug back to sea. Naturally, it isn't long before misunderstandings on both sides escalate the incident, and a "Russian invasion" boils over to potential cataclysm. The running hither-and-thither townspeople include a vacationing New York writer (Carl Reiner in the longest sustained Jimmy Stewart impression on record), his wife Eva Marie Saint, Brian Keith as the straight-faced police chief, Paul Ford (The Music Man) as the saber-rattling VFW hawk, and Jonathan Winters as Jonathan Winters. Think of it as It's a Vlad, Vlad, Vlad, Vlad Worldski. And it wouldn't be Hollywood without a sweet and syrupy romance between the Pretty American Girl (Andrea Dromm) and the Handsome Good-Hearted Russian Lad (John Phillip Law, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, CQ).

The even-handed script parades no simplistic evil empires or Old Glory platitudes. Instead it mines the nervousness and paranoia on both sides, and the climax comes with townsfolk and submariners literally staring down each other's gun barrels — a tidy little metaphor for the Cold War. The crisis' contrived resolution may leave you either wiping a tear or rolling your eyes, with World War III narrowly averted by good ol' hands-across-the-water pluck.

It's easy to see why The Russians Are Coming was welcomed as a warm and affirming counterpoint to its darker cinematic cousins such as Fail-Safe. It skewers hawkish reactionism and mob militancy, and its sympathetic portrayal of the beached Russians — not to mention the panicky buffoonery of the Americans — probably gave the more rabid Commie-haters conniptions. The film was popular in its day and highly praised by contemporary critics, with Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Arkin), Editing (future director Hal Ashby), and Adapted Screenplay. It won the Golden Globes for Best Musical/Comedy and Best Actor (Arkin), with noms for Best Screenplay and Most Promising Newcomer (both Arkin and Law).

Although it's frozen in amber now, it remains an amusing (if dated and overlong) slice of the 1960s. Arkin, spouting authentic Russian learned for the film, is worth the trip all by himself. To Boomers above a certain age it's a fondly remembered piece of fluffy nostalgia. For everyone else it's an entertaining-enough Saturday afternoon time-portal to another epoch. Film-fest this one with Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove for a snapshot of how a previous generation's fears played out in popular culture.

*          *          *

MGM's DVD release delivers a good transfer (2.35:1 anamorphic) from a clean and colorful source-print. The audio is fine, but rather thin, in monaural DD 2.0. Extras are the engagingly oddball original theatrical trailer and a 23-minute interview with Jewison. His memory is faulty on a few details, but it's still a well-crafted piece on the making and reception of the film. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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