The Russians are Coming the Russians are Coming (1966)

When I was raving about Alan Arkin’s bloodcurdling performance as a ruthless killer in Wait Until Dark, memsaab—classic Bollywood aficionado, the inspiration for this blog, and font of knowledge of all things cinema—recommended this film as another Arkin showcase. And, my goodness, what a film. What a fabulously rollicking, hilarious, heart-warming film. I can’t believe I’ve spent so many years on this planet unaware of The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming.

This film’s such a delight, I’m not going to spoil the fun by giving out the details of the story like I usually do. Suffice to say that it’s set in the US of the 60’s, in a tiny fictional island town called Gloucester off the coast of Massachusetts. One dark night, a Soviet submarine runs aground near Gloucester, and a team of Russian soldiers, led by Lt. Rozanov (Alan Arkin) comes ashore. They try to be unobtrusive as they go about trying to lay their hands on a motorboat that they can use to dislodge their submarine.

…but they haven’t reckoned with the residents of Gloucester. From the very first family they meet—New York writer Walt Whittaker (Carl Reiner), who’s staying here while working on his manuscript, with his wife Elspeth (Eva Marie Saint) and two children:

—to the local postmistress, Muriel Everett (Doro Merande), whom Rozanov & Co. are forced to gag and truss up while they steal her ramshackle car and use it to get to the wharf so they can ‘borrow’ a motorboat—

Everybody’s suspicious of the Russians.

Naturally, of course. This is the heart of the Cold War. All of America knows the Russians are out to get us. And in a small town like Gloucester, the suspicion that these black-clad strangers, of whom only two speak stilted and badly accented English, are Russian (though they initially try to pass themselves off as Norwegians) becomes big news very rapidly. In a matter of minutes, everybody across town knows that the Russians aren’t just coming, they’ve come.

The results of that big news are very varied. There are those who panic and want to leave town. There are those who’re ready to call the President and let him know that the invasion has begun. There are those—and there’s a very substantial number of these guys—who decide they can fight as well as the next guy. Led by the crusty and fanatical old war veteran Fendall Hawkins (Paul Ford), most of the men of Gloucester—able-bodied and not so able-bodied—arm themselves with old swords, peashooters, pitchforks, and other unorthodox weaponry, and set off to fight the Russians.

And there are, thank heavens, saner people like the police chief Link Mattocks, (Brian Keith) who has the sense to realise that you don’t invade a country eight men at a time. Not like this.

What I simply adore about this film is the way it weaves a madcap story from a very remote possibility. Russians arriving by accident in the US, and wanting nothing more than to get out? A small American town getting ready to become heroic? That premise itself offers plenty of scope for humorous situations, and The Russians are Coming the Russians are Coming goes the whole hog. There is a bit of slapstick, what with the terribly wonky English spoken by Alan Arkin and John Phillip Law, as the only two Russians who speak English. There are scenes that are funny because… well, here’s an example: Walt Whittaker looks ludicrous on a lady’s bicycle, but has to borrow the babysitter Alison’s (Andrea Dromm) cycle in order to get to town to warn the other residents…

And Muriel and her friend, bouncing about on a motorbike and carrier (Muriel’s handwritten ‘Alert‘ sign flaps across the friend’s face, temporarily blinding her), look hilarious:

But there are also scenes that are funny because they’re so deliciously scripted. There’s one, for instance, where Rozanov decides to ‘borrow’ Whittaker’s car so that the Russians can drive down to the dock and filch a motorboat. The Whittakers are sitting huddled on the sofa. Rozanov asks for the car keys, and Elspeth says they’re in her bag. Rozanov tells his young colleague, Alexei Kolchin (John Phillip Law) to take out the keys from Elspeth’s bag.

Kolchin tries. He searches through the bag, pulling out one thing after another, until he’s perspiring and close to panic and still completely unsuccessful. Rozanov watches with ill-concealed impatience, and finally pulls the bag out of Kolchin’s hands. One tiny thing you ask these boys to do—! Everybody watches, wide-eyed and silent, as Rozanov too fishes about in vain. Finally, Rozanov gives up and hands the bag to Elspeth.
Hmm. Yes, I know a lot of women with bags like that. Me, too.

And there are the little details. A series of frames, for example, of the team of Russians stealthily making its way through the outskirts of Gloucester, moving from one sheltering bulk—tree, hayrick, barn—to another. For a few moments, as they move, the sound of a choir singing in a church can be heard: singing, ironically enough, Onward Christian soldiers. So deliciously tongue-in-cheek, considering these guys are Communists. It’s rendered even more fun by the fact that two of the Russians have a brief argument between themselves on whether that’s Handel or Tchaikovsky.

There is the drunk who, sent off to alert some townspeople living at the far end of the town, has his attention diverted when he decides he’d get there faster if he went on horseback… only the horse won’t co-operate.

There is, finally, the very human warmth of it all. There is the fact that the Russians are human, after all; and so, eventually, are the people of Gloucester. Human enough to realise that this is not an invasion, but simply an accident. Human enough to realise that to everybody home is dear, and to go back home can be a much more important goal than to invade another country.

Human enough to fall in love.

Human enough (or is that gentleman enough?) to apologise for having to tie up a lady.

Human enough to —but that would be giving away the end. Let me just say that this is a warm, wonderful, very funny film that deserved to win every one of the four Academy Awards it was nominated for. Do not miss it.

What I liked about this film:

See above. Everything! Oh, and the acting. Everybody’s superb, but Alan Arkin especially so. He won a BAFTA award for this role.

What I didn’t like:

Nothing that I couldn’t list without being unbearably nitpicking.

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26 thoughts on “The Russians are Coming the Russians are Coming (1966)

  1. I cracked my sides watching this one, when I saw it again a few years back. I do remember seeing this as child, must have been late 60’s/early seventies; and remember scenes from back then.
    A recent Hindi Movie “Little Zizou” pays homage to this one with Naseer’s son Imaad mumbling the classic line “Emergency, Everyone to Get From Street”

    • I’ve heard of Little Zizou (though I haven’t seen it yet). Had no idea it used the “Emergency, everyone to get from street” line! That is reason enough for me to try and get hold of the film!

      The Russians are Coming the Russians are Coming should be put on a ‘cinematic therapy’ list. It is so good. :-)

    • The problem, Sharmi, is that even with 48 hours in a day, people like you and I will still find that too short to fit in all the films we have piled up. I have 3 DVDs sitting on my desk right now: Albela, Ratan and Chawa Pawa and countless more on my bedside table, not to mention some of those ones I’ve bookmarked on youtube, waiting to be seen!

  2. This is one of my favorite films, so glad you liked it too. BTW, Gloucester is not fictional, nor is it an island—it is a fishing town on the coast north of Boston (an hour from me). And it’s very true to the spirit of the people of Gloucester to this day :) (when you come to visit me, I will take you up there)…

    So many comic details, such a wonderful sarcastic commentary on the cold war. We are all essentially the same, it says–we love, we fear, we are brave…I love this movie. Now I need to just buy the dvd :D

    • My bad – I didn’t realise Gloucester was not fictional, but in the film at least it’s referred to as an island. Rozanov is openly derisive when Whittaker tells him they don’t have any boats – “no boats on an island?!” – until Whittaker clarifies that he meant no docks except at the dock, 5 miles away.

      I loved every bit of this film. Very sarcastic, but also very lovable. I also adore that bit about the ‘Russians have taken over the airport!’ and then the mad scramble for the airport… and the airport itself. Thank you for telling me about this one, Greta. I am eternally grateful! :-)

      • An amalgamation of fact and fiction :) I saw this long ago, before I lived in New England—I have just ordered a copy for myself to watch it again, now that I’ve been a New Englander for 26 years! Will be fun to see it again. It’s one of those films where so many lines of dialogue just stuck in my head to be dragged out whenever I needed a laugh.

        Carl Reiner was a genius :) (Alan too of course)…

  3. Little Zizou was originally called The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Comng! in it’s first few script avatars but then changed it because a. the movie already existed & b. nobody knew what the hell it was about.
    But it was my way of paying homage to a film I have loved & that has stayed with me all these years. Happy to see it being redsicovered by “youngsters” :)
    btw the line in the film that imaad says is ” the russians are coming the russians are coming everybody from street”
    and his little brother zizou’s bewildered response is “what??”
    do see it if you can.
    btw the russians really are coming…you do know that?
    Sooni Taraporevala
    Writer/Director Little Zizou

    • Thank you for stopping by at my blog and commenting, Sooni! I have heard a lot of good things about your film, and those insights into it from you and Samir have convinced me that I need to go find it. Soon.

      “btw the russians really are coming…you do know that?”

      Okay, now I’m dying of curiosity: what do you mean by that?!

    • Sooni—I have yet to see Little Zizou (although I have a copy of it)…I met Boman Irani soon after he finished shooting for your film and he told me then that it was a film he was really proud of :)

  4. i’ll look out for this, your blog is making me dip my toes little by little into old Hollywood lately. I watched Casablanca the other day and i quite liked it, next on my list is the barefoot contessa, have you seen that

  5. You have written that you cannot believe you spent so many years unaware of this film. Well, well, I consider myself lucky to be born before you for I had the opportunity of seeing it when it was released here in Mumbai (Bombay). I remember I was a kid rolling with laughter. When I saw it again as a grownup I marveled at Alan Arkin’s range as an actor — by then I had already seen Wait Until Dark. The scene which I will never forgot is the scene towards the end of the film where the man (I do not remember the actor’s name or the character he portrayed) comes riding on a horse and says ‘Russians are coming’ –absolutely hilarious. Seeing a film with dad helped us appreciate it better for he pointed out all the finer points it was like attending a film appreciation class.

    • I am so envious of you, Shilpi! It would be so wonderful to have someone like your father sitting by and pointing out the nuances of a film from a film expert’s point of view – it would make a lot of difference to one’s understanding of the film. Of course, The Russians are Coming the Russians are Coming is laugh-out-loud funny in any case, but the subtleties of it may sometimes pass one by if not pointed out.

  6. Oh, I haven’t seen this film. It sounds wonderful, must get, must get. Haven’t seen ‘Little Zizou’ either. Now I’m really curious.

  7. I can’t believe I’ve spent so many years on this planet unaware of The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming.” Me neither! Thankfully, my library has it, so I WILL see it soon. :)

    Your review reminds me of a Russian film – Peculiarities of the National Fishing (1998) – with somewhat similar overtones on international relations, and a similar take on Russians.

    • I’m glad your library has The Russians are Coming the Russians are Coming! This film’s so good, I’d want everyone to watch it! :-)
      I read the wikipedia page on Peculiarities of the National Fishing; it sounds like something I should be looking out for, too! And the other two films of the series.

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