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.