Continuing their Cold War series, World Cinema offers up Norman Jewison’s The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966), a film a great many people seem to have fond memories of. Frankly, its warm reception baffled me when I was a kid and continues to baffle me now. It’s not that this yarn about a Russian submarine running aground off a New England island is bad, it’s that it feels forced. It also seems to be unable to make up its mind just how much of a political statement it really wants to be and how much of a wacky comedy. The upshot is that the serious side feels simplistic (we’re all just humans) and the comedy feels overstated. And at 126 minutes, the movie is too long for its own good. Still, this doesn’t keep the film from being a well-intentioned, interesting, even fascinating artifact of the era.
The film is not only an artifact of the Cold War era, but of that particular time in filmmaking, being one of the last gasps of the over-produced, over-frenzied and over-long film comedies. Like nearly all the big-ticket comedies of the time, it manages to cram a lot of talented folks into its confines and then squeeze the life out of them or thrust them into badly executed broad—very broad—slapstick that doesn’t know when to quit. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the case here. The movie largely wastes Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint and—like all movies that aren’t The Loved One (1965)—Jonathan Winters. The only person who really comes out of this unscathed is Alan Arkin, whose performance makes it all worth watching. But bear in mind, there are those who are in tune with this kind of movie comedy.
It’s definitely notable for attempting to humanize rather the demonize the Russians—and for making American paranoia look foolish. That’s a pretty laudable attempt, but it’s also incredibly simplistic—as broad in its own way as the film’s comedy. It offers little in the way of nuance, but given the fears of the age, the humanization of the enemy was refreshing in its own right.