In the midst of the Cold War, a Hollywood comedy challenged how Americans thought about Russians. There are still lessons to be learned.
Half a century ago, in the midst of the deep, dark pit of the Cold War, a Hollywood comedy premiered that challenged everything Americans were supposed to think about Russians.
Released in mid-1966, “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming” begins with a Soviet submarine running aground off the coast of a Martha’s Vineyard-like island because the curious captain is trying to get a closer look at America.
Alan Arkin received an Academy Award nomination for his first major film role as Lt. Yuri Rozanov, who is sent ashore with a group of sailors to steal a boat so they can free the sub.
New York playwright Carl Reiner and his wife, Eva Marie Saint, are packing up for their end-of-summer trip home when they are interrupted by a knock on the door. The “Norwegians” are revealed to be “Russkies!” by their precocious son, and the sailors’ situation goes from bad to worse as rumors, based on nothing but paranoia and ignorance, grow and spread across the island.
In the midst of the ensuing madcap mania, the post mistress ends up hanging on a wall in her chair, the town drunk chases a wild horse in a field and Reiner escapes down a flight of stairs tied to the telephone operator.
The only rational person is the sheriff, whose efforts to identify a shred of evidence for the sky-full of Russian parachutists on their way is thwarted by Fendel, a World War One veteran who is always fighting the last war. Saber in the air, he has mobilized the community to defend against what he has convinced them is a full-blown sea and air invasion.
“A possible Armageddon is five minutes away.”
Like any good comedy, there is a romantic sub-plot involving two beautiful people, Soviet sailor Alexey Kolchin and American nanny Alison Parker. And like any good comedy-adventure, it features a dramatic conclusion when a small child slips from the church bell tower.
Dangling perilously from the steeple over a crowd, Russians and Americans work together, standing on each other’s shoulders, and save the child. The ensuing, jubilant détente is crushed by news that Fendel has alerted the U.S. Air Force and a possible Armageddon is five minutes away.
To avoid nuclear midnight, the islanders leap to their boats, creating a flotilla that surrounds the Soviet sub and escorts it out of the harbor safely as supersonic F-101 Voodoo jets soar overhead. Credits roll as Rozanov and Reiner salute each other and the submarine disappears under the sea.
I showed the movie to my students at Novosibirsk State University. They got the humor and were amazed at how familiar it all was, how small-town Americans’ characters and behavior are no different from what you find in a Russian village.
In fact, the movie has additional laughs for a Russian audience. Not only did director Norman Jewison make the extraordinary decision to challenge the political powers and make this movie, he ignored the commercial gods of Hollywood, making the American actors who play Russian characters actually speak in Russian.
Except when Rozanov is teaching them English so they can blend in as gangsters.
“There are no drunken Russian men, caviar or bears.”
Born around 1995, one student wrote a review for her final class project that summarized the thoughts of her peers who never lived in the Soviet Union:
“The film is an excellent example of a comedy that plays on the fears and prejudices of Cold War panic, stereotypes about Russians and how policy can make essentially good people enemies. A pleasant surprise is that in the movie there are no drunken Russian men, caviar or bears, the classic Western attributes of Russian identity. Soviet soldiers are portrayed as a bit cartoonish, speaking with strong accents, but they are not enemies. They are shown to be nice, positive people trapped in a difficult situation.
“Even though it is dealing with serious problems, the film is uplifting and you can’t help smiling when you watch it. It turns a little melodramatic towards the end and leaves you in the mood to think. The central idea of the film is expressed in the words of a sailor, Alexei Kolchin, when he says to a local girl, ‘I do not want to hate.’ It is interesting that the film was released at the height of the Cold War and that despite hostility between the countries, the Russians were portrayed in a positive light.”
“The Russians Are Coming” could use some editing, but quibbling about scenes that go on too long seems ludicrous in the context of what was achieved here. Five stars and two enthusiastic thumbs up for a movie that generates some truly great laughs while reminding us that rational thinking demands evidence before action and that decent people can disagree and still respect each other.
It also helps to be reminded of the courage and determination demonstrated by the director, who made this movie while the proxy war in Vietnam was raging and the effects of McCarthyism were still too tangible to be a memory. Norman Jewison is the super hero you should put on your movie list this year.
Finally, as every day begins with news of the latest God-awful thing (trucks plowing through innocent revelers, an ambassador shot opening an art exhibition, drowning refugees, polar bears on dry land in winter), I wonder: Is this the child falling off the roof moment? The event that will embolden people to ignore war-mongering propaganda, work together and solve our common problems?
In my deepest, fear-ridden despair these days, I look at my 14-year-old daughter sleeping peacefully. That is the first rung in the ladder I use to climb back to some sense of hope-filled sanity. I am reminded that I was not much younger than she is when I first saw “The Russians Are Coming” in a movie theater in Greenwich, Connecticut.
The dream of a peaceful, respectful, productive and humanity-focused relationship between Russia and America is less crazy than the possibility that the little girl who spent her youth ducking-and-covering would be showing this movie to students in a democratic Siberia.
(This article was first self-published on medium.com)
Sarah Lindemann-Komarova is a U.S. citizen who graduated from Columbia University and who has spent the last 25 years as a civil society development activist in Siberia. Currently, she is teaching at Novosibirsk State University. Her writing has been published in academic journals as well as The Nation.