Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming


The era of glasnost was still decades away when this little comic plea for understanding between nations was made. It was during the bad old days of the Cold War, which was the war I grew up under. Nikita the K. had said “We will bury you!” and pounded his shoe on the table at the U.N. Our own side was not much more conciliatory, with our talk of “Godless communism.” Stockpiles of nuclear weapons on both sides were very high, and would get much higher before tensions eased somewhat. Saying that Russians might be people not that different from us was not a fashionable position to take.

So here we have a Russian submarine (actually a prop, built in four pieces) running aground on a small island some where in New England (actually Westport and Bodega Bay, California). A party of nine sailors led by Alan Arkin, in his first movie role, are sent ashore to find a boat big enough to tow the sub off the rocks. They encounter Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint and family (including their young son who I would cheerfully have shot) in their summer vacation rental, and take over the house. Word begins to get out that the Russkis have invaded, and chaos ensues. Trying to keep it under control is Sheriff Brian Keith and his inept deputy, Jonathan Winters. Keith and Arkin are the only sane men on the whole island. Everyone else goes bonkers, including wonderful old Paul Ford as a super-patriot who intends to take control of his civilian army (read: mob).

A lot of it is very funny, some is pretty dated. It’s about ten minutes longer than it needed to be, and that could easily have been done by more competent editing. The ending, where the townspeople and the Russian sailors quickly join forces to rescue a little boy hanging off the roof of a church, looks pretty hokey today, and I remember feeling it was a little hokey when it was new, but it seems the movie actually did have an impact of sorts, particularly in Russia when it was shown there. Audiences applauded the rescue scene.

Alan Arkin, who I was surprised to learn actually does speak Russian, is just brilliant here. With the smallest of gestures and in semi-broken English he manages to convey his deep frustration with all the stupidity around him. He just wants to keep his people safe, and not start World War Three. Reiner plays the typical witless, panicky, bumbling American father of that era. Theodore Bikel is good as the stupid but scary sub captain. And there is a very small role, uncredited even at the IMDb, for my old friend Peter Brocco as a priest. He has two lines, and I would know that profile and that voice anywhere.