Playing Thu May 26 at 8:45* and Fri May 27 at 1:00 at Film Society of Lincoln Center
*Q&A with Jewison and Turner Classics Movies host Robert Osborne on May 26 [Program & Tix]
Film Society’s toast of producer-director Norman Jewison — which began yesterday and runs through Memorial Day weekend — continues today with the madcap Cold War comedy The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. Jewison will be on-hand to introduce the film along with TCM’s host-with-the-most, Robert Osbourne.
TCM’s Rob Nixon on the film:
The large ensemble cast and zany plotting are clearly inspired by the success of Stanley Kramer’s frenzied satire of greed and corruption, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). But critics at the time noted that this movie had much more fully developed and sympathetic characters and so was able to achieve its comic aims with more narrative integrity without losing any of the hilarity. As a result, it has much of the feel of the classic 1940s satires created by Preston Sturges.
Jewison recounts the eventful preview screening for a Russian audience in This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me: An Autobiography:
I had thought our screening in Berlin was a triumph. Willy Brandt, foreign minister at the time, had praised me and the film, a tractor had towed a large sign, “Die Russen kommen!” up and down the berlin Wall, and everybody loved the idea of a comedy satire about American and Russian relations. But the screening in Moscow was everything a film director could hope for. The theater was bigger than Radio City Music Hall in New York. To sit in that enormous theater, jammed with over two thousand Russians, and watch their reaction to my movie was an amazing experience.
As the film ran, a Russian interpreter gave a simultaneous translation over the sound system. I had been told that if a Russian audience didn’t like something, they would make a “chuh-chuh-chuh” sound, so throughout the screening, I prayed I wouldn’t hear it. They laughed at the jokes in Russian that the Americans didn’t get, and everything was fine until Theo Bikel, the Russian sub captain, threatens to blow up the town. You could feel the tension in the theater, then the “chuh-chuhing” began. I thought, “Oh God, they thing they’re going to be made to look like the villians again.” But when the stand-off is broken by the little boy falling from the church belfry and the Russians help save him, the audience began a rhythmic clapping and many burst into tears. Directors Sergei Bondarchuk and Grigory Chukhrai were on their feet clapping and crying.
I was sitting next to Vladimir Posner, the Brooklyn-born editor of Soviet Life. “Why are they crying?” I asked.
“Because they didn’t make it first,” he replied.
I realized then that the film, although made primarily for an American audience, expressed the hopes and fears felt by people in both countries at that period in the Cold War. What the Russians of course couldn’t believe, and were blown away by, was the fact that I had been allowed to make the film at all.
Tony Shaw for the journal Film History:
Accounts of Cold War cinema regularly point to the early 1960s as marking a watershed in Hollywood’s approach towards the East-West conflict. Gone, we are told, were the hyper anti-communist, ultra-nationalist and militaristic movies of the McCarthy era, like The Red Menace (R.G. Springsteen, 1949), My Son John (Leo McCarey, 1952) and Strategic Air Command (Anthony Mann, 1955). In came others, scholars argue, that satirised US “Coca-Colonisation” (One, Two, Three, Billy Wilder, 1961), that questioned the military’s role in American politics (Seven Days in May, John Frankenheimer, 1964), and that cast doubt on the strategy of nuclear deterrence (The Bedford Incident, James B. Harris, 1965). What is largely missing from these accounts, however, is a considered analysis of how America’s Cold War enemy was portrayed on screen during this era: whether the Soviet Union was deemed to pose less of a threat to the United States than in earlier movies, whether the communist world’s goals were seen to have changed for the better, or whether communism itself was depicted as comparatively less “un-American” than in the early 1950s.
The Russians Are Coming warrants serious reconsideration in this regard, for not only does it highlight the limits of Hollywood Cold War criticism, and by inference that of other US mainstream cultural channels during the era, it also reveals the Soviet Union’s own discreet role in the film-making process. Indeed, though Soviet film bureaucrats ultimately washed their hands of the movie, The Russians Are Coming played a small but significant part in fostering cinematic collaboration across the East-West divide. This would eventually result in the one and only Soviet-American cinematic co-production of the Cold War, George Cukor’s fantasy musical The Blue Bird, released a decade later in 1976.
The Russians Are Coming deserves a special place in the history of Cold War cinema. On the one hand, it helped break down cultural barriers, giving support to those promulgating détente between the superpowers. It was the subject of considerable political debate in the United States and reduced some cinema-goers to tears of joy when it was shown in the USSR. On the other hand, Jewison’s comedy unconsciously helped reinforce long-standing ideological divisions between East and West. It humanised the Russians in the only way that Hollywood knew how, by de-communising them. If only the “enemy” could be just like these Soviet sailors, more like “us”, the film was saying, the Cold War could simply fade away. Little wonder The Russians Are Coming was so popular in the United States when it was released and, perhaps, why it is celebrated today as a brave and timely classic” about East meeting West.
Andrew Sarris thought Jewison’s career overblown, pegging him as “strained seriousness” in his heirarchical overview of classical Hollywood, The American Cinema:
Norman Jewison has been guided from the very beginning of his career by a commendable desire to escape from the confines of a studio set to the great outdoors of reality…As a director of actors, Jewison is reasonably good with good people–Steve McQueen, Tuesday Weld, and Edward G. Robinson in The Cincinnati Kid, Alan Arkin in The Russians Are Coming, Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger for In the Heat of the Night. Unfortunately, Jewison’s films suffer from the director’s compulsion to be strenuously cinematic. Jewison does not so much direct as overdirect and too often to diminishing returns. The historical timing of such projects as The Russians Are Coming and In the Heat of the Night has been so fortuitous that Jewison has found himself somewhat undeservedly at the top of the heap.
The “reasonably good” Alan Arkin recalls his work on the film:
It was a dream come true. It was what I desperately wanted all my life. My interest in acting was film acting from the time that I was five. I was panic stricken. My dream was, ‘Please God, let me good enough so I get another job some day.’ And I was so animated at that point that Norman Jewison made me stand in an orange crate all the time so I wouldn’t move around so much. I was driving the camera operator crazy. For most of the film I stood in orange crates. I
didn’t understand marks and staying still. I was used to the stage and walking around and being my own director. It was the opposite of any auteur theory I’ve ever had. It was not only a family with the cast, but he made the entire town part of the experience of making the film. The entire town was invited to dailies. And every couple weeks he would have to stand up and make a speech and say, ‘People, please leave your dogs and babies at home because we can’t hear the dialogue track.’ But it was an extraordinary experience. It was a continuation of the community feeling I felt at college and then Second City and then on Broadway.
Robert Alden was enraptured upon the film’s initial release, as he wrote in The New York Times:
After two decades of cold war during which Americans and Russians have stared down the gun barrels at each other at all points of the compass, the United States has come up with a rousingly funny — and perceptive — motion picture about a desperately unfunny world situation.
The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming is a credit to those who made it. By personalizing a dangerous confrontation between Russians and Americans, it reveals, through broad farce, the good and bad in both, the strengths and weaknesses of people under stress and the fundamental fact that, after all, Russians and Americans are basically human beings and, therefore, share basic human qualities. And not one whit of this lesson is accomplished by preaching, but rather by a hilarious troupe of actors telling a hilarious tale in a hilarious way.
…Everyone will find favorite comie bits—Mr. Reiner’s efforts to prove to his son that he is not a Benedict Arnold; Mr. Arkin, barely able to speak English himself, teaching English to his crew of invaders; Mr. Reiner’s and the amply proportioned Tessie O’Shea’s attempts to free themselves after the Russians have bound them together, and Brian Keith, the police chief, meeting a wildly improbable situation with the only practical solution that would occur to a police chief—he takes out his book and proceeds to write a ticket for the offending Russian submarine. After all, it is illegally parked in United States territory.
There is also great satirical fun in Johnny Mandel’s musical score.
The wild comedy turns grim at the end, grim and suspenseful, and is only saved by a deus ex machina. But forget that. Go to the theater to enjoy this farce. The cold war has owed us all a good laugh for a long, long time.
The film had many enamored industry lefties, including Kirk Douglas and Billy Wilder, but Jewison details an encounter with Hollywood’s reigning conservative in his book:
“Have you met Norman Jewison? The film director?” I looked down the long flight of stairs, shirtless and clutching my pants. John Wayne stared back, swaying slightly and holding a large glass of whiskey. Before I could say anything, David said, “Norman has just directed The Russians Are Coming. He and Dixie are our guests for the weekend.”
Wayne continued to stare at me, his face expressionless. I managed to murmur, “It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Wayne.”
“What are ya?” he suddenly shouted. “One of those goddamn pinkos?”
Speechless, I smiled weakly and scampered into the bedroom to finish changing. I could hear him bellowing about commies taking over Hollywood. When I slunk downstairs to join the party, I realized I was the only guy with a beard. This was foreign territory, politically speaking. Every time I saw the six-foot-four Mr. Wayne headed my way, I managed to hide. Remember True Grit? That’s what he looked like that night, and I’d heard that the drunker he got, the meaner he was.
He scared the hell out of me.
Arch-conservative John Wayne in True Grit (1969)