Deep Focus: “The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming"

Olivia Rutigliano
March 16, 2020

It’s hardly a secret, but, for a land that bills itself as a land of freedom and opportunity, America can be inhospitable to just about anyone. Few films represent this fundamental hypocrisy so squarely as the uproarious 1966 Cold War satire The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, which depicts the panic sweeping a small New England island after a Russian military submarine accidentally runs aground on its shore at the height of the Cold War.

The beached Soviet sailors—terrified that their presence will be mistaken as an attack and trigger nuclear war—stealthily hurry to town to buy a boat in order to pull their sub off the sandbar. But their fears come true: a paranoid townsperson sees them, and the ensuing gossip leads to mass hysteria, hasty vigilantism, and threats of military intervention.

The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is wise for representing the boundless lengths of this xenophobia. In fact, only slightly less welcome than the stranded Soviet naval officers on this coastal island are a family of vacationing New Yorkers.

The film interweaves these groups—and their relative alienations—representing both sets of strangers as more similar than different, even to the point where they share one another’s problems and, perhaps, will share the same fate. As the Russian captain yells at the New York tourist (his then captive, but later friend), “You help us get boat quickly, otherwise there is World War III, and everybody is blaming you!”

The film, directed by Norman Jewison and nominated for four Academy Awards, juxtaposes different reactions to the perceived Russian incursion: confusion, aggression, terror, panic, hysteria, and, occasionally, empathy. The film sends up xenophobia and even denounces gun-toting societies whose media outlets dismiss facts.

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