Those of us who grew up during the Cold War and remember it as a time of very real suspicion and fear probably look fondly upon this lightweight but not unsophisticated farce. It’s message that “Russians are people, too” probably seems a little simplistic to those too young to remember the times in which it takes place, but in its day, the concept was sufficiently radical to make an impact in the box office. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the most popular American films behind the Iron Curtain.
The story is straightforward. A Russian submarine runs aground off Gloucester Island when the captain (Theodore Bikel) decides he wants to see America. He dispatches his second-in-command, Lt. Rozanov (Alan Arkin in a breakthrough role that earned him an Oscar for Best Actor) and several of his men to find a boat to tow the sub off the sandbar. Rozanov and his men succeed mostly in scaring the residents into believing that World War III has started.
The only person who knows what really is going on is Walt Whittaker, a vacationing screenwriter (Carl Reiner in a role not unlike Alan Brady, his character from The Dick Van Dyke Show). Whittaker’s attempts to inform people, however, only manage to further inflame the panic.
The villagers are represented by their level-headed sheriff (Brian Keith), his panicky deputy (Jonathan Winters) and the island’s resident cold warrior (Paul Ford), who sees his chance to be the hero. The warmth and sincerity of the characters and the story more than wins you over and you don’t mind that the action never really rises above the level of gentle farce and the ending shamelessly tugs the heart strings.
Alan Arkin’s performance is a star-making turn and excercise in comic understatement. He portrays a man who outwardly projects calm but inside is near his boiling point for almost the entire film. It’s a tightrope that Arkin walks brilliantly.