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Light Comedy versus the Cold War: The Russians are Coming and A Pennant For the Kremlin

The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming is a light comedy film, made in 1966. A Soviet submarine runs aground on a New England island[1] and a small group of sailors come ashore secretly in the hope of finding a motor-boat with which to tow it free. They hold up a family renting a holiday house. News of their arrival eventually reaches the town, becoming increasingly exaggerated into an invasion.

What is unusual in the film, for its date, though, is that the Russians are not villains. They're just trying to get away. They weren't even on a mission when they ran aground: the captain just wanted to see America in his periscope. One of the sailors, supposed to be guarding the family mentioned earlier, ends up walking on the beach with the small child and falling in love with a young woman.

The submarine manages to re-float by itself, and comes into the harbour to pick up the shore party. But it is confronted by the townspeople, now all armed and determined to defend their island. It looks like a dangerous stand-off. But at this point a child, who has gone up a church tower to get a better view, falls, and is suspended precariously. Immediately both groups drop everything to co‑operate in saving him.

Everyone is now happy! But then someone who had left earlier rushes back to announce he has successfully alerted the navy and air force. The townspeople therefore escort the submarine out in small boats, to prevent any attack until it can dive to safety.

The episode with the child is straight out of Mencius.[2] Mencius argued that compassion, "the heart that cannot bear to see suffering", is the basis of human society:

"... imagine now a person who, all of a sudden, sees a small child on the verge of falling down into a well. Any such person would experience a sudden sense of fright and dismay. .... By imagining this situation we can see that one who lacked a sense of dismayed commiseration in such a case simply could not be a person."[3]

Whether the film-makers were aware of this or whether they hit on the same idea independently doesn't matter—it is not a deus ex machina but a profound demonstration of common humanity. As in Mencius' passage, the suddenness is significant; it shows what people are really like when they have no time to think of their interests, prejudices, etc.

A Pennant for the Kremlin by Paul Molloy, is a less remembered work, a light novel published in 1964. By a series of accidents, the Soviet government becomes the owner of the White Sox baseball team,[4] and decides to take the opportunity. They send a manager, Deborin, who prefers to call himself the Chairman. Of course, he has a beautiful daughter. After initial hostility to "Commie" involvement, the players come to see Deborin as a sincere person, and some of his innovations (such as banning what he sees as dishonest and harmful endorsements) gain public respect.[5]

His attempts to fit in make him ridiculous, as with his attempt at the American national anthem—"the bums burping in there"[6]—but the reader laughs affectionately. One of the players falls in love with the beautiful daughter (of course). The villain is the First Secretary at the Soviet Embassy, Bukharov, who is jealous of Deborin (a relatively high-ranking official) and wants to undermine the whole project. The White Sox win the pennant, that is, their league, but lose the World Series.[7]

This has quite a lot in common with The Russians are Coming. People are people. There are good people among the Russians; sport can connect; and Deborin comes to see the strength in American society, especially its immigrant pluralism. However, towards the end, we seem to retreat into the Cold War again. The First Secretary succeeds in poisoning the mind of the Ambassador. At Bukharov's urging the Soviet Union tries to replace the whole team with Cuban players, but they all defect as soon as they arrive. Eventually the Soviet government sells the team, and recalls Deborin, but he says he doesn't intend to go to Siberia, and he and his beautiful daughter remain in America. The good elements of the Soviet side all either fade out or find their true home in America.

Thus, in the end, the novel seems to lose its nerve and shies away from the people-are-people message that The Russians Are Coming endorses. I wonder whether this was the author's intention, or whether an editor or agent warned him that it wouldn't sell unless a good America/bad Russia view was ultimately restored?

All the same, the book is funny, worth reading, and (as one reviewer remarked) could make a good film. Oh say, does that strangled banana yet wave?

[1] New England, the north-east coastal region of the United States, has a number of islands with small populations, often sites of tourism. [Return]

[2] Mencius is a Latinization of Mengzi. Customarily dated 372–289 BC, the greatest Confucian philosopher after Confucius (Kongzi) himself. [Return]

[3] Mencius 2A.6, trans. Robert Eno. Mencius doesn't actually say that the person will necessarily do anything. The point is that any person will feel something. Someone who did not would no longer be human. Mencius was not saying that people are, in fact, mainly good, but that good is their true nature. In many people, he thought, the "green shoots" of compassion were eaten away by the cares of life. [Return]

[4] The White Sox are a Chicago professional baseball team, remembered for one of the most famous scandals in American sports history, the fixing of the World Series in 1919. They have since been more innocently famous for their rather limited success. [Return]

[5] Interestingly for 1964, he raises the harmful effect of players (who children admire) endorsing smoking. [Return]

[6] The actual line is "The bombs bursting in air". The lyrics, which relate to an incident in the War of 1812, are sometimes obscure even to Americans, and the meaning of phrases in later verses is disputed. [Return]

[7] Baseball in the United States is organized in two rival leagues; the champions of the two meet in the "World Series". There used to be some differences between their rules but this is, I gather, less true now. [Return]

Copyright © 2024. Not to be reproduced without permission. ||  Tuesday, 20 February 2024

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