Monday, May 19, 2014

Rumor Mills and World War III: "(The Russians Are Coming)^2" Revisited

Pardon the geek typography ("^2" means "squared" or "repeat a second time"), but there wasn't enough room to put the movie's full title—"The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming" in the headline comfortably.  Made in 1966 at the height of the Cold War between the old Soviet Union and the U. S., the film portrays what might have happened if a small Soviet submarine ran aground by accident near the shore of a rustic vacation island off the coast of New England.  I date myself when I confess I saw it when it first came out, and it's one of the few comedies I saw as a child that still seems funny to this 60-year-old.

The humor may be timeless, but the plot is not.  It hinges on the fact that with one exception, the most advanced communications technology on the island is the telephone office whose sole manual switchboard is run by grandmotherly Alice Foss, who knows everybody's name in town and takes eccentric Muriel Everett's report of being attacked by Russians with a large grain of salt—at least until Muriel's phone line goes dead.  But by then, the nine Russian sailors who came ashore to find a boat big enough to tow their sub off the rocks have cut the phone wires to that section of town (it was apparently a party line), so the only way word can travel after that is if a person carries it himself.  In the process of spreading the word, the rumor-mill game starts, and a report of one Russian sailor attacking Muriel distorts into a whole troop of Russian parachutists taking over the island's airport.  Most of the rest of the film follows the five-man police force and a separate vigilante mob led by a self-appointed death-and-glory war veteran, who each think the Russians are somewhere different, and charge around town sowing confusion and more misinformation wherever they go.  The mixups are augmented when the Russians make their way to town, tie up Mrs. Foss, and axe the main phone cables.  A rather sentimental and unlikely incident near the end of the film unites all the town's residents with the Russians, but the whole thing nearly ends up starting World War III anyway when the war vet gets to the only two-way radio in town and calls the U. S. Air Force into action.  Universal holocaust is averted only when the townies escort the sub out to sea with their own boats, which leads the Air Force fighters to call off their attack, and the day is saved. 

Try to update the plot to 2014, and you run into trouble right away.  The first American who spots the Russians is the ten-year-old son of a vacationing writer, who refuses to believe his boy when the kid tells Dad there's nine men in black in the garage with Tommy guns.  If something like that happened today, said son would have posted the guys' photos on whatever it is you post photos on when you're ten years old and have a cellphone these days, and inside of five minutes the FBI might have been on the case.  And the same goes for the creaky old plot device of cutting phone lines, which was laid to rest when the first cellphones (mobile phones, as they are called in world outside the U. S.) came out.  Ironically, rather than helping matters, the only wireless link in the movie—the two-way radio—nearly leads to disaster when it's used to call in the Air Force.

It may seem trivial to note the passing of a slower mode of life in which news sometimes had to be carried by hand, so to speak.  But the same thing has happened to our lives that has happened to that fifty-year-old plot.  Those who want to know what is going on in the lives of significant others these days can keep up with them almost constantly with no time lag via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, and there is some concern that excessive indulgence in such things can be an addictive hazard for some people. 

Back in the 1850s, when the electromagnetic telegraph first began to send news around the country at nearly the speed of light, critics worried that life was simply getting too fast and there would be adverse consequences.  Well, whatever the consequences were, we seem to have adapted to them just fine, and in some ways the habit of keeping in constant touch with others via electronic media is perhaps a return to a very primitive way of life.  An anthropologist I read years ago (and have since lost the reference to) noted that in tribal societies, where work such as farming and handicrafts are done in groups, people chat all the time about other people, mostly, and this is the normal way life goes.  So after an industrial interlude of 150 years or so in which workers left the farm for factories and offices where you were expected to deal silently with your job unless it required you to talk, maybe we are using social media and electronics to return to what used to be normal.  At least, some people are. 

Yours truly does not have a Facebook page.  I have never posted an Instagram, or tweeted, or used a hashtag, or any of that other stuff, though my wife keeps me posted on notable doings of people we know who do those things.  I refrain from these modes of communication not out of any principled objection, but mainly because the payoff doesn't seem worth the effort, at least to me.  Blame it on my Y-chromosomes and the fact that males in general, and engineers in particular, often deal more easily with things than with people.  If I'm going to put in an hour or two learning new software, as a result I'd rather be able to analyze plasma spectra, say, as opposed to finding out that some guy I knew in high school has opened a new restaurant.

To those who enjoy social media and the ease of instant global communication, I say:  good for you.  Go ahead and enjoy them in reasonable moderation.  Only be careful not to start World War III.

Sources:  I referred to the Internet Movie Database listing of "The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming" at

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