Long before everybody else figured out the truth from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s samizdat books, from an empire-crushing economic collapse, from a stream of defecting citizens, and from vodka’s role in the death of the martini, Hollywood recognized the central flaw of the Soviet Union: It was boring.
This is not to disparage the great Russian people nor to slight their empire. If anything, the combustible mix of bloody tribes and fierce hatreds that comprised first Czarist Russia and then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was not boring enough. It’s a tribute of sorts that the Soviets managed for 74 years to make it all seem unspeakably dull.
That dullness, I think, is the best explanation for one of the most puzzling lacunae in movie history. Why was Hollywood unwilling or unable to make compelling narratives about the horrors of the Soviet system?
This question has been asked repeatedly since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. In the June 2000 reason, Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley wrote that Tinseltown’s many communists had succeeded not so much in putting active red propaganda up on screen as in blocking films that might have explored the USSR’s murderous and criminal nature. In a 2007 article for the American Thinker, J.R. Dunn called Hollywood’s ignorance of its own anti-communist legacy—neglected films like Elia Kazan’s Man on a Tightrope and Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street—“inexcusable.” Recently, MGM reopened the question by announcing its intention to remake the one film everybody agrees depicted the Russians as thoroughly bad guys: John Milius’ Red Dawn (1984), in which Soviet and Latin American communists conquer the United States through force of arms.
With great respect for Red Dawn’s endurance as a camp touchstone (notable in recent years when the team that captured Saddam Hussein was revealed to have drawn many of the code words for its mission from the film), the movie actually reveals why the Russians made such poor cinema villains. Even at the time, with the Soviet war machine bogged down for a fifth year in Afghanistan, the idea that the Russians could invade and hold a big portion of the United States was preposterous.
Nor was Red Dawn totally anomalous. ABC ran its own version of the Soviet occupation of America in 1987, just four years before the extinction of the Soviet Union, with Amerika, a 14-hour miniseries made glorious (though not plausible) by an all-star cast headed by Kris “Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down” Kristofferson. And evil Russian military officers turned up all the time. A Soviet Svengali in communist Vietnam tortured Sylvester Stallone in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985); in an unforgettable two-parter, a brainwashing intelligence officer named Ivan intruded on the homoerotic idyll that was Magnum P.I.; and so on.
But against this record are countless screen depictions of the Russians as OK folks who are just stuck in a bad system. Sometimes they were lovable lugs of the sort parodied by John Candy in the SCTV sketch “Hey Giorgy.” Usually they were stiff-limbed bureaucratic types in need of a little loosening up. But always they were objects of pity, not rage.
This is the factor that unites such disparate works as Norman Jewison’s The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three, and Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (probably the only movie to get big laughs out of Marxism’s turgid vocabulary). In 1976 Ivan the Terrible, a summer replacement sitcom created by Alan King, depicted impoverished Muscovites suffering deprivations and corny bread line jokes while living in a cramped one-bedroom apartment. Nielsen viewers, even in the gulag archipelago of three-network television, decided they had better options, and Ivan was canceled after five episodes, over the strenuous objections of a nine-year-old Tim Cavanaugh.
Actors made lucrative careers playing put-upon Russians, their own charisma helping to soften the edge. Think of Walter Gotell, the Gorbachev lookalike whose character, “General Anatol Gogol,” kept bumping up against James Bond (usually as a grudging ally) throughout the Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton eras. Or Saveli Kramarov, the pallid, wall-eyed comedian who left the Soviet Union to play harried apparatchiks in Hollywood and brought the laughs in a TV commercial where he searched for a “big American car with tailfins.”
Taking a strictly ideological view (never a good idea in judging entertainment), this sentimentalism is indeed inexcusable. Post-Soviet history has made clear that gulags, show trials, and mass murder were not accidental outgrowths of an unsuccessful system; they were central parts of a very successful system whose purpose was to imprison, enslave, and kill people. And yet as a matter of popular communications, the myth of the good ol’ Russkies and their laughably inept bureaucracy was the perfect model for a period when there was broad consensus that the USSR presented a problem nobody at any end of the political spectrum wanted to go to war over. The misery of living in a place where having a smart mouth or unusual tastes can get you disappeared is something the majority of Americans have never contemplated.
But everybody has spent time at the post office or the DMV, and it’s a short hop to imagining a nightmare world where every place you go is exactly like that. This was the function of Hollywood Russians. You could call it repellent, or horrific, but the central trait of Soviet life was that it held no attractions of any kind. Under communism, the nation that would go on to lead the globe in exporting beautiful mail-order brides couldn’t produce so much as an ounce of the sexiness Hollywood generates almost as a waste product.
If there is a benchmark anti- Soviet film, it’s Paul Mazursky’s Moscow on the Hudson (1984), in which Robin Williams plays a defecting saxophone player. The movie’s case for the United States has nothing to do with strength or national purpose; it has to do with something most people don’t realize until their deathbeds is more important than those things: fun. Williams gets seduced by visions of street freaks, punk rockers, and de- signer jeans. He learns that the pains of U.S. life (unsolved crimes, general indifference to your existence) are outweighed by the pleasures (overflowing supermarkets, a pepper-pot girlfriend). Saveli Kramarov shows up as a KGB agent who finds contentment as a Big Apple hot dog vendor. After detente and the noisy dead ends of Apollo-Soyuz and the SALT agreements, it turned out Americans and Russians actually could unite—in the pursuit of happiness.
Contributing Editor Tim Cavanaugh (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes from Los Angeles.