Hollywood Comrades: Why the Soviets Were Such Lovable Movie Villains

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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 Svengall 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). …