0584 | Dr Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb

Few directors have tapped into the zeitgeist as successfully as Stanley Kubrick managed to with his seventh feature: Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb relentlessly mocks American Cold War hysteria and the fervent ‘anti-Commie’ nationalism of the early 1960’s, ending with a scene in which a pilot in a cowboy hat sits astride a hydrogen bomb, shouting ‘yee-ha!’ as it plummets toward a Russian target (the US would have an actual, real-life movie cowboy eyeing up the ol’ Red Menace within 16 years, of course). Still, it seems as though American audiences at the time were able to take the ribbing, and Dr. Strangelove is still widely considered to be a comedy classic on that side of the Atlantic today, though over there and over here in the UK one or two prominent critics have since questioned the film’s occasional lack of subtlety (those names!) as well as its sneery, superior tone. (The fact that co-screenwriter Terry Southern was an American lends a degree of much-needed legitimacy to the film’s holier-than-thou barbs, if you ask me).

The first test screening for Kubrick’s pitch-black satire was due to take place on the day that President Kennedy was assassinated. The film’s release date was duly put back a few months to January 1964, as it was felt that the American public was in no mood for a Cold War comedy; the Cuban Missile Crisis was still fresh in the minds of many, as well, and the long- and short-term stability and future of the US looked far from certain at the time. It’s no surprise, then, that there were concerns as to how the central conceit that an insane American Brigadier General has the ability to single-handedly launch a nuclear attack on Russia, thereby triggering Armageddon would play out with audiences, but the film was a critical and commercial success, and it became Columbia’s biggest hit of the year. (That said, its box office receipts do pale in comparison next to Goldfinger, Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady, the three highest-grossing smashes of 1964, and it wasn’t even the most popular Peter Sellers film that year, earning less than both The Pink Panther and A Shot In The Dark.)

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Peter Sellers as Dr Strangelove

There’s much to enjoy here, but I’ll just run through a few highlights. Sellers is in fine fettle, playing three of the film’s principal characters: first the Terry-Thomas-like Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, a man whose stiff English politesse ensures he spends far too long tiptoeing around nutjob Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden), the man who has set the wheels of war in motion; secondly the American President Merkin Muffley, who Sellers plays fairly straight for the most part, though there’s some terrific ad-libbing when he’s on the phone to his Russian counterpart; and lastly Dr. Strangelove himself, a wheelchair-bound scientist and former Nazi whose own apparent craziness during the final stages of the film seems to capture the ridiculousness of the situation better than any other character. Sellers was due to play a fourth part – a contractual stipulation insisted on by Columbia in the wake of the previous Sellers/Kubrick collaboration Lolita – but after much protestation and a sprained ankle the role of the cowboy pilot Major T.J. ‘King’ Kong went to rodeo rider and actor Slim Pickens. Sellers was relieved; Pickens, if the rumour is to be believed, thought that the film was a straight drama.

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George C. Scott as Buck Turgidson

Sellers was nominated for an Oscar, and when he subsequently lost out to My Fair Lady’s Rex Harrison, the Academy was accused of opting for the safe, conservative choice. Yet I think there are better comic performances in the film, notably by Hayden and George C. Scott, who plays the jingoistic US Air Force General Buck Turgidson with a wholly-necessary brashness and swagger (sample quote: ‘Gee, I wish we had one of those doomsday machines’). Hayden was apparently happy to chew scenery, but Scott and Kubrick argued on set about the more outlandish behaviour of the Turgidson character, the former suggesting it needed to be toned down if the film was to work. However the director cajoled the actor into performing at least one over-the-top take of each scene, which he supposedly promised would not be considered for inclusion in the editing suite; as it turned out this was a lie, and apparently at least three of the takes made it into the final cut, causing Scott to state at a later date that he would never work with Kubrick again.

Then we have the brilliant sets, designed by Ken Adam, which occupied three main sound stages at Shepperton Studios. The most iconic, of course, is the cavernous war room, with its giant oval table, suspended UFO-style light and the large map that hangs on the wall, its blinking LEDs offering a constant, awful reminder of the terrible event about to occur. Adam also designed the magnificent lairs in Dr. No and Goldfinger, but this must surely rank as one of his best achievements, and I like to think that it was his idea to add in the (even bigger!) buffet table that repeatedly attracts the Soviet Ambassador, who seems more concerned with the state of his stomach than the apparent end of the world. Whoever it was deserves a pat on the back. This space is big, and much of it is empty, contrasting with the mock-up of the interior of the B-52 Stratofortress bomber on its way to Russia, which is cramped, with little room for maneouvre. In this plane and on the army base where Ripper and Mandrake can be found we constantly see posters in the background that state ‘Peace Is Our Profession’, the motto of the US Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, here shown up for what it is: a ridiculous and wholly inappropriate ad slogan. These posters seem to define those two sets more than any one piece of furniture ever could.

Arguably the most impressive element of Dr. Strangelove is the screenplay by Kubrick and Southern, who used Peter George’s ‘serious’ suspense novel Red Alert as a basis. There is an undeniable superciliousness to the script that has often been attributed to Kubrick (as well as the incessant ad-libs by Sellers), but one can’t deny the sheer pleasure obtained from hearing the dry, witty lines that are casually tossed toward the attendant viewer amidst all the doom and gloom (a perennial favourite being Muffley’s assertation ‘Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room’ as political bigwigs squabble next to him). I also love Turgidson’s desperate plea ‘Sir, you can’t let him in here. He’ll see everything! He’ll see the big board!’ as the Russian emissary arrives, as if that even matters in the face of mass human extinction. The writing is key in terms of balancing the utter horror and hopelessness of the situation – still just as scary a prospect today as it ever was, even if the actual specifics of the missile launch in the film are as ludicrous as they were in 1964 – with the ridiculousness of (male) human nature; even in the direst of circumstances these men exhibit an unshakeable desire to preserve self-interest or to improve their own lives, and also to maintain some kind of order, or respect for protocol. Meanwhile everything around them is turning to shit and their own idiosyncracies or incompetence damns us all. Ultimately that’s something we don’t want to contemplate too deeply in real life, but we can certainly laugh at the idea of it here.

Directed by: Stanley Kubrick.
Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, Peter George. Based on Red Alert by Peter George.
Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, Peter Bull, James Earl Jones.
Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor.
Editing: Anthony Harvey.
Music:
Laurie Johnson.
Certificate:
PG.
Running Time:
94 minutes.
Year:
1964.

Comments 17

  1. Keith July 11, 2016

    My goodness, don’t get me started talking about this one. I am really hit or miss when it comes to Kubrick. This one is a big, big hit! This thing is so freaking funny as well as crafty in how it handles its satire. Peter Sellers was a comic genius and I often think people forget how hilarious he was. Simply one of the greatest movie phone conversations in history!

    • Stu July 11, 2016

      Haha. Very crafty indeed. The title gives it away of course, but if you were watching in 1964 I suppose it might take a few minutes before it sinks in. In fact it’s not really until George C. Scott shows up that it’s really obvious. The phone conversation is excellent; I like it when actors can completely sell the idea that there’s someone on the end of the line and you don’t even question it.

  2. Tom July 11, 2016

    Here I am, turning in my license to review movies (again). Because I still have not seen this movie. 😦

    Totally inexcusable, yes. But in a way this is good because I’m looking forward to the novelty of that “first time watch,” despite all the things I have read about it over the years. Great review of this by the way, lots of interesting trivia throughout.

  3. ckckred July 13, 2016

    Nice review Stu. One of the master’s finest for sure and also my favorite comedy. I’m curious, did you watch the Criterion blu? I own the regular blu-ray edition and the quality is already excellent but I’m thinking about getting the new version.

    • Stu July 13, 2016

      Thanks Charles! I actually just streamed it on Netflix, so I’m not sure which version I watched. Criterion’s always worth it for the extras, right?

      • ckckred July 13, 2016

        Yeah, I’ll have to check out the goods on what it offers but the previous blu Ray edition is already top-notch. I’d like to see Criterion restore A clockwork orange actually, I think the current blu looks kinda dry.

        • Stu July 13, 2016

          Is that the anniversary one from a few years back? I don’t own it, but I’d probably just buy a cheap DVD anyway!

        • ckckred July 13, 2016

          I have the anniversary edition, which is superb and totally worth buying, though I suspect the Criterion blu is even better.

  4. Three Rows Back July 14, 2016

    This film was so far ahead of its time in so many ways. Kubrick’s stripped back direction, the incredible set design of the war room and those performances. Sellers is utterly brilliant here; this film never ceases to have me in stitches depsite the dark subject matter.

    • Stu July 15, 2016

      It’s weird just how dark it actually is. I can’t think of many films before or since that have gone all the way as regards a nuclear war; we tend to either see films set in the aftermath or they depict the crisis being averted. And agreed about everything else!

    • Stu July 18, 2016

      Cheers Jordan! He is very good here…manages to dial it up and down as he moves between the different characters. So is this one of your all-time favourites?

      • Jordan Dodd July 18, 2016

        Hell yeah. I probs like 2001 more but… actually no this is my favourite. I’ve officially changed my favourite movie cos your post made me wanna watch it 😀 Sellars is at his best for sure, three roles, all memorable. Its perfect

  5. Todd B July 25, 2016

    Nice review as usual, Stu! I watched this many, many years ago, and seem to recall enjoying Sterling Hayden’s character for being so frighteningly psychotic…correct me if I’m remembering it wrong. I actually was given this film for free when I bought a handful of DVDs at a store years ago…I guess it’s time to check it out.

    • Stu July 25, 2016

      Thanks very much Todd. Sterling Hayden’s character is a complete headcase…the man with the finger on the button, as it were. I like him a lot in this, although I think the better performances come from Sellers and George C. Scott, who is a hoot.

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