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.)
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.
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.
Running Time: 94 minutes.