Movies We Like
Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying & Learned To Love The Bomb
In the heart of the Cold War, after the Cuban missal crisis, fresh from the assassination of President Kennedy, the world seemed to be on the brink of nuclear destruction. It was a tense era, as reflected by a number of the paranoid films that were produced - Fail-Safe, Seven Days In May, On The Beach, to name a few. Knowing the world it was released into makes the attitudes of the "black comedy" Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Learned To Love The Bomb, particularly black. While many Americans had fall-out shelters in their backyards, Stanley Kubrick's film was laughing at the ridiculousness of world annihilation, while wondering who are the hopeless leaders we have entrusted with our nukes and our planet’s future?
Kubrick co-wrote the script with satirist Terry Southern (The Loved One, Easy Rider), kinda sorta based on a novel Red Alert, an actual thriller by Peter George. Dr. Strangelove was the final film of Kubrick’s outstanding black and white period, following his other classics, The Killing, Paths Of Glory, and Lolita, a foursome as relevant and as diverse as any young American director has had. And like Lolita, Dr. Strangelove would be a showcase for the acting range of Peter Sellers. Here he would take on three utterly different roles, to much acclaim.
A deeply paranoid and perhaps insane U.S. Air Force general, Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden of Kubrick’s earlier The Killing) sends his B-52s into the Soviet Union to start dropping nukes. He cuts off all outside communications. The only voice of reason on the base is Mandrake (Sellers), a well-mannered British officer there as an observer. Meanwhile, as the rest of the military becomes aware of this, unable to recall the planes, debates are waged in The Pentagon’s War Room. General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) is a hawk, countering President Muffley’s dove (again Sellers). Also on hand is the sneaky Soviet ambassador, Alexi (Peter Bull), and a wheelchair-bound former Nazi weapons advisor, Dr. Strangelove (Sellers in his third role). Muffley is forced to call the Soviet Prime Minister Dimitri Kisov and explain why the U.S. is about to nuke his country and why no one can stop it from happening. These War Room conversations are some of the greatest political satire ever put on screen.
On one of the B-52s, the mundane but fascinating details of a flight crew's process are shown. Led by Lieutenant Lothar Zogg (a very young James Earl Jones) and Major TJ Kong (Slim Pickens in a role that was originally also going to be played by Sellers, who decided he couldn’t give the Texas character the authenticity it needed), at first they think it’s an exercise, but soon come to grips with the nature of their mission. Eventually the airbase is invaded by the Army and Ripper kills himself, leaving the fish-out-of-water Mandrake to have to convince Colonel "Bat" Guano (Keenan Wynn) that they have to call the President, but they need change for the pay phone. One of the film's greatest lines concerns a soda machine. Back in the War Room, with his deep German accent, Dr. Strangelove explains the doomsday machine that is in motion to destroy everything, the world is going to end (though a plan is in place for a group of men and women to live underground in a bunker to mate and repopulate the earth. In 100 years they may be able to reemerge on the Earth’s surface).
For such dark material, Dr. Strangelove is truly one of the funniest films ever made (black comedy - you don’t always laugh aloud, until you think about it much later). So much of the dialog is quotable, so many now classic lines in this intelligent script. Sellers is of course brilliant. Though by most standards he is considered a comic genius, he had a hit-or-miss career. Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther series may be his signature role, but Dr. Strangelove and Being There a decade later are easily his two best films (and his two Oscar nominations).
The entire cast is memorable, but after multiple viewings the film may be stolen by Scott’s subtly manic performance. His facial expressions alone are priceless, as he listens to others with the intensity that we have come to expect from Scott in so many other films. Scott was an all-time great actor and had a fascinating career, though when you think of Scott, you don’t think “funny” (far from it). It’s too bad he didn’t explore his comic side more (or get a chance to do it with such a successful script).
Then again when you think "funny" you don’t think of Stanley Kubrick. After Dr. Strangelove he would famously only direct six more films in 25 years, his color film period, all six of them of note to varying degrees of success (2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and perhaps The Shining, could all be considered essential). Dr. Strangelove, along with Paths Of Glory and Full Metal Jacket, could all be labeled "anti war" films, but a more apt description would be "anti war makers." Besides the always-precise filmmaking skills, Kubrick’s films often work on multiple levels. At his best Kubrick never wavers from asking the big questions. Dr. Strangelove in particular questions how mankind has reached this absurd point; it just takes one mad man and a number of inept politicos to destroy everything we know. And you’re still going to have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company.
Dr. Strangelove was nominated for four Oscars: Best Actor (Peter Sellers), Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay.