Stream On, at the end of the world as we know it: ‘Dr. Strangelove’
Stanley Kubrick’s great 1964 cold-war satire ‘Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ was misunderstood in the day.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 cold-war satire Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was bad news for Sidney Lumet’s melodrama Fail Safe, which dealt with the same issue, nuclear Armageddon. We may still be watching Dr. Strangelove at the end of time…
Director Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey) asked Alistair Buchan, head of the Institute for Strategic Studies, to recommend some worthwhile fiction on the subject of nuclear deterrence. (The Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. close to nuclear war in 1962, was still on peoples’ minds.) Buchan recommended a novel titled Red Alert by an RAF navigator named Peter George. Kubrick asked George to collaborate on a screenplay with himself and satirist Terry Southern, and learned that director Sidney Lumet (The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) was working on a similar movie based on Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s best-seller Fail-Safe.
So Kubrick launched a preëmptive strike, suing Lumet on the grounds that Fail-Safe plagiarized Red Alert (to which Kubrick owned the rights). Peter George also sued Burdick and Wheeler, and both suits were settled out of court.
And, what Kubrick, George and Southern produced prevailed. They had turned Dr. Strangelove into a hilarious satire leveraging the inherent absurdity of the idea of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD). Kubrick wrote, “My idea of doing it as a nightmare comedy came in the early weeks of working on the screenplay. I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question.”
Dr. Strangelove is special from the jump: the whimsically hand-lettered credits roll over vaguely erotic video of the mid-air refueling of a B-52 bomber with “Try a Little Tenderness” playing on the soundtrack. U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (an insanely great Sterling Hayden, The Long Goodbye) orders his executive officer, RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), to put the base on alert, confiscate all privately owned radios from base personnel and issue “Wing Attack Plan R” to the patrolling bombers. All the aircraft commence attack flights on the USSR. Happening upon a radio and hearing regular civilian broadcasting, Mandrake realizes that no attack order has been issued by the Pentagon and tries to stop Ripper, who locks them both in his office. Ripper tells Mandrake that the Soviets have been fluoridating American water supplies to pollute the “precious bodily fluids” of Americans. Mandrake realizes Ripper has gone mad.
Onboard one of the B-52 bombers, Major T. J. "King" Kong (Slim Pickens) receives the Wing Attack Plan and distributes the crew’s individual orders and survival kits, which include chewing gum, prophylactics, lipstick and stockings. “Shoot, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff!” James Earl Jones made his cinematic debut as bombardier Lieutenant Lothar Zogg; he had been acting in The Merchant of Venice with George C. Scott in Central Park when discovered.
General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott, The New Centurions, in one of his first comedy roles) is contacted at a motel where he’s “catching up on some paperwork” with his secretary, and called in to the War Room where President Merkin T. Muffley (also Peter Sellers) is struggling with the information that Gen. Ripper has indeed gone rogue and launched an attack on the Soviet union to save and preserve our precious bodily fluids.
The President’s ace in the hole is his science advisor, Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers’ third role), like Werner von Braun an ex-Nazi scientist who found a home in America after World War II. The Soviet Ambassador is brought in to help President Muffley break the news to Soviet Premier Kissov over the telephone in the hope of cancelling or repelling the attack. When Ambassador de Sadeski is physically attacked by General Turgidson, President Muffley berates them in one of the most famous quotes in all of cinema, “Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here: this is the War Room!”
Kubrick also wanted Sellers to play Major Kong, but Sellers said three parts was enough, and besides, he didn’t think he could do the Texas accent, and when Sellers broke his leg falling out of the cramped “B-52 cockpit” set he was relieved by Slim Pickens. (Sellers’ injury also relegated Dr. Strangelove to the wheelchair, which became critical to the finale, due to a Sellers ad-lib.) Pickens’ depiction of B-52 pilot “King” Kong was another bright spot in this gathering of geniuses.
Sellers also improvised many of his lines, and Kubrick retroscripted them into the official screenplay. “Inside the Making of Dr. Strangelove,” from the 40th Anniversary DVD release, is almost as entertaining as the film itself.
A scene that sums up the film is of General Ripper’s base being attacked by an army unit there to arrest him—Americans against Americans—and framed in the shot is a large sign at the entrance to the base, “Peace is our Profession.”
In 1964 Bosley Crowther called Dr. Strangelove “a shattering sick joke,” but Brendan Gill, writing in the February 1, 1964, edition of the New Yorker, called it “the best American movie I’ve seen in years,” a sentiment echoed that same week by Stanley Kauffmann in the New Republic, who called it “the best American picture that I can remember.”
Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon's prices. This column originally appeared on The Outer Banks Voice.