The movie that taught the world not to fight in the war room.
The Film: A rogue American general named Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) hatches a plan to nuke Russia in preemptive defense of his precious bodily fluids. President Merkin Muffley, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and defected German scientist Dr. Strangelove (all played by Peter Sellers) scramble to call back the bombers, but Ripper’s plan is foolproof and, worse, it’s likely to trigger a Russian doomsday device that will destroy the world. A combined American/Soviet effort brings down most of the planes, but nuclear peace is narrowly averted by the brave efforts of Major TJ “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) personally riding a bomb down to its target. As the leaders await the end, they hatch rival plans to become the undisputed world power of underground bomb shelters.
The Production: The early 1960s was a weird time. The end of the human race never seemed closer than it did in the first few years of the decade, and yet new sexual and civil freedoms brought hope to young people who had otherwise lived their lives ducking and covering in school hallways. In the aftermath of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Kubrick—riding the surprise success of his supposedly toxic project, Lolita—acquired the rights to the novel Red Alert by Peter George, a serious thriller about the flaws inherent in automated nuclear war. Unfortunately, Kubrick ran into problems adapting the screenplay; the situation was too damn absurd.
Kubrick felt that the real Cold War policy of mutually assured destruction was, to put it mildly, incredibly stupid, so he shifted Red Alert onto an entirely different track, where it became a dark satire. Columbia Pictures, eager to stay in the Kubrick business but nervous about the film’s tone, agreed to handle the picture only if Kubrick could convince Peter Sellers to play the leads—all of them (the studio believed Sellers had been the major draw for Lolita.) Sellers signed on to play four roles, but he had to abandon the part of Major Kong when he sprained his ankle and couldn’t fit in the pilot’s seat. Slim Pickens took over.
President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas delayed Dr. Strangelove for months and hindered its box office. Since its release, however, Strangelove has been universally embraced by frikkin’ everybody. Many (including this writer) consider Strangelove to be Kubrick’s best film and possibly one of the greatest films of the last ever. And he did it without the pie fight finale.
Best Moment: Peter Sellers made his millions playing lunatics—there’s a reason this film is called Dr. Strangelove and not Lionel Mandrake—but the actor spent much of his career trying to squash this stereotype and find success as a complete performer, not just as a living cartoon. Sellers was an equally talented straight man, as he proves in his phone call to the unseen (and drunk) Russian premier. This is probably one of the funniest scenes in all the movies.
Lasting Impact: Please. Dr. Strangelove cast the nuclear conflict in a new light and may have played some small part in shifting the conversation away from the saber-rattling of the Red Scare and towards the dramatic peace movement of the late 60s. On a pure movie level, Strangelove invented its own damn genre. Every satirical war movie, from Canadian Bacon to Wag the Dog, to War, Inc., has been slapped with the label of “the new Dr. Strangelove,” which of course they aren’t. The film’s shadow is very wide.
Overall: As we’ve discussed, Stanley Kubrick took flak throughout his career for being a fairly bloodless character. His best films came from a place of clinical curiosity, little experiments where he ran his characters through twisted mazes to see how far they’d go for some tiny piece of happiness. Films like 2001 and A Clockwork Orange were not strange digressions, but close approximations of how Kubrick really saw the world. Strangelove is different and unlike anything else in Kubrick’s catalog, and not just because it’s hilarious. Not at all. It’s furious.
Great comedy comes from anger, and there is hardly an angrier film anywhere than Dr. Strangelove. The film is a plea from the peasants for some sign of sanity at the top. I don’t think the film’s proximity to the Cuban Missile Crisis can be overstated. For thirteen days in October of 1962, the entire world was hung up between two countries seemingly willing to wipe billions of people from the map rather than lose face in front of the world. Sure, each side made the usual case about white hats and black hats, and we can debate politics forever, but ultimately the planet came within a “Press A” of snuffing out over, basically, a sticky public relations crisis. Two years later, Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) is on screen whining about a “mine shaft gap.”
So, assuming he’s the “I” in the subtitle, how did Kubrick learn to love the bomb? I think Kubrick decided that, hell, if the world can be taken to the very brink by posturing and bravado, then why not give up your sanity and, like Major Kong, enjoy the ride? This is a movie about grown men measuring their members and calling it war. I mentioned Turgidson above, definitely my favorite character in the film not played by Peter Sellers (who was brilliant in all three of his roles). Observe the way Turgidson squirms and fidgets while President Merkin Muffley (with two names referring, of course, to vaginas) works to call off the war that Ripper started. Turgidson humors the president the same way a football coach might wince at a child asking why he doesn’t throw it at the goal line on every play.
Or what about Ripper, a general willing to go to war because of fluoride in our drinking water, clearly a communist plot to destroy our bodies from within. We laugh now at Kubrick’s absurd invention, forgetting that this was a totally real thing that people thought. And what was the role of women in this war? I mentioned the onset of new sexual and cultural freedoms in the 60s, but it hadn’t yet hit the war room. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the only woman in the film is seen in a bikini, with no thoughts or role of her own except to relay information between two men.
Kubrick’s grand finale was intended to be a gigantic pie fight, but I think that may have been a bit too on the nose (why spend the money on all these pies if we’re not going to throw them!?) As it is, he settled for a romantically bittersweet ending in which the bomb, the true protagonist of the film, wins the day.
Kubrick never returned to broad comedy. It’s as if dealing with these misfits, facing his dark opinion of human nature, changed him. After Strangelove, his films became increasingly detached, kicking off the second half of his legendary career, from 2001 all the way to the alien and alienating Eyes Wide Shut. Did he burn out his funny bone? Or did confronting these clowns, outsized avatars of the worst of our instincts, push Kubrick that much further away? If there is any truth behind Strangelove’s satire, are we even worth saving? With a planet like this, who could blame Kubrick for falling in love with the end of the world?
The Stanley Kubrick Project
1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
3. The Shining
9. Barry Lyndon
11. The Killing
12. Killer’s Kiss
13. Fear and Desire