Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
UK (1964) Dir. Stanley Kubrick
This plot for this classic Cold War satire from late, great Stanley Kubrick was based very loosely on the novel Red Alert by Peter George should already be familiar to most film buffs. However for the benefit of anyone still in the dark, the story revolves around the order given out of the blue a deranged army officer Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) ordering the nuclear-armed B-52s from his base, which are just outside Russia, to attack the Soviets Nation. However the Russian have a Doomsday Device which will destroy the earth if Russia should ever come under nuclear attack. The US President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) calls an emergency meeting in the Pentagon War Room in hope of finding a solution to avoid this imminent disaster.
This film is not only noted for its savage lampooning on the superpowers with their fingers on the button and the fate of the entire world in their hands, but for Peter Sellers pulling treble duty in three very distinctly different roles. As well as portraying the President of the US, he is also the archetypal stiff upper lipped RAF officer Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, who was forced by General Ripper to give the bombing order, and the wheelchair bound former Nazi scientist and eponymous Dr. Strangelove, famous for his autonomous right hand which throws up Nazi salutes at its own will.
Sellers’s triumvirate of whacky characters – who received many nominations for these roles – is ably supported by the jingoistic and fiercely patriotic General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) who seems to enjoy the fact that the Commies are going to be blown sky high, the aforementioned catalyst for this calamity, General Ripper and the cowboy B52 commander Major T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens), the man who, in the now iconic scene, rides the nuclear bomb like rodeo horse.
Peter George’s novel was a satire at all and Kubrick was planning on making a straight ahead thriller about the threat and fear of the nuclear war, but during the script writing sessions, the director was slowly amused by the comic potential of the military doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) – in which two sides mutually agree to use their weapons to destroy the others in a battle in which they are no winners or losers to avoid mass genocide – and rewrite the script as a nightmare comedy.
Thank heaven he did otherwise we wouldn’t have this seminal and often imitated work to savour some fifty years on. Perhaps in some aspects it has lost its chill factor for modern audiences, but the satire still bites deep considering nuclear threat remains a constant one for everyone, even if the current antagonist is North Korea an not (necessarily) Russia, rending only this threat a truly topical concern.
Aside from Dr. Strangelove’s free thinking arm and the bomb rodeo, the film is full of many timeless quotes and witty lines, such as the classic admonishment of Turgidson and Russian ambassador Alexei de Sadeski’s (Peter Bull) brawling by the President: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”. Another key joke is President Muffley’s phone conversations with the Russian premier Dimitri Kisov on the special hot line, as though he is talking with a capricious housewife, with his constant refrains of “Now Dimitri, there is no need to be like that”, whenever the Soviet gets irritated. Despite being American himself, Kubrick is able to ridicule both sides with equal irreverence with the only person who seems to be taking this whole fiasco seriously being the poor uptight Brit Captain Mandrake.
Legend has it that George C. Scott didn’t want to play Turgidson in such an OTT fashion so Kubrick said he would film his OTT takes as a guideline then do more serious takes for the actual film. Kubrick lied of course and again, it was masterstroke as a serious Turgidson just wouldn’t have worked although Scott vowed to never work with Kubrick again either. Between Scott, Sellers and Slim Pickens you have a three (or five if you count Sellers trifecta) superb and iconic performances which carry the film, with Hayden’s brief stint as Gen. Ripper as suitably manic support. And yes, that is James “voice of Darth Vader” Earl Jones as one of the pilots too
I think I’ve said more than I intended to on this all time classic film. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was the first film of its kind, fitting in neatly with the 60’s satire movement in London and has since earned it’s place in movie history. One of those evergreen titles which you NEED to see!