Dr. Strangelove (1964)

More relevant with each passing year, Stanley Kubrick's uproariously funny yet deadly serious Dr. Strangelove did much to bring underground filmmaking techniques and concerns into the commercial mainstream. Combining a satirical indictment of U.S./U.S.S.R. Cold War policies, brilliantly limned caricatures, and an inventive visual style, this extraordinary black comedy, like Stanley Kubrick's masterful 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), makes an important statement about the apocalyptic consequences of humankind's relinquishment of its destiny to machines and its misplaced faith in human reason..

After opening with the midair refueling of a long-range bomber which is treated as an act of sexual intercourse, the film shifts into high gear when Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) goes completely mad, seals off Burpelson Air Force Base, and sends his bomber wing to attack the Soviet Union. U.S. President Merkin J. Muffley (Peter Sellers, in one of three roles he performs) responds by calling a desperate meeting with his advisors, including blustery Gen."Buck" Turgidson (George C. Scott) and Dr. Strangelove (Sellers again), a mysterious, wheelchair-bound German scientist whose mechanical arm is always on the verge of launching his black-gloved hand into a Nazi salute. After a hot-line consultation with the Soviet leader, Premier Kissoff who is finally tracked down at a Moscow brothel, drunk, a plan is formulated to shoot down the American planes. Although the Soviets have been informed of every U.S. move, they remain suspicious and set into motion their dreaded "Doomsday Machine"—a defensive system with a destructive capacity so great that the world will be engulfed in fallout for more than ninety years should even one bomb be dropped on the USSR and automatically trigger the buried nuclear weapons.

Back at Burpelson, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (once more Sellers), a British liaison officer, busies himself with trying to trick Gen. Ripper into revealing the code that will recall his bombers. He is unsuccessful, however, as the mad general—who is convinced that the fluoridation of water is a communist plot—puts him off with tales of how he has kept his "precious bodily fluids" to himself, "denying women [his] essence." Gen. Ripper then excuses himself, goes into a washroom, and blows out his brains. Code busting Meanwhile, a force commanded by Col. "Bat" Guano (Keenan Wynn) breaks through Ripper's defenses just as Mandrake has determined the recall code. With only a pay phone to alert the White House but without a dime, Mandrake suggests they break into a soda pop vending machine. Col. Guano, who warns the Briton against trying any "preeversions," shoots into the machine, but not before warning Mandrake that he will have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company of America.

Armed with the code, President Muffley's War Room staff is able to recall all of the bombers that haven't been shot down except the one piloted by crafty Maj. T.J. "King" Kong (Slim Pickens), who guides his damaged plane through the Soviet defenses on its way to a secondary target. As the plane approaches its objective, however, trouble arises with the bomb release mechanism. Ever the enterprising warrior, Maj. Kong manually releases the bomb, and, cowboy hat in hand, rides it to earth like a bronco buster. Doomsday The explosion, of course, triggers the Russian "Doomsday Machine." Just before the end of the world, President Muffley and Dr. Strangelove fritter away precious time discussing how society's male elite and a proportionately larger contingent of beautiful women might survive the nuclear holocaust in underground hideouts, eventually repopulating the planet. Then, moments before the screen is filled with mushroom clouds and the sound track swirls with Vera Lynn's version of "We'll Meet Again," Dr. Strangelove staggers to his feet, proclaiming, "Mein Fuhrer, I can walk."

One of the finest, funniest, most intelligent black comedies ever made, Dr. Strangelove demonstrates Kubrick's mastery of cinematic art from its first frame to its last. The film is more than just funny or didactic, however, becoming engrossingly suspenseful as Kubrick continually shifts his focus from one of the film's three principal settings to another, cutting among them with increasing rapidity as the film nears its climax, catching the audience up inextricably in the tension-filled race to save the world.

Moreover, each of the film's relatively inexpensive sets is skillfully designed and photographed to heighten the impact of the events that transpire there. As production designer Ken Adam has explained, the War Room was rendered larger than life to lend the distanced decision-making that occurs there an appropriately fantastic quality. Gen. Ripper's office and Maj. Kong's bomber, The Leper Colony, on the other hand, are presented with a gritty realism. Indeed, the scenes inside the bomber are claustrophobically framed and filmed with source lighting, while the assault on the Air Force base—shot in a cinéma vérité style with a hand-held camera that was operated most of the time by Kubrick himself—has the look of a documentary. In each case the results are among the 1960s' most expressive black-and-white images.

Throughout the film Kubrick also uses his visuals to suggest the connection between the warring impulse and the male sex drive. From the sensual quality of the midair refueling that opens the film to Maj. Kong's wahooing ride to destruction on the huge oblong bomb at the film's end, Dr. Strangelove is full of phallic and sexual imagery. All of it mirrors the sexual obsessions of the film's most militant warriors: Jack Ripper's hoarding of his precious bodily fluids and Buck Turgidson's profligacy with his, most notably with his secretary, Miss Scott (Tracy Reed), who also appears as the centerfold in the Playboy ogled by Maj. Kong.

Significantly, Kubrick intended his adaptation of Peter George's novel Red Alert to be a straightforward drama, along the lines of Fail Safe, 1964's other cautionary tale about the horrors of nuclear weaponry. However, as Gene D. Phillips notes in Stanley Kubrick: A Film Odyssey, Kubrick decided to make the film "a nightmare comedy" after discovering, while trying to flesh out the screenplay, that he was continually forced to leave out things "which were either absurd or paradoxical in order to keep [the screenplay] from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question." Collaborating with George and Terry Southern, Kubrick crafted an immensely clever script, loaded with hilariously memorable scenes and dialogue, enlivened by the improvisational contributions of the film's accomplished cast.

At the time of the film's release, none of the cast members had attained real star status (though Sellers and Scott would later, of course). Rather, Kubrick assembled an extraordinarily talented lineup of character actors and let them run with their roles. Scott is unforgettable as gut-slapping hawk Buck Turgidson). His War Room scuffle with Soviet Ambassador de Sadesky—played with terrific tongue-in-cheek stoicism by Peter Bull—is among the film's highlights, topped off by Muffley's killer punch line: "Gentleman, you can't fight in here. This is the War Room!" Equally delightful is Scott's bug-eyed description of a lone bomber's chances against the Soviet defenses.

But as good as Scott's performance is, Sellers steals the show, bringing deft comic shading to each of his three roles: milquetoast liberal President Muffley; reserved but exasperated Group Captain Mandrake (whose slow burns bring to mind those of Monty Python's Cleese); and the absurdly grinning Dr. Strangelove, whose battles with his arm with an ideology of its own are worth the price of admission as he whips, bangs, and even sits on it before his hand finally attempts to strangle him. Hayden, Pickens, Wynn, and, in a smaller role, James Earl Jones also contribute wonderfully over-the-top supporting performances.

Surprisingly, Kubrick originally intended to end Dr. Strangelove with a colossal custard pie fight in the War Room. In fact, he spent nearly a week filming the melee before opting to culminate the film with a bang and sneer—the ironic combination of exploding hydrogen bombs and "We'll Meet Again."


Performer, Character

Peter Sellers, Capt. Lionel Mandrake and President and Merkin Muffley Dr. Strangelove

George C. Scott, Gen. Buck Turgidson

Sterling Hayden, Gen. Jack D. Ripper

Keenan Wynn, Col. Bat Guano

Slim Pickens, Maj. T.J. "King" Kong

Peter Bull, Ambassador de Sadesky

Tracy Reed, Miss Scott

James Earl Jones, Lt. Lothar Zogg

Production Credits:

Producer, Stanley Kubrick

Director, Stanley Kubrick

Screenwriters, Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, and Peter George (based on the novel Red Alert by George.)

Editor, Anthony Harvey

Cinematographer, Gilbert Taylor

Composer, Laurie Johnson