Its full title, Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is one of cinema's longest and weirdest. But the movie itself is so highly regarded that the uniqueness of its title barely gets mentioned. A satire of politics in the Cold War era and a rare foray into comedy for director Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove is considered one of the best of its kind. And why is that? Put on your cowboy hat, straddle a bomb, and let's investigate. The praise: It was nominated for Oscars in the best picture, director, adapted screenplay, and actor categories, but didn't win any of them. It did take home four prizes at the British Academy Awards, though, including best British film and best film from any source. Sight & Sound magazine's 2002 poll of directors placed Dr. Strangelove as the fifth best film ever made, the only comedy on the list. It was at No. 26 on the American Film Institute's 1998 list of the best American films ever made, and No. 39 on the 2007 revised list. It's also No. 26 on Empire's 500 greatest movies of all time, and No. 24 on Total Film's reader survey of the best comedies.The context: In the early 1960s, inspired by the ongoing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, Stanley Kubrick thought he'd like to make a thriller about a nuclear disaster. Casting about for ideas, he found a serious novel called Red Alert, by Peter George, the plot of which demonstrated how terrifyingly easy it would be for nuclear war to break out as the result of nothing more than a misunderstanding or a miscommunication. Kubrick bought the rights to the book and set out to adapt a screenplay.Then something funny happened: comedy. Kubrick realized that the material he was dealing with, while based in reality and entirely plausible, was comical at its core. He said:
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. (Macmillan International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, vol. 1, p. 126.)Having decided to make the story into a dark satire, Kubrick brought in writer Terry Southern to assist with the screenplay. Peter George, the author of the novel, got screenplay credit, too, and the basics of his original story remained. It was often said that much of the cast deserved recognition as well, in particular Peter Sellers, who developed much of his characters' dialogue himself. The president's phone conversation with the Soviet premier was reportedly almost entirely created by Sellers:Peter Sellers, a popular British comic, had appeared in Kubrick's Lolita (1962), playing a character who adopts several disguises. Sellers was a master of voices and dialects, so Kubrick asked him to play multiple characters in Dr. Strangelove: the German scientist of the title (who had his origins in one of Sellers' Lolita disguises), U.S. President Merkin Muffley, and a British officer named Mandrake. Kubrick also wanted Sellers to play Maj. Kong, the Texas-bred cowboy Air Force pilot; Sellers wasn't sure he could get the accent right, and then broke his ankle and couldn't work in the confinements of the cockpit anyway. The character of Dr. Strangelove was apparently an amalgam of a few real people. One was Dr. Wernher von Braun, a German-born Nazi rocket scientist who was now in the employ of the U.S. military and was famous for being analytical and compassionless. Another was Herman Kahn, an American scientist known at the time for being a nuclear war theorist. Dr. Strangelove shows characteristics of both men, filtered through Peter Sellers' bizarre imagination. The film was scheduled for release in December 1963 but was pushed back to late January after the Nov. 22 assassination of President Kennedy. Dr. Strangelove doesn't seem to comment on any specific American or Russian leaders, but releasing a dark satire about nuclear politics so soon after JFK's death seemed crass (not to mention a marketing nightmare). One line of dialogue in the film was changed: Maj. Kong originally said, "A fella could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff"; it was redubbed "Vegas" to avoid reminding people of the city where JFK was killed. Did the JFK assassination also affect the final scene of Dr. Strangelove? Depends on whom you ask. Kubrick's original ending had the president, the Russian ambassador, and everyone else getting into a pie fight in the War Room. When the president takes a pie to the face, Gen. Turgidson declares, "Gentlemen! The president has been struck down, in the prime of his life and his presidency!" Obviously, you don't include an absurd joke like that in a film released shortly after the real-life president has been assassinated.Kubrick said in a 1969 interview that he cut the scene because "I decided it was farce and not consistent with the satiric tone of the rest of the film." His co-screenwriter, Terry Southern, said the pie fight, shot in one take, had turned out far merrier than Kubrick wanted it to be -- he'd wanted these generals and leaders to be angry with each other, but had neglected to convey that to the actors, who behaved like a bunch of boys having a food fight. Alexander Walker, a film critic and biographer of Kubrick, says in the 40th anniversary DVD edition, "The cream pies were flying around so thickly that people lost definition, and you couldn't really say whom you were looking at."Any of those would be good reasons to cut the scene, and Walker says Kubrick had decided to eliminate it before Kennedy was assassinated anyway. But in another documentary on the 40th anniversary DVD, the film's editor, Anthony Harvey, says otherwise: "It would have stayed, except that Columbia Pictures were horrified, and thought it would offend the president's family." It's most likely that Harvey is misremembering the sequence of events. Everyone else says the scene's deletion was determined before the assassination and was for any of several other reasons. Unfortunately, the scene has never been included on any of the video releases, and may never be seen again. The movie: An Air Force officer named Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders his planes to attack Russia in a preemptive strike, figuring that this will lead to all-out war and settle the matter once and for all. In Washington, the U.S. president (Peter Sellers) is informed of the impending disaster and, unable to call the planes back, notifies the Soviet premier of the mistake. But Russia's doomsday device ensures that if the country is the target of a nuclear attack -- even an accidental one, for which the United States is very, very sorry -- a series of counterstrikes will happen automatically, and that'll be all she wrote, humanity-wise. What it influenced: Dr. Strangelove is unabashedly an antiwar film, but its comedic nature made it more palatable to audiences than a strident drama -- for example, Kubrick's own Paths of Glory (1957) -- would have been. It was a box-office success and was featured on the cover of Time magazine later that year, in an issue devoted to the subject of nuclear proliferation. The film arrived at a time when anxieties about the Cold War, not to mention the hot war in Vietnam, were increasing, and it helped open the door for other movies to address the same fears. Bosley Crowther, film critic for the New York Times, had mixed feelings about this particular piece of work. "There is so much about it that is grand, so much that is brilliant and amusing, and much that is grave and dangerous," he wrote. He called it "the most shattering sick joke I've ever come across," and it's not clear whether that's a compliment. His review came around to this point: "I am troubled by the feeling, which runs all through the film, of discredit and even contempt for our whole defense establishment, up to and even including the hypothetical Commander in Chief."A few other writers shared his sentiments, including one for the Washington Post, who wrote: "No Communist could dream of a more effective anti-American film to spread abroad than this one. United States officials, including the President, had better take a look at this one to see its effect on the national interest." Nick Clooney, in his book The Movies That Changed Us, says Crowther was partly right: "Stanley Kubrick did have a distrust of, and probably contempt for, our military establishment -- any military establishment." Clooney adds that the film "developed in us an embryonic skepticism for what was beginning to be called the 'military establishment,' and it fostered a growing skepticism about authority everywhere." Set designer Ken Adams created a War Room that's now one of the most indelible images in film, a vast, dark concrete bunker that's frequently imitated when movies want to show the highest levels of military operations. (See, for example, Nixon's room in Watchmen.) The setting gave rise to what might be Dr. Strangelove's most famous line of dialogue: "Gentlemen! You can't fight in here! This is the War Room!" Speaking of indelible images, the sight of Slim Pickens riding a nuclear bomb like a rodeo bull might as well be the logo for this film. It's been parodied and referenced dozens of times, especially as shorthand for political cartoonists who want to suggest rough, reckless, cowboy-style foreign policy. See examples here, here, here, and here.The influence of Gen. Turgidson, played unforgettably by George C. Scott, can be seen in Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) in Apocalypse Now (1979), as well as in other gonzo military leaders of film. In Back to the Future, Marty plugs his guitar into a device at Doc Brown's house labeled "CRM-114." That's what the message decoder in the B-52 in Dr. Strangelove was called. What to look for: Most versions of the film begin with this disclaimer, inserted by Columbia Pictures and not endorsed by Kubrick:
It is the stated position of the United States Air Force that their safeguards would prevent the occurrence of such events as are depicted in this film. Furthermore, it should be noted that none of the characters portrayed in this film are meant to represent any real persons living or dead.But of course what makes the satire resonant is that it COULD happen, if not exactly like this then in some other way attributable to human weakness. That's what made the Cold War so nerve-racking. The film's central theme is that war is a substitute for sex, and that men are preoccupied with both. The idea of amassing an arsenal bigger than your enemy's -- even though you both already have enough to destroy the world -- is ridiculous on its face, and yet that's exactly what Cold War politics were about. Dr. Strangelove exposes the silliness of it, with men engaging in petty masculine squabbles and posturing even as the fate of the world hangs in the balance. The connection between sex and war is established immediately. The opening credits show us Air Force jets refueling in flight, like two mechanical creatures doin' it in midair, with the sweet strains of a love song ("Try a Little Tenderness") on the soundtrack. The title character (who is not found in the novel) has a name suggesting not just sex but deviant sex, and many of the other characters' names also have sexual connotations: Gen. Jack D. Ripper (after Jack the Ripper, who killed prostitutes); Capt. Lionel Mandrake (a plant used as an aphrodisiac); Gen. Buck Turgidson ("turgid" means swollen or distended); President Merkin Muffley (a merkin is a pubic wig; "muff" has similar connotations); Russian ambassador Alexi de Sadesky (suggesting the Marquis de Sade). There is also the matter of impotence. Gen. Ripper reveals that his commie-fearing conspiracy theories were rooted in his sexual failures. Gen. Turgidson's tryst with his secretary is interrupted by the nuclear emergency. ("You just start your countdown," he tells her, "and old Bucky'll be back here before you can say 'blast off'!") Major Kong, the rootin'-tootin' Air Force pilot whose plane will deliver the payload, finds he can't get the bombs to launch on cue and must deploy them manually. Dr. Strangelove is confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk, or even to control his sinister right hand. (The erstwhile Nazi has reformed, but his hand still pledges allegiance to the Fuhrer.) Given the film's theme of masculine bravado, it's fitting that there is only one female character in the whole thing. She's Gen. Turgidson's lover (and secretary), Miss Scott, and she's played by Tracy Reed, who also appears as a centerfold model in an issue of Playboy magazine found on the B-52. Kubrick was famous for being a meticulous perfectionist who controlled every single aspect of his films. Film historian Eric Rhode sees this reflected in four of the movie's characters -- Gen. Ripper, Gen. Turgidson, Maj. Guano, and Dr. Strangelove --
each of whom represents, in caricature, different aspect of the obsessional personality. Kubrick allows these self-proclaimed guardians and apostles of a hygienic civilization to become responsible for the operation of a nuclear-control system that mirrors their compulsions. He then has one of them (by reason of his obsessions) trigger off this system, and the others (equally by reason of their obsessions) unable to control it once it has been set in motion. (A History of the Cinema, p. 611.)Roger Ebert notes that Kubrick's two masterpieces, Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey, "share a common theme: Man designs machinery that functions with perfect logic to bring about a disastrous outcome." Human weakness screws things up, but unemotional machines, lacking the human touch, can screw things up too. Oh, and yes, that's James Earl Jones, in his first film, playing one of the Air Force guys on the B-52. What's the big deal: Films trading in satire, especially political satire, don't usually succeed at the box office. The keener the satire, the more likely it is to go over people's heads. But Dr. Strangelove was a hit, making some audiences laugh while others were unnerved at the absurd but plausible disasters it described. In 1964, distrust of the military industrial complex was not yet commonplace, nor was it especially fashionable to have anti-nuclear sentiments. Kubrick's film was several years ahead of its time in those respects. In other ways, it was perfectly timeless. You'd have to swap out some of the details (make it North Korea instead of Russia, etc.), but the tone of the film -- its sharp jabs at man's foibles and government's arrogance -- holds up just as well in 2010. And I know this is subjective, but it's also really, really funny. Further reading: Screenwriter Terry Southern's "Notes from the War Room" is chock-full of fascinating behind-the-scenes details, while Brian Siano's "A Commentary on Dr. Strangelove" summarizes many of the facts concerning the film's background. As usual, Tim Dirks' thorough discussion is worth reading after you've seen the movie once.Eric D. Snider (website) has been to one world fair, a picnic, and a rodeo.