Updated: Dec 24, 2021
Dr. Strangelove (1964) is an almost malevolent satire, aimed directly - and with pinpoint accuracy - at those holding the levers of power. It was co-written and directed by Stanley Kubrick and like his previous film, the hugely controversial Lolita (1962), its underpinnings were drawn from a pre-existing literary source. This was a typicality of Kubrick. He would take from the material the framework he required, and then create his own unique vision. Lolita was heavily (and necessarily) toned down from Nabokov’s original intent. Conversely Kubrick, in conjunction with the books’ author Peter George, amplifies the novel 'Red Alert' (1958) and creates something that swings anarchically from the vaguely restrained to the eye-wateringly absurd.
The film, which essentially occurs on three sets (including the legendary ‘War Room’), lampoons the military doctrine of ‘mutually assured destruction’ (MAD), and seeks to highlight just how easily the layers and mechanisms of nuclear protection could, in theory, be compromised. It also questions the morals, competency and outright sanity of those within the chain of command, from pilot to president. It took balls the size of Bristol to potentially antagonise the military at the height of the Cold War, and to wit the film was labelled ‘pinko’ and even dangerous by certain entities. The Cuban Missile Crisis was still fresh in the memory, and after the film’s release the American military establishment was sufficiently moved to publicly clarify the vital role served by the real Strategic Air Command. I’m sure this suitably perplexed all those real-life ‘ruskies’, to use the parlance of General Buck Turgidson (the magnificent George C. Scott), back in the Soviet Union.
A hugely under-appreciated aspect of the film is its use of a sexual subtext within both dialogue and imagery. Kubrick himself confirmed this was his deliberate intention, and he found it highly amusing that so few people apparently failed to notice. For example, the very first image in the film features a B52 being refuelled by another plane, with lingering close-ups of a hose being repeatedly inserted into a taut fuselage. Another instance is the homoerotic interplay between Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (as played by Peter Sellers) and General Ripper (played with total conviction by Sterling Hayden), which is basically a thinly-veiled pre and post-coital embrace, taking in the feeding and firing of General Ripper’s very large machine gun, and Ripper’s fixation on the purity of his own bodily fluids. In both instances the subtext is glaring and completely hilarious to behold.
Dr. Strangelove is referred to as a ‘Kubrick film’ but is unique in that it is also a ‘Peter Sellers film’. Kubrick greatly admired Sellers, but was only too aware of his reputation for improvisation. Kubrick elected to let him off the leash, and coaxed what he needed amidst the ensuing madness. This was a risky but ultimately supremely effective stratagem. The Mercurial Sellers plays three different roles within the film, and had he not hurt his ankle at the start of filming, he would’ve taken Slim Pickens’ place atop the nuclear steed. Sellers delivers a masterclass in his own personal brand of comedy, portraying the aforementioned, charmingly British Group Captain Mandrake, alongside a more restrained take on the entirely feckless President of the United States, Merkin Muffley. Finally, Sellers portrays the eponymous Dr. Strangelove: a leering, obviously demented ex-Nazi scientist and strategist. He is wheelchair-bound and suffers from a bizarre affliction of the right arm, causing it to rise upwards in a sudden and rather familiar fashion, whilst yelling ‘Mein Fuhrer!’. The Strangelove character was a Kubrick creation, and his Nazi heritage was interpreted by many as a commentary on the notorious post-war recruitment of ex-Nazi scientists by the United States, via ‘Operation Paperclip’.
In one film we witness anti-military sentiment, implied sexuality and overt references to Nazism, occurring in 1960’s America. Only Stanley Kubrick would’ve been so bold. He was the most meticulous filmmaker the world has ever seen. He possessed an uncanny ability to beautifully synthesise the world he wanted the viewer to see, in a manner that was both distinctive and technologically astounding. At the same time, he maintained a fanatical attention to detail and was a perfectionist. Dr. Strangelove is an ode to the rebelliousness that would come to define Kubrick in his creative and intellectual choices. He was a true visionary, and his films can be consumed as awesome visual constructs and entertaining, edifying stories, but always they ruminate on the disquiet that follows a person’s soul. They incorporate themes of madness and darkness because Kubrick saw this as the truth of human nature. Dr. Strangelove embodies this truth, being both frighteningly nihilistic and riotously hilarious all at once. It is unquestionably the work of a genius.
Madmen with their fingers hovering over the Big Red Button. Government committees sitting in a large room trying to make decisions before the countdown results in global annihilation. Sound familiar? Made in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis and slap back in the middle of the Cold War, Dr. Strangelove's political machinations echo through the subsequent decades. Look up the definition of the word 'satire' in the dictionary, and Dr Strangelove will likely be there, front and centre. Sterling Hayden plays unhinged General Ripper, obsessed with protecting “precious bodily fluids”, who issues Wing Attack Plan R, an emergency war plan aimed at Russian targets. Convinced that water fluoridation is a Russian conspiracy, he bypasses the usual chain of command, resulting in the rather ineffective President Muffley (Peter Sellers, in one of three roles) and assorted officers being briefed in the War Room by General 'Buck' Turgidson (a marvellous George C. Scott) in order to decide a plan of action. Kubrick was notorious for not being an 'actor's director', demanding take after take in the search for perfection, perhaps seeing actors as an irritation, spoiling the view. However far he pushed his actors to their limits though, he always got great performances from them. Dr. Strangelove is no exception. Kubrick had heated disagreements with George C. Scott over how the role of Turgidson should be played. Kubrick wanted the growling, gurning and gum chewing whereas Scott preferred more subtlety. Ultimately, Kubrick's request won out, and indeed, where Peter Sellers perhaps has the more showy role – in fact, three showy roles! – Scott's performance is the lynchpin of the film. As can be expected of a Kubrick film, it is obsessively well put together; a satire filmed in the style of a thriller. From dark, low angle close ups of General Ripper, to wide angle shots of Ken Adam's beautifully designed War Room, to back projected footage of Western stalwart Slim Pickens riding a nuclear missile like a rodeo champion, the film skirts a fine line between satire, farce, comedy and tragedy in a way only a few films – such as Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin (2017) – have managed since. The brilliantly irreverent “hello, Dimitri” scene is probably one of the finest improvised scenes in cinema. How the other actors kept a straight face is a marvel. Throughout, the complete lack of communication between the powers that be and the men in the sky is hilariously and terrifyingly farcical. A pertinent example of this is Group Captain Mandrake (Sellers again, as arguably the only voice of reason in the entire film), trying to contact the President with the 3-digit code necessary to call off the attack. With the phone lines down at the Air Base, his only option is to use a nearby payphone without sufficient spare change. The film cleverly shows how quickly paranoia and distrust can percolate through a situation. Dr. Strangelove was a brave film for its times. The fact that the issues it deals with are just as prescient now is both a tribute to the visionary screenwriters and director, and a sad indictment of the abuse of power. It is a superlative satire that stays on just the right side of farce (a final scene involving a food fight in the War Room was ultimately decided against) and, apart from a slightly incoherent conclusion (the admittedly hilarious “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!”), Dr. Strangelove barely puts a sinister gloved hand wrong.