Peter Sellers, Sterling Hayden, George C. Scott
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
"Mandrake, have you never wondered why I drink only distilled water, or rain water, and only pure grain alcohol?"
Air Force General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) is convinced that the Communists are poisoning Americans through water fluoridation, and equally convinced that the U.S. government doesn't intend to do anything about it. The solution, he reasons, is clear: launch a nuclear strike on his own. When Ripper's strange, coded transmissions to Air Force bomber wings are detected, U.S. President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) summons his military advisors—including gung-ho Gen. "Buck" Turgidson (George C. Scott) and the titular Doctor Strangelove (Sellers again), a German scientist with a right hand that seems to have a mind of its own—to figure out what the heck is going on. When Ripper's British liaison and assistant, Captain Lionel Mandrake (Sellers a third time) discovers what is happening, he desperately attempts to communicate the recall codes to the President, who's got another problem to worry about: the Soviets have developed something called a doomsday device, it seems, and if a nuclear strike hits Soviet territory, the device will activate...
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Stanley Kubrick's nihilistic Cold War comedy, provides what is perhaps a fitting capper to the grim one-two-three punch of the first three films in our "Cold War Paranoia" series. It was Kubrick who made nuclear annihilation fun, after all, and perhaps that's not a bad way to look back on the bleak years of the Cuban Missile Crisis and duck-and-cover drills. When the British film journal Sight and Sound released its decennial survey of the top ten films in history as judged by the world's film directors and critics earlier this month, Dr. Strangelove rated fifth on the directors' list, and it regularly ranks near the top of other polls. It might be considered somewhat odd that this modestly-budgeted, intentionally adolescent treatment of such a frighteningly serious subject would have such staying power, but for one thing: Dr. Strangelove is hilarious. "A man wearing a funny hat is not funny," Roger Ebert wrote. "But a man who doesn't know he's wearing a funny hat... ah, now you've got something. The characters in Dr. Strangelove do not know their hats are funny."
The 1982 documentary Atomic Cafe is a compilation of archive footage of newsreels, training films, interviews, and similar material from the 1950s and 1960s about nuclear war. Many of these segments have been rendered unintentionally hilarious by the passage of time: a very young Rep. Lloyd Bentsen harangues the camera about the evils of Communism; an animated turtle named Bert advises children to "Duck and Cover!" if an atomic bomb explodes; the members of a girls' club demonstrate the kinds of canned foods that should be stocked in a fallout shelter. The humor comes from the way the subjects use a veneer of normalcy to paper over an all-consuming fear that their children would never get the chance to grow up in a world left unravaged by nuclear weapons. How fortunate we are, we think, that we can afford to laugh at such things. And then we watch Dr. Strangelove, filmed contemporaneously with many of the segments in Atomic Cafe, and we see that Kubrick had the balls to make fun of it while it was still going down. It's no mistake that Dr. Strangelove has proved to be the "definitive" Cold War movie; more than any of the others, it demonstrated the madness and absurdity behind the arms race.
Points to ponder:
- As I mentioned last time, the plot of this movie is virtually identical to that of Fail-Safe, though the two films were based on two different books. The source material for Dr. Strangelove is a novel called Red Alert by the writer Peter George, and was a straight thriller; Kubrick turned it into slapstick, the story goes, when some of the scenes he wrote turned out humorous. Compare the two films' approach to the subject, and their use of archetypes (the hawkish professor/scientist, the negotiating President, the various military officers).
- Kubrick employs a great deal of juvenile humor in naming his characters and settings: in addition to the ones named above, the film sports the likes of Burpelson Air Force Base, Colonel "Bat" Guano, Major "King" Kong, Soviet Premier Kissoff, and many more. It's an interesting choice—generally, when a director or writer loads up his film with silly names, it can be taken as a sign that the other comedic elements aren't working that well. Do you think the names enhance the humor or detract from it?
- In addition, much of the film is a blatant lampoon of male sexuality, as many of the names and other plot and visual elements demonstrate. Of course, it's somewhat old hat these days to equate militarism and phallocentrism, but Dr. Strangelove was made before the social revolution of the late 1960s that gave birth to the "left" as we know it today, so much of this stuff was at least somewhat new. Do you think this is an effective device in the film?
- Peter Sellers was originally intended to play a fourth role in the film, that of bomber captain Maj. "King" Kong. Sellers had trouble with the Texas accent, the story goes, and the role went to Slim Pickens, who was not told the picture was a comedy. I think Maj. Kong is my favorite character in the film, perhaps because Pickens plays him straight, as a patriotic American doing the job he's ordered to do, horrifying though it may be.
- Look for: James Earl Jones, in his very first film role as a crewman on Maj. Kong's bomber. You may also recognize Sterling Hayden (Gen. Ripper), who went on to play Capt. McCluskey, the corrupt police officer who gets shot by Michael Corleone in the Italian restaurant in The Godfather.