Appellate Judge Dave Ryan can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.
Our reviews of Dr. Strangelove (Blu-Ray) (published June 16th, 2009) and Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection (published June 22nd, 2016) are also available.
"But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed. Tops! Uh…depending on the breaks."
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (henceforth Dr. Strangelove, for the sake of my poor fingers) is unquestionably the iconic film of the Cold War. It was the second in a string of five monumental films by acclaimed director Stanley Kubrick; arguably, it is his definitive film as well. Simply as dark as a comedy can possibly be, Dr. Strangelove features what many consider the greatest performance by the erratic British comedy genius Peter Sellers, who plays three vastly different characters to absolute perfection. Forty years on, Dr. Strangelove is still considered by many critics to be among the best comedies ever made.
But the Cold War is over. So why should we care about this film anymore? How can something so closely tied to Cold War paranoia have any relevance or entertainment value in the post-Cold War era?
Facts of the Case
General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden, The Godfather) is insane. Unfortunately for the world, he's also the commanding officer of a wing of 36 nuclear bombers stationed at Burpleson Air Base, whom he has just ordered to attack their targets in Soviet Russia. To make matters even worse, he's craftily used an attack plan that, to make a long story short, can't be revoked unless a very specific code prefix is issued in the recall order. A prefix known only by General Jack D. Ripper.
Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers, Being There, The Pink Panther) is an RAF officer "on loan" to the Strategic Air Command under an officer exchange program. While cheerfully (well, he is British) tidying up his workspace after Gen. Ripper orders the base sealed, he finds a small transistor radio. To his surprise, he finds all the stations playing music. Since the General just told him that the Communists have launched a massive nuclear strike against the U.S., he thought the radio stations would be taking things a bit more seriously. He takes his concerns to the General, only to discover that the General is, in fact, insane. Mandrake finds himself locked in an office with the General, who's armed, dangerous, and (of course) insane.
Major T.J. "King" Kong (Slim Pickens, Blazing Saddles) commands a nuclear-armed B-52 Stratofortress. While patrolling at their designated "hold" point, a coded attack order comes in on the secure radio receiver. At first, Kong thinks it's a problem with the radio, but his radio officer soon confirms the message. After giving the crew a brief pep talk about their duty and America and freedom and such, Kong takes the controls, and the B-52 is off to nuke the bejesus out of the Commies.
General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott, Patton) is trying to spend some quality time with his secretary/mistress (Tracy Reed) when the phone rings. Of course, it's news about the impending nuclear strike on Russia that has been launched by his insane subordinate Ripper. Truman's proverbial buck is on its way up the food chain, and it's making a stop in Turgidson's lap. He's off to the government's War Room to brief the President.
President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) is not pleased. Not only has a nuclear strike been launched without his explicit orders, but he apparently has no way to recall the bombers. Over the strenuous objections of his generals, especially Turgidson, he brings the Russian ambassador, Alexi de Sadesky (Peter Bull) into the top-secret War Room for consultation. Sadesky assures him that the Russians will not take at all kindly to being nuked. Perversely, it seems that the points being made by Turgidson and another presidential advisor—a former Nazi enigmatically named "Dr. Strangelove" (Peter Sellers)—are correct: if the attack can't be stopped, the only logical course of action is to launch a full-scale, all-forces attack and make the best of it.
But then Sadesky drops his own bombshell: the Russians have designed and built a Doomsday Device as a deterrent. The Doomsday Device will irradiate the world if Russia is attacked, making the surface of the Earth uninhabitable for hundreds of years. Muffley realizes that the bombers must be stopped by any means necessary. Meanwhile, Kong and his crew proceed on their mission with typical American ingenuity and determination…
Forty years after its creation at the height of Cold War tensions, Dr. Strangelove continues to provoke discussion (and outright argument) among film critics, film lovers, historians, and Kubrick fans. Heck, observers still can't even agree on what the film is—is it a dark comedy or a satiric drama? It would be easy to think of the film as a mocking satire of the far more serious Sidney Lumet/Henry Fonda picture Fail-Safe…except that Dr. Strangelove was made first. In fact, Kubrick sued the makers of Fail-Safe on the ground that they infringed his license of Peter George's novel Red Alert, the original source material for his film.
This 40th Anniversary release of Dr. Strangelove isn't going to settle any of the debate over this landmark film. But it does give the arguing parties a well-transferred copy of the movie with a good gaggle of extras. Let the arguing begin!
Dr. Strangelove, as noted above, is based on the novel Red Alert by English author Peter George, which was a dramatic thriller. Kubrick initially intended to make a straight dramatic version of the story, and pitched the project as such. But as he got deeper into his work on the project, Kubrick began to be overwhelmed by the absurdity of concepts associated with nuclear conflict, such as "acceptable civilian megacasualties" and "mutually assured destruction." The germ of an idea sprouted in his mind: maybe, instead of highlighting the drama of the story, the film should highlight the absurdity of it. Apparently he managed to convince himself, since that is the film he eventually made. He brought in noted author/satirist Terry Southern (The Magic Christian, Candy), who had interviewed him for Esquire magazine after Lolita, to help him draft a comic adaptation of the George novel.
The final piece of the puzzle for Kubrick was getting Peter Sellers to star in the film. At that point, Sellers was tremendously popular in England thanks to his work with Spike Milligan, Michael Bentine, and Harry Secombe on BBC Radio's The Goon Show, but was essentially unknown in the United States. Kubrick had cast Sellers in Lolita (as both Claire Quilty and Dr. Zempf), and was impressed by Seller's versatility and talent. He wanted to do a feature with Sellers as a lead; Dr. Strangelove was his first opportunity to use him. Coincidentally, Columbia Pictures had recently signed Sellers to a film deal, and also wanted him to star in a U.S.-distributed feature. So Sellers was in with absolutely no studio objections.
Initially, Sellers was to play four roles in the film: President Merkley, Captain Mandrake, Dr. Strangelove, and Major Kong. (Besides his dual role in Lolita, Sellers had previously played multiple roles in The Mouse that Roared.) He wound up dropping the Kong role—although stories vary as to why. (Some say he did it voluntarily because he didn't think he could handle four roles; some say he didn't think he could pull off the cowboy accent; some say he was precluded from playing Kong after breaking his ankle, which rendered him physically unable to enter the bomber set.) Cowboy/country musician/actor Slim Pickens was brought in at the last minute to take over the Kong role. Rounding out the primary cast were former matinee idol Sterling Hayden (who had been semi-retired since 1958) as the mentally deranged General Ripper, and highly regarded young(ish) actor George C. Scott, coming off critically acclaimed performances in Anatomy of a Murder and The Hustler, as General Turgidson.
With screenplay and talented cast in hand, Kubrick designed a minimalist production, with only three main sets: the inside of the B-52, the office of General Ripper, and the massive War Room. He also shot the film in black and white (as he did with Lolita), keeping the overall visual tone of the film as dark as the script. Unsurprisingly unable to get any cooperation from the U.S. Air Force, Kubrick had to use a relatively cheap-looking model shot in front of rear-projected air-shot terrain footage for all of the "in flight" bomber exteriors.
Although Kubrick was notoriously meticulous when it came to the technical aspects of filmmaking, he often gave his actors a great deal of latitude to improvise (within reason) on-camera. (After all, he was going to shoot the scene 72 times anyhow—might as well let them experiment, I suppose.) And in Dr. Strangelove, he had a phenomenally improvisational actor: Peter Sellers.
Ultimately, Sellers is the primary reason to see this picture. His Oscar-nominated triple play here—three characters who couldn't be more different from each other—is dazzling. He gives each of his characters a unique and clear identity, whether it's the milquetoasty sanity of Muffley or the always-British restraint of Mandrake. And, of course, he's funny. Very funny. His one-sided Hot Line telephone conversations (as Muffley) with the Russian Premier "Dmitri" are simply brilliant. (Think Bob Newhart, who eventually made a whole career out of that shtick…) Equally hilarious is Mandrake's mannered confrontation with the commander of the soldiers tasked with re-taking Burpleton AFB by force, Colonel "Bat" Guano (Keenan Wynn, Kiss Me Kate, Nashville), who suspects him of being a "prevert" (sic).
Sellers's nuanced comedic performances in the Muffley and Mandrake roles aren't the end of the story—there's still the not-so-good Doctor himself to consider. Strangelove (per the film, an Anglicization of his original German surname "Fremdeliebe"), although the title character of the film, isn't really a particularly significant character. He gets very little screen time, and doesn't actively participate in the film's plots. He's more like Kubrick and Southern's idea of a Greek chorus; a demented little man put there to highlight how absurd the situation has become at key points in the story. Yet Sellers manages to make him the most memorable character in the entire film, by relying on his profound gift for physical comedy. There's something just plain profoundly wrong with Strangelove—you can see his evil, Josef Mengele Nazi nature bubbling underneath as he tries to consciously behave like a good, rational American. That's why he can't control his right arm, which eventually tries (unsuccessfully) to kill him. Although wheelchair-bound, he's constantly in motion, fidgeting as if he's infested with fleas. And there's always that gleam of mania in his eyes. Sellers is hardly subtle as Strangelove, and it works perfectly. He single-handedly takes the character from side element to icon—heck, the term "Strangeloveian" has become a half-accepted adjective in the English language today—and he's a side character!
Set against Sellers' controlled and focused over-the-topness as Strangelove is George C. Scott's extreme over-the-topness as Turgidson. As it turns out, this performance—which is hysterical—was actually tricked out of Scott. Scott wanted to play the character with a bit more dignity and rationality. Kubrick allowed him to do so, but also had him play his scenes with different tonalities in subsequent takes, "just to see how it plays," including a completely over-the-top performance. When Scott saw the completed film, he was shocked to see that Kubrick had only used the "over the top" takes in the final cut, making Turgidson a cartoon character. Scott was apparently very bitter about this, and swore to never work with Kubrick again. Although I have the utmost respect for Scott, who was extremely talented and intelligent, in this case I think Kubrick's deception was justified. Turgidson's looniness—his absolute zeal for the entire concept of nuking the Russians—is essential for the satire. If he's just a sane, rational general giving the President obscene-yet-logical advice concerning the annihilation of millions, this film isn't funny. But when he's practically jumping for joy at the thought, considering it a big opportunity, we're now witnessing the absurdity of it all. Besides, Scott is fantastic as an over-the-top general—he probably deserved a supporting actor Oscar nomination. (The award went to Peter Ustinov for Topkapi that year.) He's an intelligent Homer Simpson here—and pulling that off is no small feat.
This 40th Anniversary Edition version of the film, coming so soon after 2001's "Special Edition" release, isn't as much of a double-dip as it seems. Yes, most of the extra features are just the same features that were included on that 2001 release. But they've been moved to their own disc now, freeing up space on the feature disc for a new anamorphic transfer of the film and newly-created DTS and Dolby Digital surround tracks. Given that they were synthesized from a 40-year-old mono audio track, the surround tracks are respectably decent. However, there's only so much one can do with mono tracks, and the "surround" effect is far from stunning. Think of them as really good stereo tracks that occasionally use the rear channels. The transfer is clean enough—although there are still occasional pops and crackles in the black and white image—and does a very good job with the film's deep black levels. Overall, the disc is technically solid but unspectacular.
There are three new features here that add value to the package. A new documentary, "No Fighting in the War Room," attempts to put Dr. Strangelove into its proper context by discussing the Cold War and America's attitude towards it in the early '60s. I'm not entirely sure what Spike Lee brings to the table here, but the interviews with Bob Woodward (of the Washington Post) and Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations) are interesting. A second documentary, "Best Sellers," covers the career of Peter Sellers. Finally, the unexpurgated interview with McNamara done for the first documentary is included as a separate feature. This latter bit is the most interesting of all for amateur Cold War historians. McNamara, who was a polarizing figure in his time, is still as feisty and obstinate as ever, even in his eighties.
Kubrick fans: yes, they do reference that ending. You see, Dr. Strangelove as originally filmed had a very different end scene. Originally, all of the parties in the War Room would, at the film's climax, start a gigantic, Marx Brothers-style pie fight. The fight was filmed—in one take, of course, since it virtually destroyed the set. However, the studio executives at Columbia hated it, and wanted it removed. After seeing the rough edit, Kubrick agreed with them, and re-cut the film so that it ended a bit earlier, which became the released version. The pie fight footage is, apparently, lost to time, but the documentary features on the disc contain some still photographs taken during the shoot. The pie fight certainly would have made for a profoundly absurd ending; but all in all, I think they made the right decision to cut it. It would have pushed the film's tone from "sharp" to "stupid," and diminished the cleverness of the rest of the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Dr. Strangelove's greatest weakness is that it is truly a film of its time. But that time has passed. Today's filmgoers do not live in a universe of Red Menaces, duck-and-cover, dominoes falling in Asia, and fallout shelters. While Dr. Strangelove is still a funny film in today's world, a good deal of its absurdity and daring is lost without that Cold War paranoia backdrop.
The threat of nuclear war was a part of daily life in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The typical young adult buying a ticket for Dr. Strangelove in 1963 likely would have been through dozens of air raid drills while in school, cowering underneath their desks in the hopes that they'd somehow survive an atomic blast. If they were a bit older, they may have actually fought in the Korean war against seemingly endless hordes of Red Chinese. Some may have heard, or read, Winston Churchill's speeches on the threat posed by the Soviet Union, including his famed 1946 "Iron Curtain" speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. Few would be unaware of the fact that John F. Kennedy had won the presidency in 1960 partially thanks to the national belief that there was a "bomber gap" between the U.S. and the Soviet Union—one that Kennedy pledged to eliminate. Nobody would have missed the implicit message contained in the Soviet space successes, from Sputnik to Gagarin: If we can put a man in orbit, we can sure put a bomb on the front porch of the White House, and without much warning at that. This from a nation led by a man who had proclaimed "We will bury you!" to a group of western diplomats in 1956, after he had invaded Hungary to end a popular uprising against a puppet Socialist government.
This is the proper context for Dr. Strangelove: a world in which death at the hands of an evil Communist empire with a yen for world domination was only a button-push away. In that context, the expansive parody of Dr. Strangelove—where everyone charged with defending the world against this terror is a ninny, insane, or perhaps even both—is far more subversive. The kind of people who were supposed to be the last, best hope for defending freedom in the world were being portrayed as absurd fools. There's no real comparable in today's world, because there's no over-arching global fear for a film to play off of. Terrorism is the closest possibility, but it's too amorphous a threat; it certainly doesn't have the impact that Soviet tanks rolling through Budapest or the Berlin Wall gave the Communist threat.
Without that Cold War touchstone, Dr. Strangelove goes from being a biting, absurd satire to just a plain old funny movie. The film is still well made and well acted, but a lot of the point has been lost. We know that the events seen in Dr. Strangelove will never happen, at least in that way. The people who originally viewed it didn't. We laugh because Sellers and Scott are funny; they laughed because the subject matter of the movie scared them, and laughter was the only release available. That, ultimately, was Kubrick's point—the Cold War is so frightening that all you can do is laugh. But that's something that will be completely lost on contemporary viewers who didn't live through the Cold War.
In summary, let's return to the two questions posed in the Opening Statement:
Why should we care about this movie?
Because it's a well-crafted comedy, with brilliant performances from Peter Sellers and George C. Scott. It's one of the defining films of a great American director, Stanley Kubrick. It's a historical time capsule, embodying the fear and absurd logic prevalent at the height of the Cold War. And it's funny!
How can something so closely tied to Cold War paranoia have any relevance or entertainment value in the post-Cold War era?
As far as having relevance—in today's world, it can't; there's no getting around that. In the absence of the Soviet threat, Dr. Strangelove simply isn't as powerful or relevant as it was in 1963. But the lack of a Cold War doesn't harm the film's entertainment value in the least. Silly people being silly is entertaining regardless of the context. What's lost is the audacity of the film; its intent to mock things that were real, tangible fears for most of the viewing audience at the time.
Is Dr. Strangelove one of the best comedies ever? Ultimately, that judgment rests with the viewer. There's nothing here that suggests it shouldn't be considered for that status, though. It's a remarkable film that presents absurd characters and events in an absolutely straight-laced context. It will always trigger arguments among the Kubrick and Anti-Kubrick crowds; but in the end, it's just a really funny early Peter Sellers movie. And that's pretty entertaining.
The survivors of Dr. Strangelove are free to go hide away in their underground bomb shelter caves—you know, the ones with the 1:7 male/female ratio.
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