Director Stanley Kubrick’s satirical Cold War masterpiece
pg | 1h34 | Comedy, Satire, War | January 29, 1964 (United States)
The third of director Stanley Kubrick’s four war feature films, “Dr. Strangelove” (or formally: “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”) is easily his offers the most accessible to the general public and arguably the biggest film in its almost flawless sterling catalog.
As with virtually all of Kubrick’s films, the details surrounding the gestation, production, and release of “Dr. Strangelove” are almost as captivating as the film itself.
A genius at recognizing source material that could be adapted and shaped to his specific style and tastes, Kubrick bought the film rights to Peter George’s (under the pseudonym Peter Bryant) dramatic thriller “Red Alert” for $3,500 and hired George to co-write the screenplay with him.
After a few incomplete drafts under the working titles “Edge of Doom” and “The Delicate Balance of Terror”, Kubrick determined the film would work much better as a satirical comedy and brought in writer Terry Southern (“Candy “, “Easy Rider”). to put the finishing touches.
Working with Kubrick for the first time, financier-distributor Columbia Pictures had only one casting precondition. Correctly assuming that Peter Sellers’ chameleon-like performance was the main reason for the box office and critical success of “Lolita” the previous year, studio executives asked Kubrick to have Sellers play four characters in his new movie.
Both men were happy to oblige and in addition to the sinister main character, Sellers appeared as British RAF officer Lionel Mandrake and US President Merkin Muffley whom Sellers modeled in both demeanor and physique after presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson II three times.
If it hadn’t been for a sprained ankle during rehearsals, Sellers would also have played the captain, Maj. TJ “King” Kong. The role of Kong eventually went to former rodeo rider and character actor Slim Pickens.
For the central role of General Jack D. Ripper, Kubrick persuaded Sterling Hayden to come out of retirement, which wasn’t terribly difficult as the pair had previously worked together on the 1956 thriller “The Killing.”
Not much different from the corrupt police captain he would later play in ‘The Godfather,’ Hayden’s Ripper is a delusional misogynist whose “precious fluids” monologue alongside Mandrake is one of the funniest bits in a movie. littered with heartbreaking and quotable dialogue.
The role of the final main character, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Buck Turgidson, went to George C. Scott, who had never before appeared in a comedy film. After the film’s release, Scott took great umbrage at Kubrick for what he described as “forcing him to overdo it”, which is technically correct.
In all of his scenes, Kubrick asked Scott for “small”, “medium”, and “exaggerated” takes of the material, and invariably Kubrick used all of the larger performances in the final cut.
Ripper sets things in motion by issuing an unauthorized order deploying dozens of B-52 Stratofortress aircraft loaded with nuclear bombs to be dropped on the Soviet Union. Anticipating an immediate reaction, Ripper also cuts off all incoming and outgoing communications from a fictional airbase and imposes radio silence.
Despite his best efforts, Mandrake fails to convince Ripper to reverse the order. He encounters further resistance when he is blocked by Colonel “Bat” Guano (Keenan Wynn) as he attempts to call the President from a phone booth.
The war room
Meanwhile, back in the war room (which is about the size of an airplane hangar), Turgidson is in full sell mode, trying to convince Muffley that nothing can be done to stop the attack. and any attempt at 11th hour diplomacy with his Soviet counterpart. will be in vain.
Turgidson goes a step further trying to soften the blow by admitting “we’re going to ruffle our hair, but at most there will be ‘only’ 10-20 million American casualties, up high” when the Soviets inevitably retaliate. via their mysterious “apocalypse”. machine.”
Absent until the last act, Muffley’s wheelchair-wearing, sunglasses-wearing Dr. Strangelove is asked for his opinion on the way forward, which is slightly rosier than Turgidson’s.
Strangelove suggests that the only way to survive the nuclear winter fallout long-term is to settle down 100 feet underground for 100 years where carefully selected (read: smart and attractive) people will repopulate the planet. Strangelove’s verbal and physical tics were so effective and striking that they were later given a true medical subcategory: Alien Hand Syndrome, also known as Dr. Strangelove Syndrome.
A brilliant score
Not a minute goes by during the film without music, and it’s to composer Laurie Johnson’s credit that it’s loaded with whimsy and wit and never overwhelming.
The opening title sequence is set to an instrumental adaptation of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” and another motif accompanying a scene in one of the planes bound for the Soviets is a riff on the ballad of the time from the Civil War “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”. The sly inclusion of Vera Lynn’s 1943 recording of “We’ll Meet Again” during the final scene gives the production the perfectly sarcastic and ironic punctuation.
Successful and timeless satire is quite a rare and delicate beast. There’s a very fine line between being smart, insightful, and sardonically funny and coming across as blunt, obvious, vengeful, ignorant, and pathetic.
Skewering something as devastating and apocalyptic as nuclear war might be the ultimate satirical challenge, but Kubrick, his co-writers, and his performers have all passed that bar with plenty of room to spare. “Dr. Strangelove” is and will forever remain one of the best films (of any genre) ever produced.
‘dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb’
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn
Duration: 1 hour 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG
Release date: January 29, 1964
Rating: 5 out of 5