Greetings again from the darkness. Difficult to decide if it’s more shocking that this film is almost 50 years old, or that it ever got released in the first place. No other black comedy satire on such a sensitive political issue has ever had its theatrical release right smack dab in the middle of the ongoing issue. The cold war between Russia and the US was in high gear and the Cuban Missile crisis had just occurred. In fact, President Kennedy’s assassination caused the film’s opening to be delayed.
Stanley Kubrick only directed eleven feature length films, and ten of them can be considered classics (A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, to name a few). Dr. Strangelove is regarded as one of the greatest comedies of all-time, though it’s difficult to imagine anyone under 30 really “getting” much of the humor – unless they happen to be a history buff. The movie could come across as one big “inside joke” to those unfamiliar with the times.
Loosely based on Peter George‘s “Red Alert” novel, Kubrick decided to take the source material and turn it into satire. He brought in Terry Southern (“The Magic Christian”) to help with the script, and then he turned the incomparable Peter Sellers loose in 3 roles (originally 4, but he broke his leg and gave up the Commander King Kong role). Stories abound with Sellers causing multiple takes and significant editing due to his ad-libbing cracking up other cast members (and even Kubrick).
The structure of the film involved three separate, yet intertwined sequences. We see Burpelson Air Force Base Commander General Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden) issuing the order to Group Captain Mandrake (Sellers) to lock down the base. It turns out, Ripper has gone a bit loony and somehow issued the strike first command against Russia. Mandrake spends much of this segment trying to calmly obtain the Recall Codes from Ripper. We also meet the crew of one of the multiple B-52 bombers in route to Russia. Led by Commander “King” Kong (Slim Pickins), they are on the way to deliver two nuclear bombs. One of his crew is played by James Earl Jones in his screen debut. Lastly we go inside the War Room where President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) is meeting with his Joint Chiefs of Staff and advisors. A key player here is General Buck Turgidson (George C Scott) in full kill and be killed mode.
There are so many interesting bits to discuss, but let’s limit to just a few. Watch the camera angles that Kubrick uses to film Hayden. He is made to look both powerful and nuts. Hayden (so great in Kubrick’s The Killing) has the voice and tough guy stance to make us believe he could start a war due to a Russian plot to pollute the “precious body fluids” of Americans. Sellers plays two roles in the War Room, but his straight man performance as the President allows George C Scott to really shine in one of his few comedic turns as an actor. Scott’s performance is somehow over the top AND right on the button (so to speak). When watching Slim Pickins in the iconic final image, keep in mind that he was a real life rodeo cowboy prior to breaking into acting.
Obviously the character names are outlandish (Keenan Wynn plays Col. Bat Guano), but it should be noted that the character of the President was based on real life politician and Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. The General Turgidson character is based on real life General Curtis LeMay who was infamous for his kill ’em first attitude. Also, General Ripper was based on General Thomas S Power, who was LeMay’s protégé and ultimate replacement as Joint Chief of the Air Force. It should also be noted that Tracy Reed is the only female character who appears … and yes, that is her in the Playboy magazine that Commander Kong is perusing.
There are so many classic lines and sight gags in the film that it’s challenging to keep up on the first viewing. Also, it’s been a few years since a pay phone and coke machine played such vital roles. When Kubrick killed the original pie fight ending, he added more frightening images and the poignant closing song – “We’ll Meet Again” by Vera Lynn. Director Sidney Lumet did a film version of this same basic story told in a straight-forward and thrilling manner. His Fail-Safe was released less than a year after Dr. Strangelove.
**NOTE: While it’s now common to refer to the film as “Dr. Strangelove”, the actual title is Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It is the longest title of any film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. The film received four total nominations, but it turned into the year of My Fair Lady (Best Picture), George Cukor (Director), and Rex Harrison (Actor).
watch the unusual trailer: