Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Written by Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, and Peter George
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
There is comedy in the horror of humanity destroying itself. That is what Stanley Kubrick realized while penning the script for Dr. Strangelove alongside Peter George. Initially, they planned to make a serious film about a nuclear accident based on the simmering Cold War fears of the day. The more Kubrick delved into the policies surrounding mutually assured destruction, the more he found it all to comically absurd. Once Kubrick realized he was making a comedy about nuclear annihilation, he brought in writer Terry Southern who had written the comic novel The Magic Christian, which the director and Peter Sellers both loved. Southern punched up the story using real scenarios and protocols for comedy, and thus we have the dark humor of Dr. Strangelove.
A group of B-52 bombers circles the polar cap of the world, patrolling & armed with nuclear weapons. Their mission, if ordered, is to respond to a Soviet attack with full force. We follow what happens onboard one of these planes piloted by Major Kong (Silm Pickens) when they receive orders to strike the U.S.S.R. Back on the ground, this turns out to be the mad plan of General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who has decided through his own convoluted conspiracy theories that the Soviets want to take the “preciously bodily fluids” of healthy American men. Ripper locks down his base from all communications and lets the fleet of planes head toward a rendezvous with destiny. Meanwhile, the White House and Pentagon become aware of this insane death wish and quickly discover that every fail-safe and contingency plan in place will not prevent the bombing. Even worse is when the Russians reveal their secret Doomsday Machine that will be triggered by a single attack and leave the planet uninhabitable for a century.
The aspect of this film you will hear about most from critics is the multiple performances by Peter Sellers. He plays R.A.F. Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and the titular Dr. Strangelove. Sellers nails each character creating three clearly distinct personas that exist beyond just the makeup and wigs. Right away, you feel yourself viewing each of them as separate, and not once does Sellers let the veil down. Mandrake is a comic portrayal of British etiquette in the face of impending doom.
Sellers channeled Midwestern politician Adlai Stevenson and plays the character reasonably straight, using his homey good-natured personality for comedic effect when speaking to the Russian premier. For having his name in the title, Dr. Strangelove is certainly not the main character of the piece. This character allows Sellers to go over the top, playing a Nazi scientist brought into the U.S. government via Operation Paperclip. He chooses to play Strangelove as an exaggerated movie mad scientist with alien hand syndrome, which always seems to want to give the Nazi salute.
Less lauded, but I would argue, are equally funny are Sterling Hayden and George C. Scott. Hayden chooses to play General Ripper as seriously as possible. When he’s conveying the origins of theory about the need to protect our precious bodily fluids, he never does it with a wink, Ripper is wholly committed. This makes his scenes even funnier because he’s contrasted with the overly polite Mandrake, who doesn’t want to step on toes while trying to extricate himself from this mad situation.
George C. Scott’s General Buck Turgidson is a man whose mind cannot operate outside of a tactical Cold War scenario. He gets giddy over how skilled the Air Force’s pilots are and daydreams about how wonderfully they’ll bomb the hell out of Russia amid the rest of the government panicking over doomsday. Turgidson is irate about the Russian ambassador being in the war room and seeing the “big board.” Kubrick works to point out how the people working at the levers of power are so ensconced in their dilution of the world into one big game of Risk they have lost sight of humanity.
Dr. Strangelove is still a hilarious film, and it holds up. I don’t think it’s as funny in the B52 sequences, which are relatively procedural, and I would guess they are unchanged from the original, serious version of the script. Still, to hear the president talking about the acceptable number of dead hits a bit too close to home. Kubrick smartly realized that while this scenario is an utterly terrifying one, it is also built on a house of absurdities that should never be respected.