1964 | US/UK | Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Logline: An mentally-unhinged general triggers a very possible nuclear holocaust that a war room full of politicians, officers, and joint chiefs of staff frantically try to stop.
Following the success of his adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita. Stanley Kubrick adapted the political thriller Red Alert by Peter George, bringing in the subversive mind of writer Terry Southern as collaborator. Together they created one of the most blackly comic satires on nuclear war, slyly infused with sexual innuendo, ever brought to the screen (much to author George’s chagrin). Of course, much of the movie’s controlled, yet anarchic brilliance is owed to the amazing triple threat performances of Peter Sellers.
Like a kind of chamber piece, with essentially just three locations; Burpelson Air Force base, a B-52 bomber, and the Presidential War Room, the movie traces the attempt to prevent World War III, or, more precisely, prevent a doomsday device from being activated. Sellers plays Captain Mandrake, of the UK Royal Air Force. He also plays US President Merkin Muffley, and he plays the President’s scientific advisor, Dr. Strangelove, a happens to be a former Nazi (and still struggling with it). George C. Scott plays General Turgidson, the trigger-happy nutcase who causes everything to go pear-shaped in the first place. Slim Pickens plays Major Kong, the pilot of the Strategic Air Command 843rd Bob Wing, who first receives the “Wing Attack Plan R” order.
There is an inherent theatricality to the whole movie, which Kubrick controls with a deft hand. The technical credits are legendary; the monochrome cinematography, especially in the War Room, courtesy of Gilbert Taylor, is stunning, Ken Adams’ production design of the War Room set is a work of art, apparently inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Kubrick heightens the set’s surreal quality by shooting many of the scenes in long shot.
Of the three roles Sellers plays it is that of Strangelove which is the most memorable. It is revealed that Strangelove’s real name is Merkwürdigliebe (which actually means Strangelove in German). He suffers from “alien hand syndrome”, and it is this affliction which provides many laugh-out loud moments, as Strangelove fights his own arm and gloved hand from reverting to Nazi-esque behaviour, such as the SS salute. Sellers is (in)famous for improvisation, and Kubrick allowed much horseplay from Sellers. Keep in mind, Sellers was paid $US1m for his role, which was over half of the movie’s budget. Famously, Kubrick exclaimed that he got three roles for the price of six.
Indeed, Sellers almost owns the movie, or threatens to, just as he does in Kubrick’s Lolita. His natural charisma spills off the screen. The Strangelove character only has two scenes in the whole movie, the least screen time of all three of Sellers’ roles, but it is the character which defines the movie, and of course, the movie was named after the character, to the point where many critics refer to the movie, affectionately, as “Strangelove”.
There is a legendary deleted scene, a custard-pie fight which breaks out in the War Room at movie's end. Kubrick felt the scene was simply too farcical, and would grate against the more deadpan satirical edge of the rest of the movie. In the cut scene President Muffley gets a pie to the face, and General Turgidson cries out, “Our gallant young President has been struck down in his prime!” President Kennedy was assassinated the same day as a test screening of the movie had been scheduled.
Dr. Strangelove might well be a jet-black comedy of manners/errors, yet Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again” has never felt so dramatically resonant and eerily haunting. Special thanks to Spike Milligan for that inspired suggestion.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb Blu-ray is courtesy of Madman Entertainment & ViaVision. The disc contains a wealth of extras, including featurettes on the comic genius of Peter Sellers, and the early work of Kubrick, and vintage interviews with Sellers and George C. Scott.