Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a 1964 satirical black comedy which was co-written, produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick. A hit on its initial release and widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, Dr. Strangelove lampoons the Cold War fear of and attitude towards Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), the idea that if one side were to bomb the other then the other side would retaliate and so on until both were destroyed. Although a seemingly brave subject matter for a comedy it is in fact part of a long line of films which poke fun at serious issues of the day. Both M.A.S.H. and more recently Team America: World Police have managed to find humour in solemn subjects but a very strong argument can be made that Dr. Strangelove is the greatest of them all.
The plot concerns a wayward and mentally disturbed US Air Force General who sends his squadron of B-52 bombers, armed with nuclear bombs towards Russian targets and then closes down all lines of communication and removes all abort codes. With the world close to its end, various men attempt to halt the planes from reaching their targets. British actor Peter Sellers plays no less than three characters here, and plays them all brilliantly. He performs as RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake who attempts to persuade the wayward General Jack D. Ripper (Stirling Hayden) to stop as well as playing US President Merkin Muffley who is in the War Room and his wheelchair bound ex-Nazi advisor Dr. Strangelove.
Dr. Strangelove is brilliantly funny and doesn’t put a foot wrong in its comedic clambering. The humour flows in abundance from all three of Sellers characters who produce some incredible lines, one of which “Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” is amongst the most famous in film history. His upper middle class politeness as Mandrake and surreal mannerisms as Strangelove also add to the barrage of comedy. The film is flippant and irrelevant with serious issues but there is also a seriousness which permeates the core of the story. In very serious terms the film holds up a mirror to those in charge and says “Just look how utterly ridiculous this is”. The film has a powerful message in amongst the farce.
As I mentioned, Peter Sellers plays three characters but he was originally slated to play four. He opted out of the forth (B-52 pilot Major Kong who would instead be played by Slim Pickens) due to concerns over performing in a Texan accent and because of the sheer work load involved. While this is understandable it does mean that there is a Sellers sized hole in the vital B-52 scenes. There are basically three main settings in the film and Sellers is only absent from inside the plane. Not only does this feel somewhat unbalanced but it also means that Sellers misses out on the most iconic scene in the film – riding the bomb. Sellers though is fantastic and was rightly Oscar nominated, unfairly losing to My Fair Lady’s Rex Harrison. I don’t know how he didn’t win as he gives not one but three spell binding performances. I love the name Merkin Muffley, a clever reference to the President’s baldness. Lionel Mandrake is about as British as they come and I’d like to have seen more of him but it is Dr. Strangelove who will remain in the mind the longest. The lack of control he has over his right hand is inspired and the desperate suppression of Nazism is equally as hilarious. In one of his later scenes you can actually see the supporting cast frantically trying to keep a straight face and failing on several occasions.
George C. Scott is also very good as General Buck Turgidson. During filming he wasn’t happy with Kubrick’s direction so Kubrick persuaded Scott to overact in ‘dummy takes’ which he in fact then used. Scott was so incensed that he vowed never to work with Kubrick again. Kubrick himself is, as you’d expect from one of the most acclaimed directors of all time, excellent. He gets in close to the characters faces to convey the foreboding nature of the film’s events but is equally adept at directing the comedic scenes. A stand out sequence though is one of military realism. When General Ripper locks down his base with the abort codes inside, the army go in for an all out assault. Inside the base the soldiers believe the attackers are Russians in American uniforms so retaliate. The battle scenes exude realism and look as good as anything you’d find in a first rate war movie. The aerial shots look a bit dated but they work well.
The film’s ending is a little strange and unexpected but not as odd as an alternative ending which was dropped following the Kennedy Assassination. Originally the film ended with a custard pie fight but the ending used is as surreal but more sombre. The film is a pitch perfect satire of the Cold War that is full to the brim of great characters, comedy and drama. There is very little, if anything that is wrong with it and it is no wonder the movie is considered an all time classic.
Peter Sellers was paid $1 million, over half of the film's budget. Kubrick said of this that he "Got three for the price of six".
Most of Sellers lines were improvised.
While shooting the aerial footage the crew accidentally filmed a secret US military base. They were forced down and in a funny twist held as suspected Soviet spies.