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Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, written by Peter George, Terry Southern, and Stanley Kubrick from the novel Red Alert by Peter George, directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1964, 100 min.

Dr. Strangelove is perhaps Kubrick's greatest film. It is also deeply flawed. The movie overflows with moments of comic genius, all motivated by Kubrick's devastating critiques of war and warmongers. Peter Sellers does a brilliant job in his three roles (Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Mirkin Muffley, and Dr. Strangelove himself). And the fourth role intended for Sellers (Major "King" Kong) is filled admirably by Slim Pickens after Sellers broke his leg late in filming. The script is a showpiece of sight gags, caricatures, and dialogue. Especially notable are the monologues by the President while talking to a drunk Soviet Premier on the phone (we can't hear the answers). "He went and did a silly thing." Or: "I'm just as capable of being sorry as you are." Quoted out of context like this, they seem innocuous, almost boring. But Sellers has impeccable comic timing, and the whole speech has a cumulative effect. We feel like we're not supposed to be laughing at imminent nuclear war, but we can't help it.

General Jack D. Ripper (played by Sterling Hayden; see Kubrick's The Killing (1956) for another excellent performance by Hayden) goes insane, under pressure from his paranoia about Commies. He sends out an attack order to a wing of B-52 bombers, then barricades his base from outside contact. Mandrake tries to reason with Ripper, in a series of highly effective scenes. Meanwhile, Major Kong and his crew are flying a B-52 bomber into the heart of the Soviet Union, and we skip over to their story quite often. The other main story line concerns the events in America's War Room. George C. Scott plays the character of General Buck Turgidson, who is a great foil for Seller's deadpan President. The Russian Ambassador enters, causing some protest from Turgidson, and in the ensuing scuffle, Sellers has that immortal line: "Gentlemen, no fighting in the War Room!" Events carry on to their inevitable end, and even if the plot seems simplistic, I give Kubrick and his fellow writers high marks for it. They understand the implications of nuclear war, and they understand its inescapable meaning. That is, the termination of everybody and everything. Of course, we have long gotten past such nuclear fears, right? Right?

The characters are often extreme caricatures, and they all work onscreen, mostly because they fit the savage satire. Major Kong's inspirational speeches -- "You'll all be in line for promotions when this is over" -- are a nasty send-up of patriotism and naiveté. His final action was entirely appropriate for his character, and that final image could be a symbol for all of war. Waving and cheering the ride to total annihilation (which makes the homage to this scene in Armageddon probably the strongest moment in that movie). Kong's crew are given a few little quirks but are there mainly to do their jobs. Kubrick uses the minutia of flying a plane to build tension, especially when their B-52 is under attack and we're uncertain who to cheer for, our guys on the plane, or those faceless guys who are shooting at them. General Ripper is one of the best madmen ever created, with his cigar and his paranoid theories about his impotence. The joke about "precious bodily fluids" gets repeated one or two many times but that, of course, is deliberate: Ripper can't rid himself of this obsession, however funny it seems to us. Mandrake, as the typical British officer, is hilarious, and his arguments with Ripper verge on the surreal as Mandrake realizes what kind of psychopath he is dealing with. I especially like the sequence when Colonel Bat Guano takes Mandrake under arrest and Mandrake finally gets mad. "That's what the gun is for, you twit!" President Muffley is the straight man in all of this, and his monologues are a scrambling response by the sane to the insanity of nuclear war and the hot line. General Turgidson has some of the best lines, including a little whispered conversation with his girlfriend on the War Room phone: "Of course it's not just physical. I deeply respect you as a human being." And I would like to mention another bit of characterization that struck me as quite funny as I was watching this movie for the second time. The foreground characters say the most outrageous or silly things, and the people in the background are completely deadpan. That would've taken a good deal of self-control, so kudos to the extras.

Kubrick's take on sexuality and war, as found in Dr. Strangelove, is almost too nasty and twisted to bear contemplation. He had a few lines in Paths of Glory (1957) that anticipated this theme, but nothing of the same intensity and focus. Beginning with the names (Colonel Bat Guano being the rare exception to the trend of names as sexual innuendo). The root of the mandrake plant was often used as an aphrodisiac in the past. Jack the Ripper killed prostitutes. The definition of "turgid" is "being in state of distension; swollen, tumid" (Webster's). King Kong was an interesting symbol of maleness and obsession. Together, the two slang words that make up the President's name indicate a wig for female genitalia (!). Premier Kissoff. And Dr. Strangelove himself, of course. Beyond the names, consider the way Kubrick uses female characters in the movie. Or rather, doesn't use them. Turgidson's girlfriend is the only woman in the entire film. In the kind of war movie that Kubrick is satirizing here, the choice of going with male characters in all the main roles would be the default. For Kubrick, this is a crucial element of his satire. War is a male domain, and why? For sexual reasons, mainly. In the closing scene (the dramatic failings of which I'll discuss in a minute), the men discuss eugenics and the necessary sexual characteristics of women when the female/male ratio is 10:1. War is the kind of bizarre, sexual wish-fulfillment fantasy that lets them consider such matters. And if the man can prove himself (i.e., survive a nuclear war), then that kind of ratio would be the just reward. Most post-apocalyptic movies take these kind of sexual mores as a given (and sometimes approve of them, as seems to be the case in Besson's Le Dernier Combat), whereas Kubrick has them marked out clearly as the worst kind of lunacy. When Ripper tells Mandrake when his paranoid theories first occurred to him, we see a certain mindset at work (the extreme version of it, but nonetheless), of blame, repression, and violence to self and others. Putting this discussion in the context of the men who can start nuclear war lets Kubrick talk about war at a literal level and then use that as a springboard for his metaphorical arguments.

This brings me to the flaws of Dr. Strangelove. I want to talk about the ending of the movie, because that ties in with my analysis in the preceding paragraph. I believe the ending has too much clutter, despite its ties with the theme of the movie, and here's why. We get a number of set-up type shots of the food table in the War Room. One of the last things we see is the Russian Ambassador taking pictures of the "big board" with a disguised camera. Kubrick had originally intended to follow that with a pie fight, begun by Turgidson (who has previously accused the ambassador of taking pictures), and then cut from that to the mushroom clouds as the world ends. But, after filming the scene, he didn't like it, so it was excised. This leaves a number of set-up shots with no payoff (the food table, the ambassador taking pictures), and makes everything after Kong exits his plane seem superfluous. The discussion in the War Room is hilarious and nasty, with the talk of "mineshaft gaps" and Dr. Strangelove's struggle with his disobedient arm. But it still feels off somehow, and it reminds me of the poor pacing of the first half of the movie. Kubrick lays the groundwork for each comic situation carefully, but on second viewing, the only time I laughed in the opening half of the movie was in anticipation of jokes that I knew were coming later. I could see how the pieces were coming together, but that is not enough. Similarly, my analysis of the meaning of the final scene (in the context of the whole movie) feels somehow insufficient, despite how well it fits in with the point Kubrick seems to be making. Here's what I think: the opening of the movie, the refuelling of the B-52, signals the beginning of foreplay. In the final scene, Dr. Strangelove overcomes his ailment and gets up out of his wheelchair (i.e., stands erect), just in time for the greatest and grandest ejaculation of them all. The end. I won't even start analysing the dreamy, post-coital music that plays during the final montage.

I'm somewhat surprised that Dr. Strangelove wasn't banned by men in authority when it was released, considering the nasty implications about power, war, sexuality, and so on. It's interesting to think about Paths of Glory, banned in France for many years. Did the Americans (the main targets in Dr. Strangelove) simply not get it? Or didn't they care? In any case, Kubrick pulls off quite a feat with this film, important for its time, and for our time as well, sadly. Even with the severe handicap of poor pacing through more than half its running length, Dr. Strangelove has an audacious power, namely that of pointing a finger at a deep evil and making us laugh. We can only hope that one day this particular joke won't be necessary any longer.

Addendum: It's been almost exactly three years since I wrote this review and I've decided to change my rating of the movie from 4/5 to 5/5. I still think that Dr. Strangelove has certain flaws, but the simple fact remains: I can remember almost every single scene in the movie. That's not the case with Fail Safe, a solidly acted movie, with excellent performances from both Walter Matthau as the hawkish advisor and Henry Fonda as the President faced with a hellish choice. I can remember the general direction of the events in Fail Safe, but no particular scene stands out in memory the way that nearly every one in Dr. Strangelove does. Dr. Strangelove has the power to mark itself indelibly in mind, and that's a feat achieved by only a handful of movies.


First posted: July 13, 1998; Last modified: July 14, 2001

Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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