THE HOT-LINE SUSPENSE COMEDY.
When Stanley Kubrick decided to turn Peter George’s Cold War novel “Red Alert” into a movie, he must have thought the material was too outrageous to be taken seriously. He started writing the script, but brought Terry Southern into the procedure to emphasize what might be funny about the doomsday scenario. Peter Sellers, whom Kubrick had worked with on his last movie, Lolita (1962), joined the project and the foundation was laid for one of the great black comedies of all time.
It starts with Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) finally losing his mind. Too much paranoia and alcohol cause him to launch a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union by ordering his B-52s to enter Soviet airspace. He uses a special plan to order the strike, one that must be used only by a military leader of his status when everyone else above him has been killed in a nuclear attack. RAFexchange officer Lionel Mandrake (Sellers) politely tries to stop the madman, but ends up as a hostage. Washington is alerted of what’s going on and President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) summons the military leadership to the Pentagon War Room, where Air Force General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott) suggests to the President that a nuclear war doesn’t have to be such a bad thing.
The President ignores him, invites the Soviet ambassador (Peter Bull) into the War Room and calls the Soviet Premier to tell him he’s sorry and that he has his blessing to shoot down the B-52s. As military forces attack Ripper’s base in order to locate the code that will stop the launch, the ambassador tells the people in the War Room about the Russian doomsday device that could be triggered if one of the bombs hit its target.
Iconic images and details
A fantastic story, ripe for satire, but the fear of such an incident was very much alive at this stage of the Cold War, especially after the Cuban missile crisis. Sellers is a hugely important part of this experience. He plays Mandrake as the typical stiff-upper-lip RAFofficer and Muffley as a mild, reasonable but frustrated man… but then there’s the hilariously bizarre Dr. Strangelove, the wheelchair-bound, creepy scientist unable to put his past as a Nazi collaborator behind him. The character has become one of Sellers’s most memorable, slightly reminiscent of real-life former Nazis who helped the Americans build the Bomb.
Scott also delivers one of his greatest performances as the frantically gum-chewing, trigger-happy, Commie-hating general – he gets many laughs, but the eerie thing of course is that he was based on a real person, Curtis LeMay. Many images and details of the film have become more or less iconic, not least the one where Slim Pickens straddles a nuke as it is dropped from one of the B-52s, yelling and waving his Stetson like he’s on a bull all the way to the ground. Ken Adams’ overwhelming design of the War Room looks like those sets he built for the James Bond movies (which is appropriate considering the subject) and the characters are very effectively lit and shot by cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, not least Hayden’s general in the scene where he’s telling Mandrake what he’s done.
The script has great dialogue; the scene where the President talks to the drunk Premier on the phone is probably improvised… which only proves Sellers’s ingenuity.
The film may seem like an unusual choice for Kubrick, but those who saw his Paths of Glory (1957) recognized the theme of the insanity of war. A sense of humor could be a powerful weapon against the Curtis LeMays of the world.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb 1964-Britain. 93 min. B/W. Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, Peter George. Novel: Peter George (“Red Alert”). Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor. Art Direction: Ken Adam. Cast: Peter Sellers (Lionel Mandrake/Merkin Muffley/Dr. Strangelove), George C. Scott (“Buck” Turgidson), Sterling Hayden (Jack D. Ripper), Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, Peter Bull… James Earl Jones.
Trivia: Jones’s film debut. Sellers was initially meant to play Major Kong as well, but that didn’t happen; John Wayne was allegedly asked to play the character, but it eventually landed in Pickens’s hands. The film was originally going to end with a pie fight, but that scene was cut.
BAFTA: Best Film, British Film, Art Direction.
Quote: “You can’t fight in here. This is the War Room.” (Sellers as the President trying to avert a fight in the Pentagon)
Last word: “My idea of doing it as a nightmare comedy came in the early weeks of working on the screenplay. I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question.” (Kubrick, Macmillan International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers)