June Butler enters the War Room of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
Dr. Strangelove is a 1964 satirical comedy roughly based on the thriller Red Alert (1958) by Peter George and is considered to be one of the funniest movies of all time. George wrote the screenplay along with Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern. In 1988, the American Film Institute ranked it twenty-sixth in its list of greatest films. By the year 2000, it had jumped up the ranks to third. In 1989, the United States Library of Congress lauded it as among 25 films listed for inclusion in the National Film Registry as being historically and culturally significant. The film received four nods at the ’65 Academy Awards (but amazingly no wins) and was also nominated for seven BAFTAs (in the same year), winning Best Film From Any Source, Best British Film, and Best Art Direction (Black and White).
In 1961, the Cuban Democratic Revolutionary Front, (consisting of Cuban exiles bitterly opposed to the 1958 Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro), attempted a military landing operation in the Bay of Pigs on the southwestern coast of Cuba. Covertly financed and directed by the U.S. Government, the attack came at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. China, at the time was in diplomatic conflict with both Western and Eastern Blocs. The attempted invasion failed for a number of reasons, but mainly through poor strategizing of the attack by the CIA and a serious under-evaluation of Cuban military strength and support for Fidel Castro’s government.
However, the disastrous strike by the U.S. triggered a more serious fallout, the most significant of which was the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. Concerned about the possibility of a future, more successful bid to land military personnel on Cuban beaches, Castro implored the Soviet Union to protect its shores and allowed Nikita Kruschev place nuclear missiles in the country – a move the Soviet Union were only too happy to implement. Castro’s request was entirely propelled by the Bay of Pigs near-miss. From their perspective, the Soviet Union was displeased about placement of missiles by the U.S. in Italy and Turkey. For both parties, this was a suitable response to what they deemed an act of aggression by the United States. The Cuban Missile Crisis lasted for thirteen days between October 16th to the 28th and was arguably the closest the world has ever come to an all-out nuclear war. The following year, in November 1963, United States President John F. Kennedy was fatally shot while riding in a presidential motorcade through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. Between April 1961 and November 1963, the world held its breath as crisis after catastrophe unfolded. The tragedy of John F.Kennedy’s assassination sent waves of condemnation rippling through the western world. By 1964, the threat of war had not subsided, and Americans were understandably jittery about the likelihood of a full-scale global conflict.
There was a widely held fear that a catastrophic war could be mistakenly or carelessly initiated and would spell the end of civilisation. The sabre rattling of the Cold War, which brought America and the Soviet Union ever closer to the point of no return, became the benchmark for brinkmanship. In both Western and Eastern Blocs, they were equally determined to be the last man standing – apparently without regard for human cost in the process. It was this political environment that caused director Stanley Kubrick to consider making Dr Strangelove. He realised that there was a balance of terror between nuclear powers – a paradox that led each bloc leader to curb their ability to attack the other lest they immolate themselves but the arguments for and against attack were erratic and unstable at best. There was no protocol in place about who should have nuclear warheads and why. World leaders who sometimes had a limited range of cognisance about the gravity of their own actions, held millions in abeyance while egos ran amok in a mad dash to supposed heroism. Bizarrely, it was the threat of war that held an uneasy pact of peace between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Kubrick initially toyed with the idea of giving the film the title of Dr. Doomsday or: How to Start World War III Without Even Trying, Dr. Strangelove’s Secret Uses of Uranus, and Wonderful Bomb. Eventually he settled on Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The name itself was a stroke of genius because it diffused the acme of panic by making the spectre of obliteration a source of comedy.
Stanley Kubrick’s casting of Peter Sellers as the titular Dr. Strangelove, along with two other key characters, was utterly brilliant. When asked to take on a fourth role, that of a pilot, Sellers was reluctant, and Kubrick came to the ultimate decision of leaving well alone by casting Sellers as Captain Mandrake, United States President Merkin Muffley, and Dr. Strangelove. It was a wise move as the fourth role could have been noticeably weaker than the rest and Kubrick understood that despite his abilities, Sellers might not be able to create a defining, separate division between all four roles.
Sellers plays Group Captain Lional Mandrake, a mild-mannered British RAF exchange officer based at Burpelson American Air Force Headquarters. Paranoid Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has had a break from reality and decides the United States is under attack from the Soviet Union. He orders the crew of a B-52 bomber to preempt war with the Russians by being the first to drop a nuclear bomb. Ripper issues a ‘Wing Attack Plan R’ to the crew and swiftly calls on Mandrake to confiscate all radios so that his directives cannot be countermanded. On board the plane, a secret three letter code issued via the CRM 114 discriminators is the only way in which the raid may be called off. Ripper alone holds the cypher and also knows that once the directive has been issued, there is no way of recalling the aircraft unless Ripper himself radios the three letters to the crew. Ripper then locks himself in a bathroom and commits suicide.
The United States President, Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), is now in full panic mode and has summoned a war-room of top advisors to assist in staving off the disaster. As a perfect foil to Muffley’s dithering indecisiveness, General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), decisively launches suggestions as to how the bombers can be recalled. The only issue with Turgidson’s proposals is that each scheme becomes progressively sillier than the previous one and none can be considered viable.
Meanwhile, on board the bomber, Major T.J. ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens) is trying to whip his crew and co-pilot into a frenzy of xenophobia. The Major is determined not to be thwarted from his mission and refuses to accept that the order to attack is anything but the real deal.
Back in the war-room, upon discovering the recall code could take up to two days to decipher, President Muffley orders Colonel ‘Bat’ Guano (Keenan Wynn), to storm the air base in an effort to arrest Brigadier Ripper and force him reveal the details. Buck Turgidson then calls on Merkin to let the attack proceed and exhorts him to go even further by providing reinforcements. Muffley rejects this suggestion, instead contacting Soviet Premier Dimitri Kissov on the ‘hotline’ where he offers to give full details of areas to be targeted so that the Russians can take evasive action. There follows what is probably the funniest scene in the entire film and the culmination of all the auxiliary plots. President Muffley rings Dimitri Kissov. The line keeps cutting out and they can barely hear each other. Soviet Ambassador, Alexei de Sadeski (Peter Bull), wanders around the room ‘surreptitiously’ taking photographs. Turgidson continues to offer ridiculous solutions to the crisis. Scenes are cut to show the bombers relentlessly following their route to ultimate destruction. Finally, Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers) makes his much-anticipated appearance.
The pinnacle of perfection comes into play when Dr. Strangelove is introduced at 52 minutes and 43 seconds into a 94-minute feature. Effectively, scenes have been set prior to Strangelove’s grand entrance. All main roles have been introduced and triggered sequences set in motion. Bringing a key character into the mix so late in the film was taking a chance but it paid off. The good doctor’s backstory is peppered with lunacy and absurdities, enough to be openly laughable – no doubt Kubrick was poking fun at accolades and historical references to real scientists. Strangelove’s insistence on calling Muffley ‘Mein Fuhrer’ (twice), makes a quiet statement about Kubrick’s attitude towards American politics and their interchangeability (as Kubrick saw it), with those of Germany during World War II.
Throughout the film, Kubrick maintains a carefully structured equilibrium between two out of the three roles Sellers plays. Dr. Strangelove’s character is so deliciously insane, there is no attempt to offset his actions against any other actors and his scenes are very much stand-alone – unlike Muffley and Mandrake. Kubrick balances out the effortlessly suave Mandrake by introducing Brigadier Ripper. In later Mandrake/Ripper scenes, Colonel ‘Bat’ Guano is brought into the fray. No surprises that Keenan Wynn’s character has the moniker of ‘Batshit’. Mandrake carelessly and nonchalantly saunters through the offices at the airbase. Devastating news given to him is taken on-board with a degree of sangfroid that belies the seriousness of the information. General Ripper and Colonel Bat Guano are acted with crazed enthusiasm. Scenes with Merkin Muffley playing it straight, are counterweighed against the shrill, demonic energy of Buck Turgidson along with de Sadeski’s barely concealed efforts at espionage. Muffley is weak and ineffective. His advisors are proffering idiotic solutions and not too keen on asking the right questions or in trying to avert the impending catastrophe. On board the bomber, Major ‘King’ Kong has embraced his upcoming martyrdom with irrational glee. The remaining flight crew are not so enamoured. Even the names given to various roles – Merkin Muffley, Colonel ‘Bat’ Guano, ‘Burpelson’ Air Force, Major T.J. ‘King’ Kong, Mr. Staines (Jack Creley) – none of these characters can be taken seriously which is most likely why Kubrick allowed the silliness to proceed with such aplomb. Strangeloves original name is Merkwurdigliebe – meaning ‘Strange Love’ in German and according to ‘sources’ was changed when the doctor became a citizen. The film is an ode to joy and utter mayhem. Through poking fun at the level of paranoia that gripped America during the early 60s, Kubrick was bearing his soul by embracing fear and scrutinising the backlash.
In the words of American military strategist and game theorist, John H. Hertz, Mutually Assured Destruction (with the apt acronym of MAD), was the ultimate deterrent in a game of war that no one would ever win. And Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove made us adore that same destruction, the twinning with paralleled terror and the thrill of fearing something yet secretly loving it far far more. Shuffling off this mortal coil has never seemed like so much fun.