#156 Dr Strangelove
(Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb)
(1964, Stanley Kubrick)
“Gentlemen! You can’t fight here! This is the War Room!”
The Cold War! Not really much of a war, it was more a case of America and Russia glaring at each other vaguely menacingly over the Pacific Ocean. But people still made movies about it, except instead of the shooty, explosive battle movies of World War 2 and the wars in the Gulf, it was mostly political intrigue. Or it was Dr Strangelove (Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb), a comedy about impending nuclear war.
The story is actually pretty simple. General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has just launched an attack on Russia, despite protests from visiting RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers). This leads to a hastily-assembled meeting led by the President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers again), demanding a briefing of the situation from General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), and receiving technical knowledge about the nuclear weapons from the eccentric Dr Strangelove (Peter Sellers YET AGAIN).
The whole movie is a satire on the Cold War, with the concept of nuclear deterrent taken to its logical extreme, ie. nuclear superpowers developing a system so powerful it could essentially take out the entire world. It also pokes fun at the paranoid leaders and generals in charge of them.
Dr Strangelove starts out very slow. Much of the beginning is a satire on responsiveness to potential emergencies. Sadly, it achieves this goal by dragging out the process of receiving a launch code and forming an emergency meeting to question why this attack has been launched. The problem is, it’s dragged on way too long, and I found myself wishing the movie would just get on with it.
And then, suddenly, it does get on with it, and things improve dramatically. As soon as the President picks up the phone to speak to the Soviet premier, the movie becomes hilarious. The awkward discussion between the two is a highlight of the movie, and seemingly causes everything afterwards. There are so many great moments in this movie. From the general casually saying that the attack could lead to the loss of “only” 10 million people to the paranoid delusions of General Ripper, the movie is a spectacular satire on military flaws.
But it’s the multiple Sellers roles that really help carry the film. His straight performance as the President really helps when the lines start becoming absurd, while watching Dr Strangelove trying to resist an involuntary Nazi salute is ridiculously silly.
But I personally have a soft spot for the RAF Captain, whose stiff-upper-lip, overly polite personality is so at odds with the rest of the cast that his presence alone becomes amusing. He’s a perfect parody of British attitudes of the time, and his attempt to call the President about the code under the gaze of an angry American soldier is possibly my favourite scene in the entire movie. The line “you’ll have to answer to the Coca-Cola Corporation” was a personal favourite.
It’s quite amazing how hilarious the movie manages to be considering its subject matter. Since the plot hinges on the potential annihilation of all humanity, the fact it generates laughs is a serious achievement.
On other aspects, the movie still excels. The War Room is a seriously impressive set, looking menacing and silly in equal measure, while the makeup and costume departments should be congratulated for making Sellers look so different in all three of his roles. Things don’t look so impressive during the flight scenes, where an obvious model flies in front of an obvious green screen. However, it’s unclear if this was deliberate as part of the satire, so it’s hard to fault the movie for it.
Dr Strangelove surprised me. After its slow start, I expected to hate it, but by the end I enjoyed it. The ending was a little lacklustre, but overall, it was a fun experience. Which is more than can be said about the Cold War.
Starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn & Slim Pickens
Written by Stanley Kubrick, Peter George & Terry Southern
Produced by Stanley Kubrick
Music by Laurie Johnson
Cinematography by Gilbert Taylor
Edited by Anthony Harvey
Favourite Scene: Mandrake trying to call the Pentagon on a payphone while a twitchy American soldier eyes him suspiciously. Hell, just Mandrake in general.
Scene That Bugged Me: The opening scenes felt far too dragged out and humourless.
Watch it if: You’d like a giggle at the Cold War
Avoid it if: You’re a paranoid general who may miss the comedy here