Recommended Viewing Situation:
Staring at the big board, watching the world go up in smoke.
Running time: 103 minutes.
Format: 35mm Black and White on a Mitchell BNC.
Director: Stanley Kubrick.
Writer: Terry Southern, Stanley Kubrick and Peter George.
Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor.
Awards: Best British Film at Bafta, Academy Award Nomination for Best Director, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Picture and Best Writing, Screenplay based on Material from Another medium, and more.
Welcome to what might be this writer’s favourite film of all time, Dr. Strangelove (1964), or to give its full title: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, based on the novel Red Alert (1958) by Peter George, and co-written by Terry Southern and Kubrick himself, Dr. Strangelove is a fantastical biting satire of Cold War paranoia, the American military and late 20th century international politics. The film follows the consequences of deranged General Jack D. Ripper’s (Sterling Hayden) unsanctioned orders to send the absurd Major T.J. ‘King’ Kong and his atomic bomber crew to nuke the ‘Ruskies’. It is left to American president Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), jingoist buffoon General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and ex-Nazi nuclear bomb expert Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers) to convene in the Pentagon war room and try to save the world. How can this film be anything but excellent?
Let’s begin by congratulating cinematic legend Peter Sellers in 3 of his finest roles. Yes, Sellers is not only Strangelove and Muffley, but also a bumbling British Foreign Exchange Officer named Lionel Mandrake. Sellers makes each role completely unique. His ability combined with the special effects of the time make him almost completely unrecognisable from one character to the next. Each one of his performances has some utterly unforgettable moments, from Muffley’s ‘Dmitri’ exchange with the Russian premier, to Dr. Strangelove’s uncontrollable and spasmodic Nazi salutes. Originally, Sellers was contracted to play 4 roles in the film, as the studio only agreed to finance Dr. Strangelove on these conditions; a gross stipulation based on the success of Kubrick’s previous film, Lolita (1962). Originally, Sellers was going to add Major T.J. Kong to his roster of colourful characters, but after an on-set injury, he could not work in the cramped cockpit set.
Moving on to Kubrick himself, his direction is flawless, with an attention to creative detail that is uncannily stringent (what else can you expect of a man that causes his actors to have mental breakdowns). On the set of the ‘War Room’, the Pentagon circular table is actually covered in green poker table baize. Kubrick stated that he wanted his actors to feel like they were playing for the fate of the world, a notion perhaps taken too seriously by George C. Scott. Scott’s desire to play Turgidson rather more seriously differed largely with Kubrick’s own farcical intentions for the role. As a result, and in true Kubrick style, the majority of Scott’s takes used in the film are in fact secretly filmed ‘practice takes’ of which Kubrick suggested playing over the top for warm-up purposes. Cheeky Stanley.
The film is progressive, with a message which is still very much relevant today. The terrifying results of extremist thinking are all around us, particularly with regards to American politics and foreign affairs. Dr. Strangelove is a laugh riot from start to finish, but not in the way you might expect. Drawing a parallel with Kurt Vonnegut’s seminal novel, Slaughterhouse 5 (1964) Kubrick’s film is a great exercise in laughing through the madness. Like Vonnegut, he is a harlequin for a postmodern age (although, I don’t think even Billy Pilgrim could have foreseen the original Custard Pie Fight ending that Kubrick cut). In fact, this reviewer laughs hardest when reflecting on the film itself. Why should you watch this film? Well, because the big board said so!