Original release: January 29th, 1964
Running time: 90 minutes
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stanley Kubrick, Peter George, Terry Southern
Cast: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens
I remember deciding, during my teens, that I was going to be a Kubrick fan. All the film magazines hailed him as a great, and when I researched his filmography, it was compact enough for me to have a reasonable go at attempting it.
Having gone on to see almost everything he’s made, how much I truly understood of his films at that point, or now for that matter, is debatable, but my favourite Kubrick films from that period remain the same now. Proudly topping the list in my mind wasn’t the metaphysical science fiction of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), or the steadicam innovations of The Shining (1980). Instead, my deepest love was reserved for his moving early effort Paths Of Glory (1957) and his greatest masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove.
The story sees Hayden’s Ripper convinced the Russian’s have launched a sneak attack; a commie plot involving water fluoridation and the contamination of “precious bodily fluids”. In response, he sends a squadron of B-52s to retaliate by bombing Russia which will, in turn, set off a Doomsday device effectively ending the world.
With the planes en route to their destructive destination, the joint chiefs convene in the War Room to decide on a plan of action. This involves helping the Russians avoid disaster and hearing Dr Strangelove’s plans to colonise a mineshaft for 100 years and avoid the nuclear fallout.
At the centre, playing the eponymous German scientist is Peter Sellers. As he had in Kubrick’s previous film, Lolita, Sellers portrays multiple characters, not only playing Strangelove but also the American President, Merkin Muffley, and the British liaison; Group Captain Mandrake. Alongside Sellers are two fine comic performances from Sterling Hayden, as Colonel Jack D. Ripper, and George C. Scott, as Buck Turgidson as well as that of Slim Pickens as Major “King” Kong – though Kubrick declined to inform Pickens that the film was a comedy so his character is played absolutely straight.
Combining the kind of sexual innuendo and buffoonery that would be at home on the stage of Aristophanes with the end of the world, Kubrick created possibly the greatest black comedy of all time.
Initially he intend to do a straight adaptation of Peter George’s Cold War thriller Red Alert, but during the process Kubrick came upon the realisation that those in charge of nuclear strategy didn’t really know what they were doing; so instead he decided to lampoon the absurdity he saw in that real life situation.
Sellers is on top form, not only as Strangelove with his uncontrollably Nazi left hand, but also the ineffectual American President and the uncomfortable Captain Mandrake. With these three performances, in addition to Hayden and Scott, it really is stellar work from all involved.
What I love about Dr Strangelove is it’s utterly pessimistic tone juxtaposed with the ridiculous behaviour of these characters that control the fate of the world. There are moments of such wonderfully ludicrous comedy, both in performance and content, all tinged with the overarching story of the end of the world. This is beautifully summed up by Turgidson hysterically informing the room that the US fighter pilots are so amazing and so well trained that they’ll easily evade the Russian defences…and destroy everything.
Aside from all that’s wonderful about Dr. Strangelove, I also find it intriguing that I would be drawn to this and Paths Of Glory as they share so much common ground; “The films seem almost like mirrors” ¹ says Paul Duncan in his book on Kubrick.
Both dealing with a situation created by a madman from which the other characters cannot be saved, they take a rather different tone but are ultimately about similar situations and themes. Neither casts war in a great light. With a plot so utterly absurd and yet wonderfully, blackly, satirical, Dr. Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the Bomb) is not only my favourite Kubrick film but I would consider it be one of the greatest comedies ever made.
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.