Dr. Strangelove: Thoughts on the Film

dr strangelove
Slim Pickens as Maj. Kong, taking the big ride.

The film, Dr. Strangelove, was pretty hip for 1964.  Or so I thought.  It was not a year for serious films, at least on the level of Dr. Strangelove.  Light comedies, romance and escapist fare tended to dominate that year’s major releases.

My Fair Lady
Viva Las Vegas
Sex and the Single Girl
Send Me No Flowers
Man’s Favorite Sport
Robin and the 7 Hoods
Paris When it Sizzles
Mary Poppins
Muscle Beach Party
Kisses for My President
Father Goose
The Disorderly Orderly
Bedtime Story
The Americanization of Emily

The films listed above range from good to excellent, with a couple of these being classics. But this was not a year of deep, thought provoking films.   Film releases in the middle part of the decade featured a lot of lighter fare; less war and psychological thrillers.  In the last years of the decade, violence-themed, science fiction and adult films would replace much of the family-oriented films.

Thermonuclear war is heady stuff for a comedy, imagine how it was received in 1964 at the height of the Cold War.  Director Stanley Kubrick imagined the film as a drama, taken from the novel, Red Alert, but decided to turn the subject matter on its head. What we ended up with was the lunacy of Peter Sellers, with over-the-hill funny performances by George C. Scott and Slim Pickens.  The subject of thermonuclear war had already been breached in On the Beach and Fail-Safe, two very down-beat films about the end of the world.

So, why not take a serious situation, an air force commander who takes it upon himself to launch an attack on the Soviet Union, and makes it near impossible to countermand the order?  Then introduce some overwrought and zany characters with the deadly serious potential of global war, and see what happens!

Kubrick plays the film as a taunt thriller, doused with black humor and mixed together in a  frightening reality.  With that dose of lunacy, you aren’t sure what’s going to happen.  To accentuate the reality, Kubrick uses hand-held cameras, documentary-style to put the viewer into the action for the extra.  As the story unfolds you keep thinking, “They won’t really do this or they can’t be thinking this,” and they are.  The level of absurdity increases in direct proportion with the seriousness of the story.

As the tension increases in the film you see many characters coolly going about their jobs: soldiers with machine guns ready to protect their base from other soldiers; bomber crews methodically entering bomb codes and flying to their target; military officers in the war room; and a deranged base commander explaining his madness.  There are only a couple of character who are alarmed by these turn of events.

Kubrick and writer Terry Southern pepper the film with some classic lines that underscore the absurdity of the situation.

President Merkin Muffley: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.”

President Merkin Muffley: “I will not go down in history as the greatest mass-murderer since Adolf Hitler.”

General “Buck” Turgidson: “Perhaps it might be better, Mr. President, if you were more concerned with the American People than with your image in the history books.”

Major T. J. “King” Kong: “Survival kit contents check. In them you’ll find: one forty-five caliber automatic; two boxes of ammunition; four days’ concentrated emergency rations; one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills; one miniature combination Russian phrase book and Bible; one hundred dollars in rubles; one hundred dollars in gold; nine packs of chewing gum; one issue of prophylactics; three lipsticks; three pair of nylon stockings. Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.”

 

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Kubrick reflected on the movie’s theme. “The nightmare themes portrayed in Dr. Strangelove will be with us as long as we have nuclear weapons. Many experts believe the most likely nuclear war might arise from accident, miscalculation, or madness, which might then go quickly out of control due to the problems of authenticating what each side is saying or doing, and the sudden failure of communications, probably caused by the radiation effects of nuclear explosions.”

Was Dr. Strangelove just an absurd, impossible situation.  Nuclear weapons were under lock and key, fully protected. Right?

According to a New Yorker magazine article in 2014, “Coded switches to prevent the unauthorized use of nuclear weapons were finally added to the control systems of American missiles and bombers in the early nineteen-seventies.”  In the 1960’s, only nuclear weapons controlled by NATO forces were installed with locking devices.  Prior to that, weapon systems had secured procedures, but not locks.  Could persons other than the President of the United States order the launch of a nuclear weapon? Under certain scenarios of attack, or perceived attack, I guess so.  A very sobering thought.  So, could the circumstance portrayed in Dr. Strangelove have happened?  It depends on who you ask.  There were other military discipline procedures that were in place to prevent accidental or a rouge individual from launching a missile.  But was that a fool-proof system? Maybe only a fool would think so.

Stanley Kubrick would not return to comedy, although some of his films would seem bizarrely funny in individual scenes.  A perfectionist, Kubrick would only make six more films over the next 25 years.  Kubrick worked in secrecy, had nearly autonomous control over his projects, and filmed primarily in England.  Even the Vietnam sequences in Full Metal Jacket were filmed in England.

The set designs in Dr. Strangelove have a stark and exaggerated feel to the shapes.  The production designer was Ken Adam, the same man who designed the look of Dr. No, Goldfinger and the early James Bond films.  Adam had a unique way of mixing the outlandish, the futuristic with the utilitarian.  Where did his inspiration come from?  “The Berlin of the 20s formed the foundation of my future education . . . the Berlin of the UFA studios, of Fritz Lang, Lubitsch and Erich Pommer. The Berlin of the architects Gropius, Mendelsohn and Mies van der Rohe. The Berlin of the painters Max Libermann, Grosz, Otto Dix, Klee and Kandinsky . . ,” Adam said in an interview with The Guardian.

Even President Ronald Reagan was impressed with Adam’s work, and inquired about seeing the War Room set that had been recreated for an exhibit.

“I was in the States giving a lecture to the Directors Guild when Steven Spielberg came up to me. He said ‘Ken, that War Room set for Strangelove is the best set you ever designed’. Five minutes later he came back and said ‘no it’s the best set that’s ever been designed’,” Adam recalled.

“It’s one of the best sets I’ve ever designed,” Adam told Variety magazine. “It still stands up. It’s big, powerful and very simple. It creates the right sort of atmosphere of claustrophobia.”

Fifty-five years later, Dr. Strangelove stands as an excellent piece of film-making, a glimpse of the Cold War era, and a reminder about how close to the line of self-destruction we really are.

 


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