Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) — This article was originally published on 12ftdwende.com on 29 July 2011.

There is, perhaps, no funnier line in the history of cinema than “Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” It perfectly exemplifies all the wonderful absurdity that makes Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worry and Love the Bomb one of my favorite films. Of course of that wonderful absurdity stems from the very horrifying absurdity that the world was supposedly one breathe away from complete nuclear annihilation. Prime fodder for comedy, right? Peter George certainly didn’t seem to think so. He authored the Cold War thriller Red Alert, about the possibility of nuclear war being unilaterally started by an insane general with the attack codes. Director Stanley Kubrick (who will be making another appearance in my Favorite Films column later this year) had been wanting to make a movie about a nuclear accident and bought the rights to the book. Of course, while writing the script the potential for humor became very clear. Kubrick and Terry Southern went on to write one of the best-regarded comedies of all time.

To bring the script to life Kubrick assembled a magnificent cast, foremost among them comedic genius Peter Sellers (who will also make another appearance in a future Favorite Films column). Sellers had previously worked with Kubrick on Lolita, in which his character adopts several disguises. The studio decided that Sellers should play four roles (multiple roles being something Sellers had done before). The first was Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, a member of the Royal Air Force on exchange at an American Air Force base under the command of the mad General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden). The second is the President of the United States, Merkin Muffley. His phone call to the (drunk) Soviet premier is comedy gold. The third and perhaps most memorable is the title character Dr. Strangelove, a German scientist (with the background that would have implied in the early 1960s) with some odd ticks.

Sellers’ fourth role was to be Major T.J. “King” Kong. However, Sellers injured himself before he could shoot those scenes. The producers sought John Wayne to take it over, but he said no. The movie is better for it because they instead got Western character actor Slim Pickens in the role that defined his career. (Fun fact: Slim Pickens also took the role John Wayne refused in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles.) Pickens was only shown his scenes and was not told the movie was a comedy. Bringing his own natural Texan swagger to the role, Pickens was part of one of the most iconic images of Cold War cinema (appearing at the beginning of this article). Film noir mainstay Sterling Hayden plays the insane Gen. Ripper with a ludicrous intensity that plays really well off of Sellers’ Cap. Mandrake character’s more terrified performance. George C. Scott goes all out (supposedly Kubrick tricked him into going way over-the-top in supposed “practice” takes that he ended up putting in the film) as General Buck Turgidson. By the way, if you needed any further evidence that this film is comedy, the character names should give it away.

Nowadays the threat of total nuclear annihilation isn’t hanging over our heads as an omnipresent reminder of the fragile state of international relations. It’s still a possibility, mind you, but unlike during the Cold War it isn’t constantly being drilled into our heads. When I was in school we didn’t have to practice hiding from a nuclear explosion under our desks like my dad’s generation did, as the Cold War ended when I was in preschool. I’ve often said (though I don’t pretend it’s an original sentiment) that when you look at the sorry state of the world you can laugh or you can cry. Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb laughed HARD at the world. I imagine that when working on the [initially serious] screenplay Kubrick said to himself “no, I’m NOT going to be scared by all this” and began to mercilessly satirize the situation. From the open credits (where refueling planes look… suggestive) to the absurd discussions in the final scene (“We must not allow a Mineshaft Gap!”) the movie, Dr. Strangelove is rightfully considered to be one of the finest dark comedies ever made.

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