It's hard to imagine Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece of political comedy getting made in Hollywood today. A bold assault on the anti-Communist hype of the '60s, Dr Strangelove was, essentially, an endless succession of big-dick jokes. Such characters as Gen. Turgidson, Maj. Kong and President Merkin Muffley obsessed over lack of control, withholding information and the impending "mine shaft gap." Today, images of airplanes coupling, bomb doors jamming and Coke machines erratically discharging their precious fluids would send the Christian Right in paroxysms of righteous rage ... if they were smart enough to actually get the metaphorical gags.
Adapted from Peter George's novel, Red Alert, Kubrick, along with George and satirist Terry Southern, transformed a sober thriller into an outrageous black comedy about nuclear Armageddon. This was a particularly brash choice given the political tensions of the time; the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the escalation of the nuclear arms race were the headlines of the day. Cold War paranoia rivaled the reaction to the 9/11 attacks. When President Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963, Dr. Strangelove's release was pushed back to January of 1964. Even then, Columbia Pictures was goaded into posting this disclaimer at the start of the film:
It is the stated position of the United States Air Force that their safeguards would prevent the occurrence of such events as are depicted in this film. Furthermore, it should be noted that none of the characters portrayed in this film are meant to represent any real persons living or dead.
The great injustice, however, was Strangelove's loss at the Academy Awards. Nominated for best picture, best actor (Peter Sellers) and best director, it lost all three to the annoyingly popular My Fair Lady.
Nevertheless, the film has been endlessly referenced and imitated, inspiring a slew of anti-war and anti-government satires. None has come close to its genius. There simply hasn't been a movie (before or since) as comically audacious or technically brilliant. It delivers on every front, boasting a tightly plotted drama, a perfectly paced thriller, an incisively witty script, stunning cinematography and groundbreaking performances.
Sterling Hayden is perfect as the sexually and psychotically dysfunctional general, Jack D. Ripper. Convinced the Soviets are using fluoridation to drain the essence from our bodily fluids, he launches an unauthorized nuclear strike on Moscow and retreats to a military bunker with a small army to protect him.
After learning of this, neurotic President Muffley (Peter Sellers) gathers a hilarious rogues' gallery of advisers including the extremist Gen. Turgidson (George C. Scott) and ex-Nazi kook, Dr. Strangelove (again, Peter Sellers) to stop the planes and avert global holocaust. You see, the Soviets have built a Doomsday Machine that, if attacked, will blanket the Earth in radiation for 100 years.
The script expertly bounces between the bomber pilots' determination to drop their payload, petty exchanges between the president and the drunken Russian premier, and the thwarted attempts by British attaché Lionel Mandrake (again, Peter Sellers) to get the recall codes from the increasingly deranged Ripper.
The writers use the story's comedy and suspense to reinforce each other, constantly raising the dramatic stakes while giving the jokes an ever-sharper edge. It's a rare film that can simultaneously increase both its thrills and laughs.
Every performance in Dr. Strangelove is first-rate, from the wrongheaded patriotism of Slim Pickens' cowboy-pilot Kong (he didn't know the film was a comedy) to George C. Scott's gung-ho playboy general. But it's Peter Sellers who redefines the art of film acting. Playing three drastically different roles, he inhabits his characters so completely it's hard to believe they're played by the same person. The president and Strangelove deliver some of the film's most famous lines, but it's Seller's portrayal of Mandrake that impresses most. His ability to underplay the well-mannered character's confusion, fear and frustration results in some of the film's best moments.
Kubrick originally intended for Dr. Strangelove to end with a giant custard pie fight between the Russians and Americans, but, upon viewing the footage, he decided the slapstick ending undermined the film. This was a fortuitous decision, since the scene featured Muffley taking a pie to the face and Turgidson exclaiming, "Gentlemen! Our gallant young president has just been struck down in his prime!" So soon after the Kennedy assassination, the line might have provoked a nasty backlash.
With direction and dialogue far superior to what is released today, Dr. Strangelove's political sensibilities feel neither dated nor naive. Subversive and poignant, it never falls victim to a particular agenda. Forty years after its initial release, the film finds particular relevance with regard to our current administration's macho posturing. Kubrick and his writers seemed to understand that, though the players and circumstances may change, the political need to compare penis size will always remain the same.
Showing at the Redford Theatre (17360 Lahser Rd., Detroit; 313-537-2560). Visit redfordtheatre.com.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].