Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) is not an obvious subject for comedy. The idea of a potentially world-ending scenario where superpowers bomb each other into oblivion and take the rest of the planet with them seems more like a nightmare than the inspiration for a jolly time at the pictures.
Sellers times three.
However, in the hands of Stanley Kubrick, this scenario became the basis for an acclaimed cinematic fusion, a “nightmare comedy” alternating between the amusing and the unnerving: Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
Released in 1964 to critical acclaim and box-office success, the film continues to have a particular power and resonance, even if many of those now watching for the first time might find its premise unbelievable. Moreover, it is a distinctive film in its lack of a clear political message or meaning.
It is a depiction of how things can go wrong, rather than instructions on how to make things go right. It takes aim at an entire situation, rather than one side or another, or this policy or that, and can be used to support all manner of views on nuclear war. Kubrick’s perspective is detached, and it this very detachment that makes the film such uncomfortable viewing.
Following on the heels of the commercially successful and controversial Lolita, starring James Mason, Peter Sellers and Sue Lyon, Dr Strangelove was, in some ways, a change of direction for Kubrick. He’d been vaguely researching Cold War and nuclear fear scenarios for a few years when Alastair Buchan, director of the Institute of Strategic Studies, recommended he read Peter George’s novel, Red Alert.
Kubrick liked the novel and started working on a “serious” film script with George, while also consulting with nuclear strategist Herman Kahn and game theorist Thomas Schelling.
However, the comic potential of the scenario became apparent to Kubrick and he brought in satirist Terry Southern as a co-writer. Columbia Pictures believed the success of Lolita was partly due to Peter Sellers playing multiple roles, so they insisted that he do the same in Dr Strangelove.
Sellers appropriately disappears into his roles, but in such a way that the comic element is apparent.
Mavericks in charge
The plot concerns a U.S. Air Force general who goes “a little funny in the head” and orders a nuclear strike on Russia, while the United States leadership tries to stop him.
General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), commander of the 843rd Bomb Wing of Strategic Air Command at Burpelson Air Force Base, is convinced the communists have been poisoning the water, and so he orders a first strike to force the U.S. to go all-in in nuclear war. President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) instead orders an attack on the base and starts liaising with the Soviet Premier to shoot down the planes they can’t recall, much to the chagrin of U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), who sees this as an opportunity.
Meanwhile, Royal Air Force exchange officer Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) is trying to talk sense to General Ripper; and, in the air, one B-52 bomber, commanded by Major T.J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens), is trying to complete its mission. And in the background, lurks Dr Strangelove (Sellers again).
The cinematography ably expresses the mental space of the different locations. The bomber is cramped, claustrophobic and isolated, with constant close-ups to reinforce the psychological effect.
The air force base is shot through with the surrealism and absurdity of the everyday, with gunfire and machinegun- cradling Ripper engaged in calm conversation with the worried Mandrake. The War Room is something out of an expressionist nightmare, all sharp angles and sharp shadows, with the human beings dwarfed by the room they’re in, just as they are dwarfed by the enormity of the situation they’re facing.
And the situation is a difficult one. It is easy to say that such a situation should not exist, that such weapons should not exist. But the reality is they do. And the reality of international politics is that, by virtue of their existence, they play an important role.
Kubrick poses no solution, makes no moral judgement. Perhaps the closest he gets is the subtitle: to Stop Worrying, because what good will worrying do, when the fate of the world is at stake?
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).