The world started with a Big Bang and, with Slim Pickens at the controls of his nuclear bomb-laden B-52, Stanley Kubrick seems intent to see it out with one. The apocalyptic black comedy receives a new release celebrating its 40th Anniversary, its arrival, once again, pointing the finger of mockery at those in power. And the sad, but highly entertaining, game that they play with our lives comes into sharp, anarchic and rib-tickling clarity with the genius combination of Kubrick’s cold, efficient eye, Peter Sellers’ sheer brilliance in his three momentous roles and the awful, yet exciting, anticipation of Armageddon. Seriously, folks, the end of the world has never been such fun!
“It looks like we’re in a shooting war.”
Things are looking pretty bleak in Kubrick’s paranoid sixties. General Jack D. Ripper (a marvellously cold and calculating Sterling Hayden) has ordered an all-out nuclear strike on the USSR, locked himself away in his office and sealed off his base, issuing orders to his panicked troops to fight off anyone that tries to get in, because they are bound to be Commies dressed as American soldiers. He believes that his “precious bodily fluids” are under direct threat from the Russians, who have been fluorinating the water supply in an attempt to wipe out the West. Yep, the General’s brain has indeed turned to conspiratorial mush. And since only he has the command code that can recall the fleet of B-52’s now winging their way towards their targets, it looks as though the US’s fail safe plans to win any war against the Soviets are going to inadvertently start World War Three. The American President, Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) assembles his Chiefs Of Staff in the War Room of the Pentagon – among them the irascible, Commie-bashing tower of square-jawed, flat-topped testosterone General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott on simply magnificent form) and the Russian Ambassador (played with monumental self-restraint, as he struggles not to laugh, by Peter Bull) that he is convinced is a spy and longs to throttle. It is going to be a difficult and testing time for all concerned, but with RAF Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers again) locked in with the deranged Ripper, and attempting to get the stand-down code from him, and the less-then-ex-Nazi scientist, Dr. Strangelove (a third Peter Sellers) on hand to deliver the ice-cold solution, and somewhat perversely welcome alternative, to the inevitable global conflagration, things can only get considerably worse.
“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!”
The really clever thing about Dr. Strangelove is that it is far better than the sum of its parts – and those parts, when broken down, are actually gems in their own right. The characters are uniformly insane, except perhaps for the President, ironically enough, though even his sanity is probably in jeopardy by the end of the film. Turgidon’s introduction – he’s on the John whilst his playmate centrefold partner, Miss Foreign Affairs (Tracy Reed), takes the most important call of his career, and possibly even his life, and has to relay the crucial cold facts of the looming catastrophe to him – leaves us in doubt that our salvation is in the hands of buffoons. His rampant libido and forcefully ill-advised opinions make his “Air Force never sleeps,” speech as patriotic as it is incredulous, the sight of him patting his pot-belly hardly instilling hope and pride. Reed’s deadpan, matter-of-fact delivery of this portentous message is pure brilliance in a film that rarely strays from this degree of class throughout its surprisingly brief running time. The paranoia builds into pantomimic proportions yet, as ridiculous at the whole things gets, it is also frightening credible. We’ve only got to cast our minds back a little to the recent Gulf War – how many of those American pilots were actually Texan National Guard flyboys, eh? Slim Pickens making a rootin’-tootin’ bomb-run doesn’t sound all that crazy now, does it? And he may not want any horsing around aboard the plane but he’s sure as hell gonna saddle up for the final glorious charge against those darn “Roo-skis.” Check out the survival kit issued to him and his crew, particularly the miniature Bible that doubles as a Russian phrasebook, too. Riding high, he and his bomb, may take the scenic route, but the narrative drive to holocaust feels like a genuine countdown despite the comedy that plays out beneath his mission. It is also amazing to hear the grizzled old cowpoke unleash a torrent of technical jargon in deadly seriousness. It may sound painstakingly accurate, but from his weathered jowls it is just plain hilarious.
“I will not go down in history as the greatest mass murderer since Adolf Hitler.”
“Perhaps it might be better, Mr. President, if you were more concerned with the American people, than with your image in the history books.”
The continual argument between Turgidson’s avid bloodlust and Muffley’s desire to halt the calamity is cinematic gold dust, the dialogue absolutely riveting and all the funnier for being delivered with pure sincerity. Turgidson’s vicious anti-communist can hardly keep his finger off the button. Listen out for Scott’s awesome scene-setting of the final hour predicament laid out in simpleton’s terms for the President, and then watch, with satisfaction, his subsequent scowl when his war-mongering is not received well. He practically sulks in the corner, sucking his thumb. We all know what a comical genius Sellers is, but it is a veritable revelation to witness Scott’s flair for tickling the funny bone. His own degree for ad-libbing fuelled with inspiration by the true master of improv, Sellers. Only a prat-fall later on seems too heavily choreographed, with Scott pausing a little longer than necessary, seemingly for the appreciation of the other cast and crew. But then again, this is probably in keeping with the inherent theatricality of the film that, asides from a few aerial shots of the B-52 and the grainy documentary look of the troops assaulting Ripper’s base, seems like a stage-set farce thrown up on the screen.
“The string in my leg’s gone, sir.”
The interplay between the staunch, upper class fop, Mandrake, and the inspired delinquency of General Ripper are, perhaps, moments of lesser genius, but their battle of wills still enforces, or should that be en-farces, the volatile razor’s edge of the situation with stylish character play. Sterling Hayden captures the clinical, cold heart of obsession perfectly, and his machine-gun retaliation to his own troops attacking his base adds a last stand jingoism that typifies the ideology of the American death-or-glory dream. You can actually imagine some sections of the masses applauding this subversive stance without even realising what it is really about. Keenan Wynn is ultra-cool as dedicated patriot-paratrooper “Bat Guano”, whose ultimatum to an exasperated Mandrake, regarding the damage done to a Cocoa-Cola machine, is a delightfully incisive barb to overt-commercialism that is just as relevant today.
“Now, Dimitri … you know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of there being a problem with the bomb? The bomb, Dimitri … the H bomb.”
But the pure standout moments come courtesy of the late great Peter Sellers. Obviously. His penchant for character-creation and improvisation reached a level here that only a certain French detective could hope to overtake. Mandrake’s fly-in-the-ointment, starched moustache and stiff-upper-lip may be quintessential “For Queen and Country” stuff, but his President Muffley is a continually harassed stroke of utter brilliance. His two phone-calls to the Russian Premier to advise, pontificate, educate and ultimately shoot-the-breeze with, are perhaps the best moments in the movie. That Sellers virtually concocted these pivotal discourses on the day is testament to his incredible talent for timing and his delicious joy in the simple usage of the English language. Muffley’s calm, everyday friendliness holds a genuine sense of veiled panic at the terrifying information he is forced to supply, and his subsequent falling-apart-at-the-seams is worth endless replays. But, of course, how can we possibly forget to mention Dr. Strangelove, himself? The wheelchair-ridden ex-Nazi scientist appears to be the only hope for the beleaguered Top Brass when the situation goes mushroom-shaped, and his solution for their salvation and the furthering of mankind certainly brings a smile to the wolfish Turgidson’s face. This character, equally mad and certainly another harbinger of doom, brings the movie’s themes of corrupted power and global insecurity to a crystalline head. His feeble condition only adds menace to his devious nature. The renegade arm, with its aggressive, gloved hand that only wants to salute the glorious Fatherland and will strangle him if he doesn’t let it, becomes a character in itself. Please keep an eye out for poor Peter Bull, often seen standing beside Strangelove, whose very austere Ambassador’s face visibly cracks a couple of times when Sellers’ antics get the better of him. Knowing the methodology of the obsessive Kubrick, it is surprising that these little chinks in the armour had been permitted to remain.
“I mean, it’s not going to help either one of us if the Doomsday Machine goes off, now is it?”
If you are going to satirise something, it may as well be nuclear Armageddon. The world, as Kubrick knew was being run by paranoid fools, afraid of their own shadows and all-too keen to foster fear and distrust around the planet. Though, rather succinctly – and still presciently – he found the rich vein of humour running through this lunacy and thirst for war, and tapped into it with studied glee. His maverick status was cemented with Dr. Strangelove, and its diagnosis, via the circus freak-show of black comedy’s greatest grotesques, established his individuality, politics and meticulous love affair with the camera. To this day, it provides a glorious and bold statement of serious intent that leans out of the lampoonery very much like the nuclear warhead it seeks to warn against. His masterstroke was to find a way to inform and educate that didn’t feel like a lecture or a sermon. The universal language of comedy was the blue touch-paper to ignite this incendiary, but, luckily for all of us, the fuse has been a long one. Let’s just hope it’s long enough.
“Mien Fuhrer … I CAN WALK!”
Our Review Ethos