Not too long after finishing Lolita Kubrick went back to a project which caught his attention in the mid to late fifties. A strategist in his own right, a brilliant chess player and admirer of Napoleon's campaigns he had been researching the nuclear arms race, how it started, where it would lead to and what might happen if along the way an accident or quirk of madness was to cause the slender thread holding this particular Sword of Damocles to fall. Eventually a friend suggested he read Red Alert by Peter George (penned under the name Peter Bryant). The UK title is Two Hours to Doom and a pristine copy can these days be picked up for a reported £2000. Kubrick read the novel, knew he could make a serious film on the subject matter and decided there and then to buy the rights. Basically Kubrick took the novel's premise, then brought to our screens the nightmare scenario of a misfit general ordering his pilots to attack the U.S.S.R. There seems to be no way back, the only options available to the US President are either total commitment of his remaining forces or annihilation of their way of life. This is Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb.
Some years later Kubrick with his long term collaborator and producer James Harris would return to Red Alert and take the thriller from its pages to a serious drama about a nuclear attack initiated by a demented lower general. During the writing both Kubrick and Harris wondered though about the ludicrous nature of the plot line, its implications and wondered in fact what it would be like if written and filmed as a comedy. However they pursued their chosen path and all was going according to plan until the last minute when Harris had to leave the project indicating that he wanted to follow a directorial career of his own. This was accepted by both parties with no animosity whatsoever.
Alone, Kubrick continued to write and develop the story but still he could not escape the fact that there were so many humourous, paradoxical moments in the screenplay and to leave them out left the story a little light. In the end he decided to turn it into a dark, nightmare comedy. He could think of no better way to get his point across that we were hurtling towards a nuclear Armageddon and perhaps one not of our own or our leaders making. Terry Southern was recommended by Sellers and Kubrick knew him briefly as Southern had interviewed him after Lolita. He had a history of satirical, at times somewhat sexual writing, and both of these aspects found their way into the final Dr. Strangelove picture. The satirical angles are more than easily understood, but look at the opening phallic titles of the movie, the phallic looking cigar that General Jack D. Ripper smokes as he discusses his own theories or in fact his own sexual inadequacies. Look at some of the names mentioned in the film... Jack Ripper (obvious sexual sociopath there), Captain Lionel Mandrake (mandrake being a root plant with alleged aphrodisiac qualities), President Merkin Muffley (the merkin a pubic wig - and for the name to be used for an aging bald guy is simply genius). There's more if you look deeper but these are the qualities that Southern brought to the table and which both Kubrick and Sellers richly enjoyed.
Ultimately Kubrick thought he had a script to go to work with, well as much as Kubrick does with his continual daily re-writing of certain scenes. It was time to go to casting and of all Kubrick's films I do believe that this one has the finest cast of them all. To play the part of the demented, paranoid General Jack Ripper he turned to an actor he had successfully worked with some time ago in The Killing; the man... Sterling Hayden. The Killing was not a commercial success by any means yet it thrust Kubrick and a number of its players into the limelight. From that moment, there would be no going back for any of them. Hayden had kept a low profile for some time before Dr. Strangelove was committed to celluloid, however Kubrick managed to persuade him to return to the profession. His portrayal as the crazed lunatic setting the world on the path to Armageddon is excellent and to this day as he recites his “precious bodily fluids” speech I still do not know how he could have kept such a straight face.
Kubrick of course had worked with Sellers before on Lolita and employed his talents on this film for no less than four roles, what we're left with today though is only three. Sellers was initially ear-marked to play the part of Major T.J. 'King' Kong however after an apparent 'accident', which either broke his leg or ankle depending on the book you read, Kubrick was left with no option other than to recast the part. Kubrick wanted Sellers in all of these roles so that no matter what scene you were confronted with you would always see one of Sellers' characters determining the fate of the world. Finally then Sellers settles into the roles of Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley and of course Dr. Strangelove himself. Sellers has always been a character actor often saying that he never shows his true self but always playing in character; he does so here with all three roles more than admirably. His R.A.F. Commander is a blatant continuation from when he used to impersonate officers during his tenure in the second world war. President Muffley was originally designed to be a feeble, sickly man who seemed to forever cough. It was eventually decided that Muffley should in fact be a strong character, the voice of reason and is certainly the character that the viewer will probably most readily relate to. If however you do look closely at one of the War Room scenes (just as Turgidson reads Ripper's statement), with the camera held high taking in all of the 26 participants around the table, you can in fact see Sellers playing Muffley to the right, coughing, and snorting on a nasal spray. Finally though we have Dr. Strangelove. An ex Nazi, obviously whisked away from Germany at the end of WWII to help the US on their missile project (remind you of anyone?), is a bundle of neurosis himself. Confined to a wheelchair, almost machine like with his independent arm he only seems to be aroused when discussing the latest way to eliminate mankind as a whole. When the doomsday device is finally activated near the end of the film he is so excited, his mind and body so thrilled with the power of all this destruction, that he manages to regain control of his legs, rises from his wheelchair and begins to walk. It is said that filming could only be done in such short spaces of time, this is either due to the continual adaptation and improvisation that Sellers was continually coming up with (with Kubrick's blessing) or indeed because the whole crew could not keep the laughter from the faces and voices. Because of the improvisation I think it's only fair that Sellers' input be widely acknowledged that part of this film is his to cherish. He was nominated for an Academy Award for these roles but alas he never walked away with the gong that year.
With Sellers unable to take on the role of Major Kong (and in all reality not really wanting that additional burden either) Kubrick turned to stalwart Slim Pickens to realise the role. Played as a king of his own domain, he's about as determined a person as you will get in somebody desperate to lay waste to any Rooskie territory he can get his hands on. It seems almost inconceivable now that anyone else other than Slim could have played the part. Hats off to Sellers, he's a fantastic character actor but in reality Slim now owns this part. His speeches, his movements, his ten gallon hat kept locked away for safe keeping. Kubrick should have been more than happy with his final choice. Slim has left us with one of the most iconic scenes in all cinema history; you know the one, it's been copied on countless occasions, when Slim finally gets to ride the nuclear phallus all the way down to earth as if he was participating in a Texas rodeo. Look closely at his mouth though when describing the contents of the survival kit. When mentioning that “a guy could have a pretty good time in Vegas with all of this” the lip synch is just not quite right, the original words were Dallas. However Dr Strangelove was scheduled for a preview on 22nd November 1963! For obvious reasons that date was delayed until early 1964 and the city referred to in Major Kong's speech was changed accordingly also.
I have admired Sellers in most things that he has done, with Being There at the top of the tree for me, Dr. Strangelove coming in a close second. And as much as I enjoyed the crusty performance of Sterling Hayden and the over exuberant Slim Pickens, one other man stole this show: Gorge C. Scott. At the time he was a jobbing television actor with some notable movie work under his belt coupled with an illustrious career in the theatre. Allegedly he was, at times, difficult to work with and Kubrick managed to gain his respect by engaging him in games of chess. Kubrick being the master tactician that he was more or less wiped the floor with him but it showed Scott that he knew what he was doing. With Scott now giving Kubrick some respect he was able to provide a performance which was not equalled in this film. He has some of the best lines... “I'm not saying we won't get our hair mussed Mr. President, but I do say no more than 10 - 20 million killed... tops.. depending on the breaks” His actions from the initial slap of his stomach as he slowly starts to realise the enormity of what is going on, to the gleeful, wicked smile on his face as he discusses secret population mega deaths has me rolling in the aisle every single time I watch this classic film. A true perfectionist he even manages to successfully complete a scene when he trips and accidentally falls. He went onto have a glorious career but nothing in my eyes, even Patton, comes close to the performance he managed here. It is said that Kubrick took multiple takes of his scenes, one serious, one more off the wall, more over the top. Although Scott himself thought that his strong serious scenes were the best Kubrick choose the latter in the main, much to Scott's chagrin. Ultimately though Kubrick was right, this performance is the best, this performance underpins Kubrick's intent on showing the ludicrous nature of an arms race. It has to be said that Kubrick found no solution to the problem knowing that unilateral disarmament was a bewildering option to entertain also.
Of all of Kubrick's pictures this is the one I watch to see excellent acting. It was shown before with Sparticus and The Killing but for me this is the one defining actor's piece that Kubrick put his hand to. There's so much more to say about this film... the litigation between Kubrick and the producer of Fail Safe for 'copying' his idea, Gilbert Taylor's gloriously sublime cinematography and lighting, Wally Veevers (that giant of special effects from the early fifties and beyond) providing us with the means to see Kong's B52 in flight, the delayed release date because of the murder of President Kennedy in 1963, that infamous pie fight which initially ended the movie but was ultimately taken out. The list goes on and on and the history of the film is almost as interesting as the movie itself but I'll let you find out about those yourself.
Want to see a movie about nuclear Armageddon then this is it. Must watch, must own... simple.
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