Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Dr. Strangelove, as it is commonly known, is a 1964 satirical film directed by Stanley Kubrick. It tells the story of an insane American Air Force General, Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who plans to start a nuclear war with the Soviet Union in order to stop, he believes, a fearful Communist conspiracy to put fluoride in the water supply, thereby threatening our "precious bodily fluids".

Spoiler warning: Plot discussed

General Ripper is unaware that the Soviets have constructed a doomsday machine which automatically detects any nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, whereupon it destroys all life on earth by fallout. General Ripper's plan is foiled by Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), the British exchange officer who discovers the recall code. Unfortunately, one B-52 ("The Leper Colony") can't be called back and continues its mission to drop the one nuclear bomb that will set off the doomsday machine. The pilot of the B-52 rides the bomb down to global destruction.

Although it is a comedy, Dr. Strangelove is also suspenseful and engrossing and not the least "madcap". Two major scenes of action are the immense War Room dominated by the Big Board showing the location of every bomber in the world, and the meticulously recreated B-52 interior. The remainder is set in General Ripper's headquarters at Burpleson Air Force Base. The Pentagon did not cooperate in making the film as it did in making Strategic Air Command (1955).

Dr. Strangelove takes passing shots at all sorts of Cold War attitudes, but focuses its satire on the theory of mutual assured destruction, in which each side is supposed to take comfort in the fact that a nuclear war would be a cataclysmic disaster. (The link below makes the argument that the doomsday machine was really a metaphor for this situation, that, in effect, both sides already had a doomsday machine.)

It satirizes the conventions of Hollywood war movies, in which the ignorance and horniness of soldiers are not discussed. It satirizes the curious "red telephone" relationship between heads of state, in which a first-name intimacy competes with a culturally conditioned dislike for the other and for the entire political system which he heads:

"I'm sorry, too, Dmitri. ... I'm very sorry. ... All right, you're sorrier than I am, but I am as sorry as well. ... I am as sorry as you are, Dmitri! Don't say that you're more sorry than I am, because I'm capable of being just as sorry as you are. ... So we're both sorry, all right?! ... All right."

Finally, the film can also be seen as a sex comedy, even though only one woman (dressed in ridiculously modest underwear) briefly grazes the screen. Excepting perhaps the stiff-upper-lip Captain Mandrake, all the characters seem to be driven by sexual motives; even President Muffley's eyes light up when Dr. Strangelove describes the situation in the mine shaft shelters. Sex drives the movie, from the opening titles with two copulating airplanes to ending sequence in which the world is destroyed in a globe-spanning moment of sexual ecstacy.

The movie is based upon a Cold War thriller entitled Red Alert. Stanley Kubrick had originally wanted to film the story as a serious drama. However, he explained during interviews that the comedy inherent in the idea of Mutual Assured Destruction became apparent as he was writing the first draft of the film's script. Kubrick stated:

"My idea of doing it as a nightmare comedy came in the early weeks of working on the screenplay. I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question." -- Macmillan International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, vol. 1, p. 126

The film stars Peter Sellers, who improvised the dialog above during filming. Sellers plays multiple parts:
  • Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, a sane, well-meaning British liaison officer;
  • Adlai Stevenson-esque U.S. President Merkin Muffley, decent, flustered and weak, the doomsday machine is a shock to him.
  • Dr. Strangelove, from Merkwürdigliebe, his German name, based on aspects of Herman Kahn and Wernher von Braun. Dr. Strangelove's voice is supposedly based on that of Weegee.

Sellers was also to have played the B-52 bomber captain, but an injury during filming prevented him from doing so. The part of Major T. J. "King" Kong was played by Slim Pickens, who gives it the performance of a lifetime. Also appearing in the film are George C. Scott in his breakout part as General "Buck" Turgidson, a strategic bombing enthusiast and the debut of James Earl Jones as the bombardier, Lt. Lothar Zogg.

Dr. Strangelove is consistently in the top 20 on the Internet Movie Database's list of top 250 films, and was also listed as #26 on the American Film Institute's on its 100 Years, 100 Movies and #3 on its 100 Years, 100 Laughs. The film has also been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

Despite its undeniable classic status, the film is not without its detractors. It has been claimed that the dialogue is often not as funny as it thinks it is, that the use of silly character names is an infantile touch, and that the satire often looks as if it has been crudely pasted onto the original thriller plot.

Table of contents
1 Red Alert and Fail-Safe
2 The Kennedy Assassination
3 Songs
4 Quotations
5 External links

Red Alert and Fail-Safe

Dr. Strangelove was based on the paperback novel Red Alert (1958) by Peter George. George collaborated on the screenplay with Kubrick and satirist Terry Southern. Red Alert was more solemn by far -- Dr. Strangelove is not a character -- but the plot and the technical elements were similar. In the same year, the same movie company (Columbia), also released Fail-Safe, a "serious" version of the same plot directed by Sidney Lumet, based on the (1962) novel by Eugene Burdick.

Also reflecting the temper of the times, Warner Brothers released Seven Days in May the same year. The plot turned on a military coup d'etat that sought to prevent the president from signing a nuclear-disarmament treaty.

The Kennedy Assassination

When President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963, the film was just weeks from its scheduled premiere. The release was delayed until late January 1964 as it was felt that the public was in no mood for such a film any sooner, and one joking reference to having a good time "in Dallas" was dubbed to become "in Vegas".

Songs

Quotations

  • "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the war room." -- Merkin Muffley
  • "It would not be difficult, Mein Führer! Nuclear reactors could, heh... I'm sorry, Mr. President." -- Dr. Strangelove
  • "The whole point of the doomsday machine is lost...if you keep it a secret! Why didn't you tell the world, eh?!" -- Dr. Strangelove
  • "I don't say we wouldn't get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops!" -- Gen. Turgidson
  • "Aaaaaa hoooo! Waaaaa hooooo!" -- Major T. J. "King" Kong, as he rides on top of the bomb as it falls on the target
  • "Mein Führer! I can walk!" -- Dr. Strangelove, as he, in his enthusiasm describing the adventures lying before them, steps out of his wheelchair.

See also:

External links


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