|Even the film's opening title sequence is unique and famous.|
When Kubrick completed Lolita in 1962, his mind was already preoccupied with the nuclear arms race and the concept of thermonuclear war. This was at the height of the Cold War and the topic was pretty much in the back of every American's mind. Nuclear war seemed a genuine possibility. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had occurred only 17 years earlier. Nuclear testing in the US and the Soviet Union was a daily news item.
Characteristically, Kubrick read everything he could get his hands on about the subject and eventually paid $3,500 for the screen rights to Red Alert, a novel about a military officer going rogue and ordering a military strike on the Soviet Union. Kubrick immediately started working on a dramatic screenplay based on the novel. But, in happenstance and due to Kubrick’s expansive sense of humor, the long hours of writing often turned into late-night comical conversations.
While the screenplay slowly evolved in 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis gripped the nation. Shortly thereafter, Kubrick made the fundamental decision to accentuate the comic rather than the tragic nature of the subject matter. He felt that a satire would be a far more entertaining approach. With that, he turned to writer Terry Southern to help develop satirical elements for the narrative.
Kubrick originally wanted to shoot the picture in Los Angeles, but ultimately decided to film at Shepperton Studios in the United Kingdom. Southern flew there and worked for two months with Kubrick hammering out a script that intentionally pushed the nature of the subject as far into the absurd as either thought it should go while maintaining realism and cohesion, totally believable.
|The War Room, one of the most famous sets in cinematic history.|
To heighten the sense of realism a large number of photographs and filmed shots were made of Greenland and Iceland, representing terrain over the Soviet Union in which the B-52 in the film was supposed to be flying. A model of a B-52 was used with front-projection for establishing the flight scenes. From inside the cockpit, images were front-projected for each particular view of the plane, right-side, left-side, whatever.
Kubrick was pleased that Peter Sellers, who played multiple roles under his direction in Lolita, agreed to play several different roles in the film. Much of Sellers’ work in the film was unscripted; improvised between Kubrick and himself on the set. Several days were spent shooting Sellers portraying US President Merkin Muffley as having a bad cold and constantly needing a nasal inhaler. This led to some side-splittingly humorous shoots, with Sellers' gigantic wit running wild. But Kubrick had to rein all that back. The director decided that his film needed Sellers to play the president more sincerely in order to give the rest of the satire a grounded stability.
|Peter Sellers brilliantly portrayed a US president, a Nazi scientist, and a British colonel in the film.|
|George C. Scott is animated by the thought of how the B-52 can avoid detection and successfully strike its target, something that could trigger the end of the world.|
|Scott and Kubrick playing chess in the War Room.|
Kubrick wanted Sellers to play a fourth role, that of Major T.J. "King" Kong, the commander of the B-52. Sellers actually shot a couple of takes as Major Kong before breaking his leg in an accident on the set, apparently as a result of arguing with Kubrick about a shot. This was one reason the character of Dr. Strangelove was depicted in a wheelchair in the film (those scenes were shot after the break). Kubrick was suddenly in a bind.
The resolution came with the auspicious signing of Slim Pickens to play Kong. While it is extraordinary that Sellers had the opportunity to play four major roles in Dr. Strangelove, it is also impossible to imagine this film without the performance that Pickens brings. Pickens' natural quirky character, simply playing his western cowboy style self, added yet another comical dimension to the satire. Pickens carried the weight of the B-52 scenes, and brought balance to the narrative as it switches from the bomber to the crazy colonel’s base to the War Room.
“Dr. Strangelove is among the most brilliantly conceived and executed postwar films, as original as its maker and hard to categorize. The quality of its ideas and the speculations they set up in the appalled mind are extended and transformed into so many various characters and evolving climaxes, so many ironic connections with man’s generative urge to destroy himself, that the film demands to be approached from not just one point of view but many – farcical, semantic, factual, surreal, nuclear. Yet like all truly great works, it gives an impression of perfect portions. Nothing is excessive. All is there for precise effect. All the ideas are so surely elaborated and absorbed into the wit of its writing and the superbly differentiated performances and then follow them through so logically that any tactical novelties of the plot can be accommodated so long as they fit in his predetermined strategy.” (Walker, Taylor, Ruchti) pp. 157-158)
The film is an aesthetic masterpiece. It is dark and edgy but also absurd and silly. When Colonel Ripper orders the bombers to attack he does so out of concern over the Communist threat to “our precious bodily fluids.” When the president calls Soviet Premier Kissoff, the Russian leader must discuss possible nuclear annihilation while he is drunk and with a woman. When Major Kong attempts to dislodge a jammed nuclear bomb he ends up, famously, riding the device all the way down to its explosion over the target.
|Kubrick directing on the the film's combat scenes.|
There is sophistication here, of course. After all, this is a Stanley Kubrick film. The sets are highly detailed, every aspect of picture looks and feels realistic. All the humor rests on a bed of rock-solid validity. All black comedy is automatically a complex mix of intense or dangerous circumstances with funny lines and behaviors. Dr. Strangelove is perhaps the best example of this genre. While Scott (pushed by Kubrick) served as the clown of the film, Sellers as the president, offered straight humor, Sellers as the British colonel is Monty Python-like, Sellers as Dr. Strangelove is an outlandish Nazi, and Slim Pickens, being more or less himself, is naturally over-the-top. Dr. Strangelove offers a rich mix of humor.
That was not obvious at the time the film was shown to its producers and this led to several major edits in the film, including Kubrick completely changing how it ends.
“When Dr. Strangelove was screened for executives at Columbia Pictures, the reaction was far from enthusiastic. Vice president in charge of production Mike Frankovich, the adopted son of comedian Joe E. Brown, and his wife, actress Binnie Barnes, were distressed when the lights came up in the studio screening room after they had just watched a comedy about the destruction of the earth. Frankovich found the film unshowable, a disgrace to Columbia Pictures.
“It certainly didn’t help that at the time the film contained a sequence inspired by great screen comedians. Throughout the film the War Room sported a buffet table filled with fine food. Also on that table was a series of creamy custard pies. The Russian Ambassador grabs a pie and throws it. The pie misses its target and hits the President squarely in the face. In the great tradition of pie-throwing sequences, pandemonium breaks out and the custard flies across the War Room, leaving everybody covered with cream….The sequence took nearly two weeks to shoot.
“Kubrick eventually decided to take out the pie-throwing sequence, telling Gene Phillips, ‘It was too farcical and not consistent with the satric tone of the rest of the film.’” (LoBrutto, pp. 245-247)
As with other Kubrick films, all of the outtakes were either destroyed or protected from the public by the British Film Institute - including all the footage shot of Sellers playing President Muffley with a nasal inhaler. All that publicly remains of the pie-throwing scene today are a few photographs.
Dr. Strangelove explores several themes, but one strong, underlying current is sexuality. It is nothing new for Kubrick to explore sex (he had just finished Lolita, after all), and to equate warfare with sex is a common analogy.
“The sexual content of Dr. Strangelove, what one critic labeled a ‘sex allegory’ and another example of ‘erotic displacement,’ represents the most discernible and widely discussed mythopoeic element in the film. The progress of the film from ‘foreplay to explosion,’ to quote one critic, is clearly and almost too neatly connected with the satiric characterizations.” (Nelson, page 93)
As examples of this Nelson offers: Jack D. Ripper is named after history’s more notorious sex offender. A Playboy Magazine centerfold is featured on the B-52 and the ultimate target for the bomber ends up being a Soviet base at “Laputa” (Spanish for ‘whore’). Turgidson tells his scantily dressed girlfriend (who is also the centerfold) to start her "countdown" and "Bucky will be back before you can say ‘blastoff’." President Merkin Muffley's name is a reference to vulva, according to Nelson. Finally, “Dr. Strangelove brings Ripper’s madness into the ‘rational’ world of the War Room and links it to man’s intercourse with the machine and a sinister love affair with death.”
“Consequently, the film’s ‘sex allegory’ is only one of several conceptual levels that are interconnected and hold this fictional world together. Everywhere you look in the film, for instance, there are hints of primal and infantile regression that suggest a reverse descent not into space but into time. There is Kong’s Neanderthal Man and the primitivism of Turgidson, who slaps his hairy belly while standing over his mistress and in the War Room repeatedly assumes apelike stances. There is Ripper crawling on all fours as his mind degenerates to the same level as those juvenile scrawls on his notepad that contains the recall code. There are the opening images of the film, a B-52 bomber being refueled in midair, suggesting both copulation and a mother giving suck, while on the soundtrack we hear ‘Try a Little Tenderness’…” (Nelson, page 95)
The negative reaction of the Columbia Pictures studio producers to film is similar to how Hollywood executives reacted to 2001. Dr. Strangelove also received some less than enthusiastic reviews, mostly due to the critics believing humor was inappropriate where the possibility of a nuclear holocaust is concerned.
“Strangelove went on general US release on 30 January 1964, to classic mixed reviews, but an improving box office. ‘A true satire,’ said the Saturday Review, ‘with the whole human race as the ultimate target, I’m inclined to say that this mordant young director Kubrick has carried American comedy to a new high ground.’ Bosley Crowther in the New York Times harrumphed, ‘I am troubled by the feeling which runs all through the film, of discredit and even contempt for our whole military establishment.’ The Washington Post concurred: ‘No communist could dream of a more effective anti-American film to spread aboard than this one.’” (Baxter, page 192)
The film's final hurdle was a completely unexpected one. Its original premiere date was November 22, 1963. But the assassination of President John F. Kennedy led to a cancellation until January 1964. The depiction of President Muffley and the seriousness of the subject matter was deemed by Columbia and Kubrick himself as being unsuitable given current events. This also led to a slight change in dialog by Slim Pickens.
In the film Pickens rather comically runs through a content check of all the items in the crew's individual survival kits. This include condoms and other "non-essential" items. At which point Pickens originally said: "Shoot, a fella could have a pretty good time in Dallas with all this stuff." Obviously, since Kennedy was murdered in Dallas the line had to be overdubbed. In the final film you can see Pickens' mouth still utter "Dallas" but his voice overdubs the word with "Vegas."
Despite mixed reviews, Dr. Strangelove earned at the box office more than four times its cost, making it a financial success for Columbia and for Kubrick. The director had taken a big risk with a serious subject. The result is one of the greatest film's ever made. I would give Dr. Strangelove a solid 9 on my rating scale. I have seen it a dozen times or more through the years. Each viewing feels entertaining and fresh, the dark humor is timeless. Though theoretically the threat of nuclear weapons is as serious now as it ever was, it is no longer part of the zeitgeist of our times. That Kubrick boldly turned the existential terror of that time into one of the world's greatest comedic films is no small achievement. That Dr. Strangelove remains as enjoyable today as it was in 1964 is an even greater accomplishment.
The famous closing shot. Slim Pickens rides the bomb all the way down.