Director/Coscreenwriter: Stanley Kubrick
By Roderick Heath
More than 20 years since the end of the Cold War, and nearly a half-century since the film was released, why is Stanley Kubrick’s seventh feature, a modish fantasia dealing with the perverse id and assailed mentality of its specific era, still so lauded, so beloved, so vital? How can a film with such subject matter still be considered a titanic work of cinematic comedy? Why does it stand tall when attempts to update it or reproduce its unstable blend of elements usually fall very, very short? Some answers: a great filmmaker at the height of his craft. A great comic actor also at his height, backed up by other superlative talents. A screenplay possessed of a pitiless intelligence and ornery wit. A time when taking risks in cinema was rapidly becoming more permissible, even necessary. Over and above all this, Dr. Strangelove helped to define something about the modern world that has survived even as the Cold War has faded. The apocalyptic anxiety it diagnosed and treated with mockery and gallows humour has hardly vanished, but has rather faded to the background static in our daily lives. Dr. Strangelove is a purgative rather than a wallow, however, a work of fatalistic fervour that is nonetheless perversely cheering precisely because it considers the worst the world had to offer and yet still finds the joie de vivre in it.
Dr. Strangelove began evolving when Kubrick, interested in dealing with the threat of nuclear war, had a book recommended to him credited to the pseudonym of former RAF officer Peter Bryan George. George’s novel, variously titled Two Hours to Doom or Red Alert, was a sober thriller depicting Armageddon almost brought about by a combination of human frailty and technological estrangement. Kubrick had been pushed close to the summit of Hollywood success in helming Kirk Douglas’ earnest projects Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960) only a few years after the precocious former photographer had broken into the industry with self-financed films. But frustrating experiences making Spartacus and One-Eyed Jacks (1961), from which he was fired, soured him on Hollywood. Kubrick had recently made what proved a permanent move to Britain to shoot Lolita (1962), a movie that established him as a more eccentric and individualistic director than anyone had realised, gifted at tackling taboo subjects whilst maintaining an ironic but fervent empathy for tragically human protagonists.
Kubrick was, at this time, also gravitating towards the burgeoning fringe comedy scene, and had been exploring the possibility of collaborating with edgy comic talents like Lenny Bruce and Jules Feiffer. Impressed by the raw material of Red Alert, Kubrick began working on a screenplay with George, but as he laboured, realised that there was a lode of dark, inchoate, innate absurdity beneath the surface of this seemingly sober assessment of nuclear strategy, a realm where supposedly sensible men talked in terms of “megadeaths,” politicians whose posturing endangered billions, and military leaders stuck in an earlier era could not give up the idea of winning conflicts with weapons that could raze cities to the ground in the blink of an eye and poison the earth beyond habitation many times over. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 had seen a two-week stand-off where the fate of the world seemed literally in the balance. The emotions this time stoked in people—rage, disgust, horror, fear, the despair of impotence—were primal, yet radically at odds with the post-war world’s most cherished goals of pacified insulation.
The gulf between those who had come of age before the destruction of Hiroshima and those who grew up after it exacerbated a generational disparity. A new strain of satire arrived in the late ‘50s, moving out of the coffee bars, student mags and revues, art and cult novels and onto television and movie screens. Pop culture was thus infiltrated by the influence of Dadaism, Surrealism, the Theatre of the Absurd, and other avant-garde art movements that drew power from the century’s earlier tragedies, emphasising the impudent deconstruction of cultural maxims. Humourists, satirists, and quick-witted artists like Bruce, Feiffer, Tom Lehrer, Terry Southern, and Joseph Heller were rapidly defining the new taste for critical humour with an undertaste of blood and cyanide. Kubrick was about to bring hip comedy to the big screen properly with his adaptation of George’s novel. He hired Southern to help complete the travesty he had set in motion.
Some thought Kubrick was overreaching. His regular producer Robert Harris broke up their partnership, convinced Kubrick was headed for disaster. Bosley Crowther, the dean of mainstream cinematic taste for The New York Times, denounced the resulting film. But the howls of opprobrium were quickly drowned out by the howls of laughter and admiration. War is tragedy, the film seemed to say, but nuclear war is so inimical it lies beyond morality and human sensibility, and is thus absurd and might as well be laughed at. Dr. Strangelove, whilst moulding a definitive form of satire in cinema, clearly owed as much to slapstick tradition as to anything else, and sustained within its modish, anarchic immediacy is a strong sense of filmic tradition. In spite of its scope, intent, and the force of its impact on pop culture, Dr. Strangelove is also the cinema’s longest, most sustained banana peel gag: something goes wrong, the dumb boobs slip up, try to stay on their feet, but only succeed in bringing everything down with an almighty crash. The resulting film, whilst almost sui generis as a whole, had many progenitors: there’s a lot of the despairing joviality of Catch-22, the anarchic tilts of Duck Soup (1933) and Spike Milligan’s radio programme The Goon Show, a surrealist-slapstick pastiche on imperial-era melodrama and pulp fiction. Southern, who knew the tradition he worked in, slipped in an obscure reference to Jonathan Swift, and concludes the film with his own Modest Proposal.
Dr. Strangelove unfolds very close to real time, and this adds to the nauseating sensation of watching events that cannot be stopped, imbuing the action with a feeling of free-fall, a feeling actualised in the immortal plunge of Maj. T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens), riding the bomb that brings about the end of the world. Taking advantage of a training operation that brings U.S. B-52 bombers within striking distance of the Soviet Union, Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), commander of Burpelson Air Force Base, who has gone insane and intends to start World War III, sends out an obscure battle order, Wing Attack Plan R. This allows him to order his planes to attack in case a Soviet attack has already wiped out Washington, disrupting the chain of command. The airmen in their stratosphere-cruising tin cans, tethered to humanity only by radio and with this contact strictly limited to a prearranged code to tune out false enemy messages, can only accept their orders at face value and proceed.
One plane, the Leper Colony, commanded by Maj. Kong, survives a missile attack that leaves communications cut off, but Kong proceeds regardless with determined bravado. Ripper order his XO, Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), a British officer present through an exchange program to ready the base for an attack and to cut off all contact with the outside world, to ensure that any attempt to capture him and halt his plan will be staved off as long as possible. Ripper hopes to force the government to commit to all-out war, but President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again), resists the ministrations to do just that from his military advisor Gen. ‘Buck’ Turgidson (George C. Scott) and instead contacts the Soviets to warn them and offer aid in repelling the attackers. But as the Russian ambassador De Sadesky (Peter Bull) explains in horror, even one bomb falling would be too many, as the Soviets have constructed the Doomsday Device, which will automatically detonate and poison the entire planet, as the ultimate nuclear deterrent.
One aspect vital to appreciating Dr. Strangelove is the degree to which it is not a comedy at all. The grounded detail and informed perspective of George’s novel remained an important aspect of the film, and Kubrick’s insistence on tangible verisimilitude is apparent throughout in Gilbert Taylor’s cinematography, at once artfully expressionistic and harshly realistic, and particularly Ken Adams’ production design. Adams, who was to a certain extent inventing a lexicon of modernity in design through his work in this film and in the James Bond series, rendered sets like the interior of the Leper Colony and the War Room as spaces where functional technology has infused décor, and even the psyche, to become a denaturalised way of life where humans are mere aspects of the mechanism. The story is essentially believable, and plays out with thriller-like compression and logic. The notion that a U.S. Air Force general, a lunatic with a mind poisoned so fervently against Communist threats that he might abuse his authority and plunge the world into a nihilistic war, contained a note of quiver-inducing anxiety, suggested by the bellicosity of Douglas MacArthur and Curtis LeMay and their conflicts with presidential authority. The secret root of Gen. Ripper’s rancour is, for all its hilarious paranoia, based on a genuine conspiracy theory once propagated by the John Birch Society that water fluoridation was a Communist plot.
The combat sequences and the bombing run of the Leper Colony feign a scrupulous procedural intricacy. Long before it became a compulsory aspect of cinematic pseudo-realism, Kubrick and Taylor employed handheld camerawork to give portions of the film a jerky, haphazard, grainy vibrancy, as if it’s all really happening, televised live and uninterrupted. Kubrick milks the interminable complexity and rigour of the procedures the airmen follow to build tension, like steps on some long, manual-dictated march to Calvary. The claustrophobic tightness of the Leper Colony’s interior is emphasised with camerawork where the actors’ breath all but fogs the lens. Minor technical details become the stuff of apocalyptic drama. The actual moments of violence in the film, in the battle for Burpelson and the suicide of Ripper, come without ironic distancing or farcicality.
Where the serious, orthodox elements edge into comedic style is in precisely the strange territory where the nuclear age infrastructure is revealed as both a by-product of, and new soil for, the perversities of the human condition. The most basic binary of all is constantly in evidence throughout: sex and death. The equation of fetishized military power and infrastructure with phallic sexuality wasn’t new in 1964 and is even more clichéd now, but Dr. Strangelove turns it into a key, recurring gag, and the root motive for the drama. The “Arms Race, the Space Race, and the Peace Race” are boiled down to a dick-size competition. Machismo is seen as the not-so-secret meaning of the Cold War, as the military men of the United States, a nation steeped in the mythology of manliness and exemplified by Stetson-clad Texan Kong and secretary-boffing Turgidson, suffer acute anxieties over loss of potency in the insulating and softening qualities of modern life. They’re doomed to fret that they’ll never be as real men as the Russians who have proved themselves in fire and battle, for, as Turgidson puts it, “Look at all them Nazis you killed!”
Muffley, the feminised liberal archetype, offends this type utterly with his recidivist cockblockery. Turgidson, introduced in a tryst with his leggy staffer Miss Scott (Tracy Reed, the only woman actually featured in the film soon outclassed by all those sexy, sexy missiles and curvaceous bombers), promises he’ll be back in time for “blast-off!”—a conflation of explosion and orgasm that the film later reiterates in the most spectacular terms. Indeed, everyone has their sex life interrupted by the erupting crisis, from the Leper Colony airmen leafing through their girly mags to Soviet Premier Kissoff being interrupted by Muffley’s call during a drunken debauch. Buck has to handle an irritated phone call from Miss Scott at the War Room table (“I thought I told you never to call me here!”), forced to mollify her in an excruciatingly funny vignette that conflates philandering executive and naughty schoolboy both in Buck’s ample frame: “Someday I’m gonna make you Mrs. Buck Turgidson!” he declares in a skewering of the era’s chauvinist mentality sharper than a dozen Mad Men episodes. But all are soon distracted by the promise of the ultimate climax.
The correlation deepens as Dr. Strangelove unfolds, as the dualities of life and death, sex and murder, chaos and creation, begin to infuse the visual and thematic substance of the entire work, expostulating the concept of the death instinct as inextricable from the sexual instinct, only now, the destructive element has become infinitely more powerful than sex. The carnal awareness never far from the surface in Kubrick’s cinema finds a partner here in Southern’s love for suggesting powerful, but queasily displaced erotic underpinnings to many a contemporary obsession. Here, the sex, like humanity itself, has become inextricable from technology. The opening credits, scored to a wryly lilting version of “Try a Little Tenderness,” present footage of a B-52 refuelling in mid-air, with the music transforming it into a gentle dance of aerial coitus: even the planes are doing it now. Hal 9000’s psychopathic hissy fit is only a stone’s throw away; Strangelove himself, contained in a wheelchair with self-animated limbs, is the misbegotten median of the process. Whereas in Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960), Kubrick had studied the frantic rage of a ruling class in their inability to make individuals into mechanisms that obey their will and desires, here the process is far closer to completion. But the order is fraying from the other end: leadership in the modern world, both political and military, has devolved into a tangled skein of ass-covering, partisan piety, psychic fragmentation, and propagandistic fig leaves. The first breakdown of the system is the greatest, the ultimately irreparable one, that of Ripper’s sanity. The source of his breakdown? The onset of middle-aged impotence.
Dr. Strangelove is the crux of Kubrick’s career. Whereas the raw, humanist howl of Paths of Glory was obvious enough to let Jean-Luc Godard mistake him for an heir to Stanley Kramer as a cooker of cultural vegetables, Dr. Strangelove confirmed Lolita’s promise that Kubrick was now in the game for the antiheroes, misanthropes, and rogues. He would engage with macrocosmic concerns with an increasingly rarefied style that seemed, by the standards of commercial cinema, a detached, analytical, even misanthropic affectation. But what truly distinguishes Kubrick’s oeuvre, and Dr. Strangelove in particular, is the way the methodical filmmaking and the coolness of the director’s regard offsets the compulsion, the messiness, and the pathos of the human state.
Apart from a couple of minor excursions, Dr. Strangelove unspools as three extended, interlocking, cross-edited scenes, taking place in locales which are crucially, fatefully separated by space and communication, but which are also conjoined in cause and effect: the War Room, the Leper Colony, and Burpelson Base. In each locale, according to the classic rules of farce and also to the natural rules of intense situations, a slow-burning urgency, shading into hysteria, develops. What results is a tragicomedy of cross-purposes. Perhaps just as alarming as Ripper’s insanity is the way the other characters refuse to give into disintegration, trying until the last moment to do their jobs, and indeed refusing to waver from their roles, their world-views and presumptions, myopia continuing even past the point when it’s destroyed the world. The Leper Colony’s airmen (including James Earl Jones in his first film), though pushed to the limit, continue to operate with stoic professionalism. Muffley and Mandrake are linked not only by being played by Sellers, but by the fact that they each try to deal with the situation as best as they can, and resist the people around them who represent variations on a theme of martial lunacy and a love/hate relationship with the idea of mutually assured destruction. Muffley sacrifices his soldiers for the sake of peace. Mandrake is confronted by a lunatic who might possibly shoot him if he becomes too troublesome, and sways from meekness to forced bonhomie to exasperated clumsiness, but still tries constantly to find a way to save the world. De Sadesky continues to sneak photos of the War Room as it becomes clear the Cold War will now go underground.
Dr. Strangelove’s modernity is written into the textures of the film, in the chitinous flash of technocratic infrastructure, the chiaroscuro duplicity of the lighting where fluorescent glare and recessed glows illuminate the actors with unflattering harshness against enveloping darkness, the interplay of Taylor’s studiously framed and balanced photography and Anthony Harvey’s propelling edits. Kubrick had from the first balanced twin poles of realism and expressionism in his work. Dr. Strangelove is defined on many levels by the push and pull of these divergent impulses, adding to its power, as characters like Ripper, Kong, and Strangelove seem to lurch out of the shadows of the psyche, distorted and rendered hyper-real in their caricatured menace, into the studied authenticity of the rest of the film. Here, too, the later Kubrick, the notoriously spare and measured imagist, began to appear. Kubrick encodes messages of power and attitude in his visuals. Consider the framing of Scott’s Turgidson as he explains the situation for the President’s benefit. He is filmed from a low angle that emphasises Turgidson’s stolid turgidness, with a folder on the desk before him just edging its way into the frame labeled “World Targets in Megadeaths.” Kubrick maintains the same shot for much of the scene, in interchange with Muffley, who is shot almost at eye level but further away and framed between two foreground listeners, at once more reasonable-seeming but also smaller, pettier, his ineffectiveness plain. And Ripper, the animator of this situation, is shot in looming, dominating close-up from below, a glowering, inescapable death’s head, savage and unremitting. The basic technique serves its purpose in depicting the relations of these men and their characters in themselves, and resembles other moments in Kubrick’s canon, like the early exchanges of The Shining (1980), that perceive characters on their best behaviour but straining to keep cool, with a sense of quietly composing forces that will shatter the surface tension. In contrast, and yet without any sense of aesthetic disparity, the battle scenes are a maelstrom breaking up the film’s fastidious visual language, shot from the perspective a grunt or war correspondent hunkering behind a machine gun and crawling through the weeds.
Kubrick’s most obvious desire here was to achieve a documentary immediacy, compounding the film’s commitment to tactile realism. Death and carnage are rendered at once spectacular and remote, as Kubrick’s control of perspective makes space and distance an important aspect of fighting, reproducing the intent of Ripper’s orders in rendering the warring forces as an alien threat, distant moving things to be shot at. The nature of the action they’re engaged in is confused on both sides, as Ripper’s men assume the approaching force is Communist, whilst the attackers, as exemplified by Maj. “Bat” Guano (Keenan Wynn), have no idea what’s at stake. The suggestion that a politicised lie animates this action, and perhaps all such action, becomes inescapable, whilst the fact that the fighting soldiers are actually on the same side evokes the warrior doppelgangers of Kubrick’s first film, Fear and Desire (1953). They assault blocklike structures with a minimalist blandness and prefab look; Burpelson could be a school or a hospital or any other institution. The prominently featured signs proclaiming the USAF’s motto “Peace Is Our Profession,” could well be one of Kubrick and Southern’s satirical coups, except, of course, that it really was the USAF’s motto. The film’s most famous line, barked by Muffley to the wrestling Turgidson and De Sadesky, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!”, simply restates this discrepancy more immediately, and echoes again through to the root premise of Ripper’s plot. His mantra of peace on Earth represents a conundrum quite understandably maddening to a warrior like him, for the only complete, guaranteed peace is that of complete annihilation, that Roman desert.
Dr. Strangelove’s connection to silent comedy was to be confirmed with a climactic pie fight, but Kubrick decided, probably for the best, that this element was best left restrained: Dr. Strangelove never gives into farce entirely. Classic slapstick comedy of early cinema heroes like Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd has clawed back ground from being considered the lowest of comedic arts, thanks to analyses of the implicit drama of circumstance, of human fallibility and ingenuity at war with a happenstance world. If the root of all slapstick was the banana peel gag, such comic artists inflated that basic principle into a systematology wherein individual ingenuity and striving faces a world that conspires against them, be it through social perversity, personal maladjustments, economic troubles, unruly inanimate objects, or machines that both perfect human abilities but also mimic and metastasize their faults. Such highbrow conceptual prisms might seem like gilding the lily, and yet they did return lustre to such arts that had for a long time been lost, particularly in the mid-20th century. That’s when slapstick was largely regarded as child’s play, and satire was ennobled as the intellectual, artistic end of the comedy pantheon. As Pauline Kael became fond of complaining, for a long time after the impact of Dr. Strangelove, it was not enough for a comedy to be a comedy: it had to have a satirical edge. Pricking pomposity, assaulting authority figures, mocking retrograde values and social pillars, insulting consumerism and capitalism and militarism: these became the worthy targets for the comic mind. Satire had long been subject to that old joke: it’s what opens on a Friday and closes on a Saturday. That was largely true in cinema as in the theatre, though filmmakers like Chaplin, Rene Clair, Jacques Tati, and Frank Tashlin had attempted over the years to dovetail it neatly with more familiar comic business in their films, combining their jaundiced appreciations of modern life with character comedy and good old-fashioned pratfalls.
To a certain extent, Dr. Strangelove only inverted the focus of such filmmakers, reducing the farcical to a supernal flourish that underlines the lunacy of the supposedly serious events on screen. When Turgidson tumbles head over heels in his frantic distress when Muffley proposes bringing the Russian ambassador into the War Room to prove his sincerity, or when Guano, hesitant to damage the property of corporate power to save the world, gets a face full of Coca-Cola, all divisions between slapstick and satire dissipate. Appropriately, Turgidson’s tumble was actually an accident that Scott refused to let shake him from character, and Kubrick saw how it suited the film. The characters’ names give obvious clues to their functions in this farce: Jack D. Ripper, obsessed with sex and slaughter, the dark heart of the Freudian taxonomy. Merkin Muffley, the girly-man with a wig where his privates should be. Kong, the chest-beating ape. ‘Buck’ Turgidson, talking macho manure and military guff a mile a minute. Mandrake, named for a natural aphrodisiac that’s also a slow poison, evoking the officer’s flailing mix of tenacity and ineffectualness. “Bat” Guano, fearsome, dim, and totally batshit. The specific tenor of these names is very Terry Southern, but it’s also one of the oldest tricks in satirical writing, going back to Aristophanes—the use of a name that’s based in a pun or an assignation that reduces an individual to a type, an exemplar, a singular quality that stretches across social groups: where tragedy evokes the apotheosis of the individual even in the face of annihilation, satire details the ignominy of the species, especially in the face of annihilation.
Of course, Dr. Strangelove, as well as being a Kubrick film, is also a Peter Sellers film. Sellers had played multiple roles in films before, including in two films that seem distinctly prototypical for Dr. Strangelove, The Mouse That Roared and I’m Alright, Jack (both 1959). But not since Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) had a comic actor dominated a film so completely and provided a display of such effervescent, chameleonic wit. Sellers sustains the film’s central sequence, in which Muffley must call Kissoff to warn him of the impending danger. He finds the Soviet Premier not hard at work ploughing the fields whilst dictating foreign policy memos as propaganda might have it, but ensconced with a mistress and completely soused. Muffley has to communicate with a careful mix of brotherly affection, paternal cajoling, and plaintive appeal. Sellers’ verbal brilliance here is uncontained, as his intonations signal every register of his conversation with the unseen, unheard opposite. Muffley’s way of handling people and the character of the person he’s dealing with come through, as we gather the Premier is boozy and good-humoured, delighted to hear from his Yankee friend, but with the volatility of a drunk, a volatility Muffley’s used to dealing with, surrendering all affectation of command in favour of a housewife’s wheedling. An extended parody on the popular perception of Adlai Stevenson and Nikita Khrushchev, and a variation on a gag style popularised by Bob Newhart, this scene is both the linchpin of the movie’s warped humour, whilst also peeking under the metaphorical skirts of the Cold War to find the very human protagonists behind the monolithic facades. Dr. Strangelove constantly suggests those facades are desirable for both sides, a construction that justifies their paranoia, their raison d’etre, whilst constantly revealing the permeability of these monoliths. De Sadesky scoffs at the Americans’ denial of plans to build a Doomsday Device when the Soviets learnt about it from The New York Times, and Kissoff advises Muffley that he can get in touch with the USSR’s super-ultra-maxi secret defence command through Omsk Information.
Mandrake, Sellers’ second and most fully realised character, is a bittersweet anachronism, the last proper British officer of the WWII generation, assuming a fraternal joviality whilst nursing grim memories of war and torture, operating according to a code in an age that sees him play second fiddle to bellicose Americans and clattering computers. Sellers’ talent for physical as well as verbal comedy is subtly but beautifully revealed as Mandrake contends with the crisis, from his forced good humour in displaying the working radio playing pop music to Ripper, a sign that the world outside is continuing as normal, then working himself to a peak of officious indignation in trying to order Ripper to unlock his office door, which Ripper had locked right in front of Mandrake without him noticing, the General’s psychopathic cool completely stymieing Mandrake’s gentlemanly forbearance. Mandrake is at first the embodiment of the stiff upper lip, responding to news that “we’re in a shooting war” with the driest English perturbation (“Oh hell.”), but is driven to ever more frustrated, vibrant anger as he contends with the obtuse suspicion of Guano, who takes him prisoner after Ripper’s suicide: “Shoot it off!” he commands the Major, needing the change from a Coca-Cola machine to make a world-saving phone call to the White House, his patience finally severing and speech reduced to staccato fragments, “Shoot! With a gun! That’s what the bullets are for, you twit!” Mandrake is, in spite of being as much a satirical type as Turgidson or Kong, also the audience’s essential figure for identification, a reasonable, all-too-human individual who operates according to the necessity of the moment. Whether deciding discretion is the better part of valour in dealing with Ripper or trying to establish authority over Guano when the moment demands, Mandrake experiences every moment like a trial by ridiculous ordeal, and Yeats’ classic line about the best lacking all conviction whilst the worst have passionate intensity is depicted in all its agonising truth.
Sellers’ third characterisation as the eponymous nuclear strategist confined to a wheelchair is the even more alarming counterpart to Ripper. Whereas Ripper plots Armageddon because he’s mad and seems, in his very last moments, to regain a certain lucidity, even nobility, in his confrontation of the darkest abyss of fate, Strangelove is the spirit of pure, malicious delight in a destruction that will sweep away the world and give him a chance to rebuild it according to his own perverted proclivities. Strangelove, the title character, is actually only central to two scenes, and yet he fixates the attention and haunts the mind as a kind of laughing devil. Sellers’ most bizarre and inspired grotesque, Strangelove, with grating Germanic accent overlaid on helium tones, snaps at words with toothy eagerness like an intellectual barracuda. He’s a compendium of some of the Germanic men involved with Cold War exigencies, including Wernher Von Braun, rocket scientist to the Nazis; atomic bomb designer Edward Teller; strategist Herman Kahn; and the coiner of the phrase “mutually assured destruction” John von Neumann. Strangelove’s shallow allegiance to democratic ideals and his inner, fixated ardour for the idea of a glorious Gotterdammerung is hinted by his literally Anglicised name, changed from Merkwuerdigliebe. He also, not coincidentally, calls to mind the great mad savants of Fritz Lang’s Expressionist films: Caligari, Mabuse, and especially Rotwang.
Whilst Dr. Strangelove was in the editing room, the recently premiered TV show Doctor Who was just introducing its iconic villains, the Daleks, the next stage of Strangelove, mutants created by atomic war completely encased now in their wheelchairs, speaking with an electronic version of the same harsh, grating, savage voice. Strangelove, it becomes clear, actually embodies the nuclear age, a twisted, semi-human remnant forged by one political culture joyfully obsessed with mass murder and now having found a new one to feed off of. His weird, leering pleasure in discussing all things apocalyptic rhymes with that look of feral joy displayed by so many of Kubrick’s antiheroes. But whereas with the likes of Ripper, Alex DeLarge, Jack Torrance, Pvt. Pyle et al., that savage smile signalled the shattering of the civilised veneer by the beast within, in Strangelove they work in perverse synchronicity; Strangelove is the ultimate result, as much as the Star Child of 2001, of human evolution, its fusion with its own works and wares, into a monstrosity.
Whilst Sellers dominates, Scott, Hayden, and Pickens are the invaluable back-up. Pickens treads a fine line in presenting Kong as a broad stereotype who is, nonetheless, not excessively buffoonish, possessed of a certain level of humour and determination that could be admirable in other circumstances, but who’s also blind on the most vital levels. Hayden’s Ripper is played deadly straight even as what he says seems innately silly. Hayden had almost disappeared from movie screens in the 1960s, sick of Hollywood and ashamed of his HUAC testimony during the McCarthy era, but here he brought effortless class to a role that could have been easy to overdraw. Actor and director collaborate in rendering the character genuinely frightening in his dead-eyed stare and vicious-looking teeth biting a cigar. When the pathetic side of Ripper emerges, and he explains in evasive terms the impotence that afflicts him, Hayden slows Ripper’s confident bark down to a slightly sluggish, peevish drawl, the faintly shambolic fool of fortune under the man’s fearful veneer glinting through. Ripper maintains a sickly paternal affection mixed with a weird sexualised threat for Mandrake, who listens as if every inch of his body is puckered in discomfort. Ripper embodies the splintered psyche of the age, panicked over his waning masculinity and conceiving it in political terms. Scott’s Turgidson, an avatar for LeMay, is unassailed by such anxieties, as obtuse, myopic bigotry incarnate, his pose of professional responsibility soon peeled back to reveal the garrulous, zealous, Commie-hating, bug-eyed big kid, one for whom nuclear annihilation is rarely more real than a football match. He reaches a soaring flight of lunatic enthusiasm in his rave about the talents of the American air force pilot that concludes with sudden realisation of the meaning of what he’s talking about, smacking his forehead and cringing. Turgidson soon rediscovers his balance as he listens to Strangelove’s plan for repopulating the Earth, almost panting with enthusiasm as he questions whether this would mean abandoning the “so-called monogamous sexual relationship,” like a kid about to given the key to a candy store.
All of Kubrick’s films are driven by the same fundamental dynamic, the friction between the primal and the civilised, and pushes towards extremes in either direction discovers antitheses latent within: the deadening effect of order provokes explosions of id-welling expression, and combat with primitive forces sometimes reinforces essential human qualities. Just as the evolved ape-men of 2001 have to combat their own devices to achieve transcendence, so, too, do these characters—except, of course, they fail this time around, but discover a strange delight in the notion. Similarly, the odyssey is another Kubrickian motif here, as the flight of the Leper Colony mirrors that of the Discovery and, later, the pod used by Dave Bowman in 2001, as technical disasters must be overcome and a mysterious world penetrated. The icy, forested, mountainous wastes of Siberia (actually Canada) they fly over are as vast, alien, and spectacularly strange as the hallucinogenic oceans and continents Bowman soars across, and conjoined by a similar sensation of lurching headlong into the unknown toward an event that cannot possibly be survived, at least not in the usual way. The scene in which the Leper Colony is nearly destroyed by a Russian missile is rendered vivid without visual effects, as the pursuing missile is registered only on a radar screen, and its explosion appears as a flash, whilst the navigator’s panicky voice is drowned by a wave of eerie interference before the shockwave wallops the bomber. Kubrick gets around the limitations of his budget through the simplest, yet most audio-visually impactful of means here, and more, as it captures the keenest sensation that 2001 would be far more committed to—the sensation of danger in isolation, far from home, tethered to a machine that might be the death of you.
Dr. Strangelove is, like many like-minded films that would follow, as much at war with its own cinematic genre as with any real-world concerns. Kubrick repurposes manipulative aesthetic tricks, usually employed in celebrating martial heroism in both life and cinema, to turn them back on the war story and mock its presumptions. The only incidental music in the film is a driving employment of Laurie Johnson’s spare variations on the Civil War anthem “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” a choice that strikes at the mythology of American martial values as it accords with, but also mocks, Kong’s gung-ho purpose, and Ripper’s cry to Mandrake whilst wielding machine gun, “The Redcoats are coming!” The tune eventually drops away, leaving only driving martial drums to underscore Kong’s warlike zeal and race against time. Turgidson crows about the instilled ability of an American air force pilot to defy any obstacle, natural or military, to reach his target and fulfil his mission, only then to cringe in realisation of what this means: achievement of a goal in ignorance of the meaning and outcome of his efforts, dooming everyone else to oblivion. And indeed, the Leper Colony’s crew act just like they’re supposed to, and more; they exhibit brilliance and bravery in the course of their duty. If this were a WWII tale and they were trying to knock out a Nazi base, we’d be cheering them every step of the way, thrilling as they overcome every challenge, tearing up as the commander gives his life to make sure the payload drops. But here, it’s a horror show of nerveless proficiency and detachment from reality, with a laugh-yourself-sick punchline. Kong is so oblivious to the likely results of what he’s doing that he eggs on his men with promises of “important promotions and personal citations” once they get back. The Leper Colony crew’s resourcefulness means that even when they can’t bomb any of their assigned targets, they can try for another, which fatally takes them away from the areas Muffley has advised the Russians to cover.
Of course, at the very last second, Kong gets his bomb bay doors to open, and he plunges with the payload to the earth, whooping with joy every inch of the way, the bomb suddenly the ultimate bucking bronco and the greatest phallic substitute ever, the blast that results in redneck apotheosis and orgasmic eruption. This is the film’s most famous moment, and indeed one of the most iconic in the history of cinema, partly for its starkly beautiful reduction of the film’s themes to one singularly powerful image. Kubrick’s visualisation is perfect, camera affixed to the end of the bomb, gazing down at the yee-hawing Kong as the bomb tips and plunges toward its target with vertiginous rapidity, with only the rushing air and Kong’s bellows audible. Kong’s cries are inimitable and funny, but also unnerving in their exultant violence, and the scene, barely a few seconds long, seems to last forever. The bomb hits the ground in a flash of obliterating white, rendering this vision at once hilarious and almost heart-stopping in its force and strangeness. The concluding montage of atomic explosions, signalling the annihilation of the world, is scored to Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again.” This choice of song is the film’s final, smirking coup, recalling its anthemic power and nostalgic meaning for the WWII era, repudiating the fatuous self-satisfaction of how-I-won-the-war types, and making an obvious point: that the notion that nuclear war can be survived is a fairy tale and the event impossible to liken to any previous conflict. Yet, Kubrick also invites us to revel in the sing-along cosiness, the communal affection and power the song communicates, as it feels like a last hug before the dark plunge, a final carouse with humankind, and an exhausted, conciliatory concession to the irrational. At its most ruthless, Dr. Strangelove is also at its warmest.
But even the end is not the end, as, faced with the certain destruction of life on earth, the cabal in the War Room listen with increasingly responsive and wrapt fascination to Strangelove’s proposal that they move a nucleus of human society underground to wait out the time it will take the Doomsday Device’s effect to dissipate. Not only does Strangelove’s idea give hope to the seemingly hopeless situation, it actually sounds like an Eden for the white middle-aged males left to repopulate the world with a potential smorgasbord of females. Whilst the world is being pummelled to pieces by atomic horrors, the men in the War Room are worrying about a future arms race and glowing with enthusiasm for living out the rest of their lives underground with a harem. Strangelove is finally unbound, his seemingly paralytic arm now taking on a life of its own, snapping as he speaks into Heil Hitler salutes with the involuntary passion of an erection, and grasping his crotch in auto-erotic frenzy. Strangelove is forced to wrestle and bite it into submission as he continues to expostulate his plan, and it becomes plain this Frankenstein’s Monster is erotically thrilled by the situation now before him, as. As he rises from his chair, restored to full working order, his final cry (“Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!”) confirms that Hitler’s dream is nigh complete. Emblematic of the film it concludes, Strangelove’s last line is weird and scary, and yet capable of wrenching the loudest of laughs from me every time I hear it. As Lynn sings, nuclear blasts, all real, rupture oceans and burn in infernal power, spreading fire in the night sky like a false dawn, poetic in their dread. In spite of all, we can still laugh at Dr. Strangelove’s vision. For the time being.