Stanley Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964)

Academy Award Win: Best Visual Effects
Inducted into National Film Registry: 1989

The second half of the twentieth century was marked by a profound existential malaise brought about by the rise of the atomic bomb and its ability to throw the world into a nuclear holocaust at the drop of a hat. The Cold War transcended conventional notions of armed conflict and became a permanent state of tension and caution where the slightest miscommunication could set off the end of the world as we knew it. When faced with such a morbid, seemingly hopeless existence, what can one do but simply laugh at the absurdity of it all? Enter director Stanly Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB, released during the height of nuclear escalation in 1964 and arguably one of the most defining films of the twentieth century.

After finishing 1962’s cheeky sex comedy, LOLITA, Kubrick grew fascinated with the idea of mankind’s demise by our own hands through nuclear warfare. Ever the dutiful researcher, Kubrick read everything he could find on the subject and found a story he wanted to tell in Peter George’s cautionary thriller novel, “Red Alert”. In securing the film rights, Kubrick and his producing partner James B. Harris initially planned to create a straight adaption in the thriller genre. However, Harris was at this time beginning to aspire to a directing career of his own, and he amicably ended his partnership with Kubrick during preproduction. Left to his own devices, Kubrick started toying with the idea of transforming the film into a black comedy, finding that the acknowledgement of the utter absurdity inherent in voluntary nuclear warfare actually enhanced the effectiveness of his message. Towards this end, Kubrick brought in noted playwright Terry Southern to fashion his script into satire— in the process, creating the eccentric titular character of Dr. Strangelove and giving the film its absurdly long name. Half a century after the film’s release, DR. STRANGELOVE still holds it own as a relevant and entertaining piece of pop culture and makes a case as Kubrick’s first true masterpiece.

DR. STRANGELOVE details an utterly absurd—but no less plausible—scenario in which mankind might meet its end. At a nondescript Air Force base, General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has gone rogue and ordered a full-scale nuclear strike on Russia without authorization from his superiors or the President. A paranoid conspiracy theorist, Ripper’s motivation for the strike is crystal clear only to him— the Communists are out to steal our “precious bodily fluids” and will most certainly gain supremacy through them if they aren’t totally destroyed immediately. He barricades himself in his office with a British RAF Captain named Mandrake (Peter Sellers), who attempts to avert crisis by tricking the stubborn Ripper into telling him the recall codes. Meanwhile, President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again) tries to regain control and diffuse the situation in the War Room. His efforts are derailed by the over-aggressive warmongering of General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott) as well as the wheelchair-bound nuclear scientist Dr. Strangelove (Sellers once more) who can’t quite shake his old Nazi convictions about genetic purity and welcomes the nuclear holocaust as an opportunity to create a new master race underground via prestigious breeding with sexually desirable and genetically perfect women. As the masters of the universe seek to avert Armageddon on the ground, a lone B-52 manned by Major “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) takes a direct hit from an incoming Russian missile, which damages their communications systems. Unable to receive the recall commands from the ground, Major Kong and his crew of bombardiers fly on into the heart of Russia to deliver their nuclear payload—a mission that Pickens will personally see to its completion. Kubrick’s message is clear—the slightest miscommunication can spell our doom, and in the case of DR. STRANGELOVE, that miscommunication results in a comedy of disastrous proportions.

DR. STRANGELOVE boasts one of the most eclectic and talented casts to ever assemble under Kubrick’s supervision. Peter Sellers headlines the film in multiple roles, a development caused by studio mandate. Columbia Pictures—rightly or wrongly— attributed the success of LOLITA to Seller playing multiple roles, and decreed Sellers do the same in DR. STRANGELOVEas a contingent of their financing the film. Sellers arguably turns in the best work of his career here, giving Captain Mandrake the requisite fussy airs of a British serviceman while modeling his President Merkin Muffley off the self-serious affectations of Presidential aspirant Adlai Stevenson, and Dr. Strangelove off of the grand traditions of German Expressionist cinema (and in the process creating one of the most indelible and unique characters in film history). Sellers hits it out of the park with every character he plays in DR. STRANGELOVE, and while he would never collaborate again with Kubrick, his work in the film serves as a fitting sendoff to their fruitful partnership.

To fill out the rest of his mostly-male ensemble, Kubrick turned to actors both old and new. After their successful collaboration in 1956’s THE KILLING, Kubrick was able to lead Sterling Hayden out of retirement to play General Jack Ripper, an all-around alpha male typical of the midcentury military-industrial complex. Venerated character actor George C. Scott plays the ornery, blustering role of General Buck Turgidson. Turgidson has such a personal axe to grind against the Russians that he’s practically eager to initiate a nuclear war, dismissing the massive American casualties such an act would create as a small price to pay for ensuring his beloved country’s dominance. The role of Major Kong was originally supposed to be also played by Sellers, but was ultimately filled by American actor Slim Pickens. Pickens essentially appears here as he was in real life—a flamboyant Texan and blindly loyal straight shooter. James Earl Jones also appears in the small role of Lt. Zogg, one of Kong’s bombardiers and the only man on the B-52 to question the validity of their command. Kubrick’s films are normally praised more for their technical proficiency than their acting, but DR. STRANGELOVE’s cast more than holds it own against Kubrick’s considerable visual flair, bringing it all home with a manic energy unparalleled in even most screwball comedies.

The cinematography of DR. STRANGELOVE finds Kubrick in a transitory phase of his visual style. His aesthetic arguably serves as a bridge between the polished glamor of Old Hollywood filmmaking and the rough edges of the New Wave, withDR. STRANGELOVE in a sense becoming a bridge inside of that bridge. While Kubrick and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor shoot DR. STRANGELOVE on black and white 35mm film and give it a relatively straightforward, polished presentation, the maverick director peppers the film with experimental, cutting edge touches— like rack zooms that highlight information inside the B-52 plane, or the chaotic, handheld cinema verite rendering of the Air Force base battle (which predated the style popularized by Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN by nearly thirty four years). When working inside a studio set environment, Kubrick favors high contrast, low-key lighting and compositions that favor depth and minimal camera movement.

The striking visual presentation, however, owes less to the cinematography and more to the iconic set design by legendary production designer Ken Adam. Famous for his larger-than-life supervillain lair sets on the JAMES BOND series, Adam proves to be an inspired choice to realize Kubrick’s outsized vision of absurd grandiosity. He echoes Kubrick’s propensity for depth, designing hard, angular sets like The War Room and General Ripper’s office with strong lines that converge onto a singular point. The War Room in particular is an unassailable icon of set design, perfectly reinforcing the characters’ delusions of grandeur and in the process becoming one of the most recognizable sets in cinematic history.

The idea of DR. STRANGELOVE as a transitory film in Kubrick’s filmography also extends to his treatment of music. While Laurie Johnson is credited as the film’s composer, the majority of the music stems from either pre-recorded material or adaptations of preexisting material. What original score appears does so mainly during the B-52 bomber sequences, but even then it is an appropriation of preexisting material—the military hymn “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, rendered with snare drums, trumpets, and men humming in low unison that suggest the steady, unstoppable encroach of war. Kubrick’s mischievous nature also results in bookending DR. STRANGELOVE with a pair of cheeky and cheery pop songs that make ironic counterpoints to the images they accompany. An instrumental cover of “Try A Little Tenderness” opens the film under stock footage of jet fighters refueling in mid-air, further emphasizing the sexualized nature of the process while also foreshadowing one of the film’s key themes (sex as a fundamental motivator behind conflict). Kubrick then closes DR. STRANGELOVE with the mother of all showstoppers—a cataclysmic nuclear war (again realized using stock footage of nuclear tests) set to Vera Lynn’s romantic ballad “We’ll Meet Again”. Only a sense of humor as perverse as Kubrick’s could’ve thought of this juxtaposition of sound and image, and he found it so effective that he would continue to break new ground with this technique for decades to come.

While Kubrick never really established a concrete visual style for himself like, say, David Fincher or Wes Anderson, he nonetheless managed to make his stamp on his work using recurring themes, camera techniques, and an overbearing sense of dark irony. In that regard, DR. STRANGELOVE is the first point in Kubrick’s filmography where everything coalesces into what is unmistakably “a Kubrick film”. Certain storytelling techniques—the omniscient narrator speaking in the third person, or favoring one-point perspectives in his compositions—are present throughout DR. STRANGELOVE and point to Kubrick’s decidedly unique worldview. However, it’s in the exploration of the duality of sex and violence that the director’s mark is made apparent. The film explores the idea of violence as a response that ultimately stems from sexual frustration. All the characters in DR. STRANGELOVE are sexually frustrated in one fashion or another—General Ripper equates the male orgasm in intercourse with losing his “essence” and denies his “precious bodily fluids” to those who seek it. General Buck Turgidson is caught in a distracting, schoolboy-esque affair with his secretary. Dr. Strangelove is obsessed with the morbid idea of playing a central role in repopulating the earth with a bevy of beautiful women in the aftermath of a nuclear war. Even the pilots in the B-52 are seen ogling Playboy centerfolds as they fly towards their target. The characters’ sexual dysfunction bleeds over into their professional lives as leaders of the free world, and the relatively easy access to nukes make for quick, convenient, and effective bluffs when their fragile egos are threatened. Kubrick was well known for his brilliance at playing chess, and he draws the story of DR. STRANGELOVE as a game of chess writ large where we are the pawns, beholden to the whims of our kings and knights who are too involved in their petty affairs to realize that they are actually court jesters instead.

DR. STRANGELOVE was originally supposed to debut to test audiences on a very fateful day: November 22nd, 1963— the day that President John F. Kenney was assassinated in Dallas. Naturally, this had a profound effect on such a politically charged film. The biggest casualty was Kubrick’s original ending, which would’ve seen an epic pie fight break out in the War Room and George C. Scott exclaiming that “The President has been struck down in his prime!” after Seller’s President Muffley took a pie to the face. The film was also delayed until January of 1964, where it was released to critical and commercial acclaim, as well as a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. As the last black and white film that Kubrick ever made, DR. STRANGELOVE’s importance—not just to cinema but to twentieth century history— cannot be overstated. The Library of Congress presumably felt the same way, selecting it as one of the first films to be inducted into the National Film Registry in 1989. No other film encapsulates the hopeless absurdity of the Cold War as perfectly as DR. STRANGELOVE, and as long as nuclear weapons continue to exist— squirreled away by the hundreds in hidden silos and ready to launch at the push of a button—Kubrick’s blackly comic, cautionary masterpiece will remain as relevant and important as ever.

DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Sony.

Credits:
Produced by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Peter George, Terry Southern
Director of Photography: Gilbert Taylor
Production Designer: Ken Adam
Edited by: Anthony Harvey
Music by: Laurie Johnson