Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Dr. Strangelove is a landmark satire and one of the few that actually had an effect on public
opinion; after 1964 only the ignorant talked about waging nuclear war as a constructive process (until
the neo-con present, that is). Audiences had already grown weary of serious alarm movies like On the
Beach, which inevitably ended in masochistic doom - in 1962, the subject of nuclear crisis was such
a hot topic that that the low-key English science fiction film
The Day the Earth Caught Fire was
a surprise hit.
Stanley Kubrick originally planned to make sober thriller like the Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe. His
decision to opt for a broad black comedy was an
inspired stroke. 1
Dr. Strangelove may be the first hit film that was a bona-fide black
comedy; I don't recall anybody using the expression much before it came out. The backbone of the story remains
100% serious on the issue of the nuclear threat. This was no Hellzapoppin
crazy comedy where anything funny was okay. Kubrick and Terry Southern create a cold-sweat crisis
and then populate it with insane caricatures with ridiculous names. No matter how stupid any of
them act, none are really that exaggerated. Peter Sellers serves triple duty in a trio of
characterizations, effectively outdoing previous champion chameleon Alec Guinness. George C. Scott
steals the show as an infantile Air Force General who acts like a Looney Tunes cartoon character.
And the rest of the inspired cast nail completely original quasi-comic characters.
Jack D. Ripper, the commander of Burpelson Air Force Base, orders a flight of B-52s to
attack Russia and then seals off his base so that the planes cannot be recalled. Group
Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) tries to talk him out of it. In the War Room of the White
House, President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) is horrified to find out that such a SNAFU was possible.
He orders General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) to take Burpelson Air Base by force
and recall the planes, and gets on the hotline with the Soviet Premier. Up in the lead B52, Major
'King' Kong urges his crew to find ways to avoid Russian defenses and reach their primary target,
while Turgidson tries to talk Muffley into launching an all-out attack. Advising in the War Room
is ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove, a grinning theoretician already thinking about sexual
activities for the ruling elite in the VIP bomb shelters, where high officials will be living for the
next 93 years.
Stanley Kubrick is better known for ponderous seriousness than comedy, but Dr. Strangelove is one of
the funniest films ever made. It's divided between three main locations, each with its own deadly-serious
function and each overlaid with a different comedic tone. In his locked executive office in the Alaskan Air
Force Base, the sexually obsessed American General Ripper faces off with a veddy proper English officer
in a farcical one-act. Beady-eyed and intense in his anti-Communist convictions, Sterling Hayden contrasts
beautifully with Seller's genial Group Captain, who simply can't fathom the depth of his commanding officer's
Up in the B-52, the show becomes a throwback to gung-ho WW2 action films, where the racially and ethnically diverse
attack team uses brains and guts to barrel through their suicide mission like traditional heroes. Even though their pilot
is a cowboy clown (Slim Pickens doing his only characterization, Slim Pickens) they're an admirable bunch, seemingly the
only humans capable of doing anything without red tape or Coca-Cola machines getting in their way. Here's where
the screenplay becomes conflicted - our boys are on a mission that's totally against our vital interests. The
B-52 scenes are further amplified in the gritty newsreel-like footage of the taking of Burpelson AFB, with American
troops fighting American troops. Nothing could be more traumatic for the kind of patriotic film fan that expects our
forces to be portrayed in glorious missions for freedom and righteousness. Kubrick has the audacity to place
a big sign saying "Peace is our Profession" in the middle of it all. The grainy authenticity of these scenes
would come back to haunt us when similar footage started being seen nightly on television, straight from Vietnam.
The center of activities is the War Room, a fictional Camelot-like round table of Death supposedly located in the
basement of the White House. The rational President Merkin Muffley finds himself up against an ideological roadblock
in the form of Buck Turgidson, a gum-chewing military nutcase itching to go to war and secretly overjoyed that Jack
Ripper has "exceeded his authority." The President is hardly in charge of foreign policy at all, what with
50 silent advisors sitting by and not one coming to his aid. He has to be shepherded through protocol by an assistant, as
if he were the stranger and the military brass were in command. Here's where Southern and Kubrick make their
biggest points, basically asserting that the American stance is a military one and that a showdown with "the Russkies"
The comedy is all over the place, and it's a miracle that it works. The stand-up humor on the hot
line is very much like a Bob Newhart routine. At Burpelson, it's the Goon Show all over again, with Sellers' RAF twit
ineffective in swaying General Ripper or the moronic Major Bat Guano (Keenan Wynn), the one who suspects him of being a
"deviated prevert." Up in the bomber, it's Mad Magazine craziness grafted into combat realism. The only
previous look at modern Air Force flying were already a decade old from enlistment booster films like Strategic
Air Command. Kubrick drove his English craftsmen to fake the entire bomber interior right down to the switches
and gauges, and the film's serious aerial combat is more realistic than that in escapist films, even with the
inadequate exterior views of the jet bomber in flight.
There's a constant tug at work in Dr. Strangelove between comedy and morbid unease. Kubrick's main career themes
- sexual madness, treacherous technology and the folly of human planning - come into strong relief. We're pulled to
root for the soldiers who are going to destroy the world, and then fret over the President's pitiful lack of control.
Dour, glowering Russian Ambassador Sadesky (Peter Bull) tells all in the War Room about his country's answer to an
already overextended defense budget, the Doomsday Machine. Countering
all this is Muffley's security advisor, Dr. Strangelove, who enters the film in the last act to serve as sort of an
angel of Death. Based loosely on Rand-corporation experts who calculated eventualities in nuclear war scenarios,
Strangelove is a throwback to German Expressionism, a Mabuse in a wheelchair, black-gloved like Metropolis'
Rotwang. He enters like the specter of Death itself, and he grins like a skull. He advocates the contemplation of
'megadeaths' as if it were part of his sex appeal. The detonation of the first bomb seems to liberate Strangelove,
as if the chaos and evil of nuclear war restores this representative of apocalyptic Nazi vengeance to full power.
Hitler has somehow packed the entire population of the world into his suicide bunker, twenty years after the fact.
For first-time viewers, Dr. Strangelove needs no prior explanations. Only the truly uninformed will not
recognize James Earl Jones' baritone voice as one of Major Kong's flight crew. Those going back for a repeated peek will
derive added enjoyment from Kubrick's perfect control over his several visual styles and his deft avoidance of standard
suspense scenes that deflate tension: We only hear about the recall code being issued but are spared any view of the
responsible military personnel who must have sent it. Some of the best fun is finding details in the War Room, such as
the pies already laid out in preparation for the aborted pie-fight finale. Even better is watching all the extras
in the War room keep rock-steady sober no matter how funny the Sellers and Scott get; that contrast is what makes the
comedy so brilliant. Watch Peter Bull carefully. He starts to smile at Sellers several times and catches himself,
and then is clearly on the verge of cracking up, forcing Kubrick to cut away.
Columbia TriStar's 40th Anniversary DVD of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the
Bomb finally presents the film in a reasonable aspect ratio. Criterion's impressive laserdisc from about
12 years ago jumped between 1:37 and 1:66 depending on what scene was up, showing that even the aesthetic
leaders can get confused. Due to some convenient baloney about Kubrick preferring flat transfers, previous
DVD releases stayed in an 'authorized' 1:37, which completely threw off many compositions and revealed cables,
lights and lighting flags in the B-52 scenes (Only the impressive War Room set seemed to benefit from the taller
composition). The transfer is good, and much sharper in enhanced widescreen, even though it hasn't been
digitally scrubbed for tiny flaws. One nice touch is the overall darkening of many scenes that previously were
printed way up, revealing flat matte paintings for Burpelson AFB, etc. The original show's often gritty look has been
There's a new 5.1 remixed track and the original mono, as well as a French track.
The second disc contains several good docus. The first two seem to cover similar ground, although the second goes
much deeper into the production, interviewing many of the surviving technicians and actors, as well as people like
Robert McNamara, Spike Lee and Bob Woodward. Critics Roger Ebert and Alexander Walker are also represented. The
detail is excellent;
if the two shows were combined and their duplicated content honed, they'd probably constitute a definitive docu. The
older shorter special edition docu from several years back is not here. My favorite material covers ad and trailer
designer Pablo Ferro. His quirky trailer for Dr. Strangelove put the industry on alert for the creative
posibilities in the coming attractions format.
Another docu piece covers Peter Sellers' career and features several choice film clips of him from the 50s, including
an almost perfect takeoff on a William Conrad-like hired killer. A Stanley Kubrick career piece uses UA, MGM and
Universal trailers to cover his days from 1951 to 1964 and is less compelling, only because so much is glossed over
A great extra are a pair of 'split screen' fake interviews with Sellers and Scott intended for publicity use. Each
gets to project his chosen PR image. They're charming, especially when Sellers takes us on a lightning tour of English
accents. Robert McNamara's interview is also here uncut; a glossy booklet contains a Roger Ebert review plus a lot of
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dr. Strangelove 40th Anniversary rates:
Supplements: Docus on film, Peter Sellers and Stanley Kubrick, booklet, Robert McNamara interview
Packaging: Two discs in normal keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: October 30, 2004
1. There's nothing in particular wrong with
Fail-Safe; it has its share of truly gripping moments. But by using the book's idea that a technical malfunction
could start WW3, it flummoxes its anti-nuke message by making it seem as if better engineering & better bombs will
solve the problem. There was a popular pamphlet publication called The Fail-Safe Fallacy that refuted the
entire premise of the Burdick-Wheeler novel, further miring that movie in the particular politics of its year. The
pamphlet's best argument was that the Soviets would never ask for
the counterdestruction of NYC but instead demand much more useful political concessions. At any rate, Fail-Safe
remains an artifact from the sixties, while Strangelove is an undying work of art.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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