Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Dr. Strangelove is a landmark satire, one that actually had a major 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 that 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 a sober thriller, like Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe. His decision to opt for broad 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 even using the expression much before it came out. The backbone of the story remains 100% serious on the issue of the nuclear threat. This is no Hellzapoppin crazy comedy where anything funny is okay. Kubrick and Terry Southern create a credible 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 nails their original quasi-comic characters.
The story bounces back and forth between three locales. Jack D. Ripper, the commander of Burpelson Air Force Base, orders a flight of B-52s to attack Russia. He then seals off his base to prevent a recall of the planes. 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 learn that such a SNAFU was even 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 B-52, Major 'King' Kong (Slim Pickens) urges his crew 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 can't fathom the depth of his commanding officer's madness.
Up in the B-52, the show becomes a throwback to those gung-ho WW2 action films in which a racially and ethnically diverse attack team uses brains and guts to barrel through their suicide mission. 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. At this point 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 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 located in the basement of the White House. The rational President Merkin Muffley trips over 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, what with fifty silent advisors sitting by and not one coming to his aid. He must 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" is inevitable.
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, Mad Magazine craziness is grafted onto combat realism. Previous looks at modern Air Force flying were 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. The film's aerial combat is more realistic than that in escapist films, even with inadequate models used for exteriors of the jet bomber in flight.
There's a constant tug 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 De Sadesky (Peter Bull) tells all in the War Room about his country's solution to their overextended defense budget, the Doomsday Machine. Security advisor Dr. Strangelove 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. Strangelove enters like the specter of Death itself; his grin looks like a skull. He contemplates 'megadeaths' as if the notion of killing were sexy. The detonation of the first bomb seems to liberate Strangelove, and he finds he can walk again. It is as if the evil of nuclear war has restored the representative of apocalyptic Nazi vengeance to full power. Twenty years after his suicide, Hitler has somehow packed the entire population of the world into his suicide bunker.
First-time viewers are usually floored by the audacious Dr. Strangelove. Only the truly uninformed will not recognize baritone James Earl Jones 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 anything that might deflate tension: We hear about the recall code being issued but are spared any view of the responsible military personnel that 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 War room extras strain to maintain straight faces no matter how funny Sellers and Scott get; that contrast is what makes the comedy so brilliant. Watch Peter Bull carefully. In one extended take 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.
Sony's Blu-ray of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is essentially the same as the 40th Anniversary DVD from five years ago. The HD picture makes quite a bit of difference in understanding Kubrick's photographic strategy. Not only are the Burpelson combat sequences hand-held to approximate the look of documentary footage, a more contrasty and grainy film stock has been used. Switching "film looks" is now a commonplace in pictures but in 1964 the effects was quite stunning -- audiences immediately reacted to the combat scenes as if they were real.
Owing to some Kubrick edicts about screen aspect ratios for video, studios have been releasing "authorized" flat versions of his discs for some time. An older Criterion laserdisc of Strangelove jumped between 1:37 and 1:66 depending on what scene was up, showing that even the aesthetic leaders can get confused. Later DVD editions 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 compositions. This 1:66 transfer may have been given a digital once over, as I didn't notice any white specks seen in previous releases.
The audio includes a 5.1 remixed track and the original mono, as well as a French track.
The main new extra is a picture-in-picture trivia track, a text-based pop-up facts track about the Cold War. There are a few picture-in-picture video clips featuring Daniel Ellsberg and other experts/historians. According to some of the video clips, a Doomsday Machine similar to that described in the film was considered as a real-life strategy and came within "a hair's breadth" of being approved! The track is not on during all of the film -- it comes and goes, sometimes with a gap of a few minutes between trivia or video clips.
Other extras are repeated from the Anniversary Edition. The first two docus 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 possibilities in the coming attractions format.
Docu pieces on Peter Sellers and Kubrick suffer from legal restraints disallowing the use of clips from non-Columbia sources. The Peter Sellers show features several choice film clips of him from the 50s, including an almost perfect takeoff on a William Conrad-like hired killer. It shows some stills from "The Goon Show" but can't mention it by name, as if to avoid mention of something owned by another corporate entity. A Stanley Kubrick career piece uses UA, MGM and Universal trailers and is even less satisfying, only because so much is glossed over so quickly. It does have some nice interview input from Kubrick's partner James B. Harris.
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.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dr. Strangelove Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Facts trivia track, Docus on film, Peter Sellers and Stanley Kubrick, Robert McNamara interview
Packaging: Two discs in normal keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: June 19, 2009
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
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: better engineering & better bombs will solve the problem. A popular pamphlet called The Fail-Safe Fallacy was published 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 counter-destruction of NYC but instead demand much more useful political concessions. At any rate, Fail-Safe is an artifact from the sixties while Strangelove remains an undying work of art.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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