Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
A great film is one that, despite being watched countless times, still seems fresh and undated. It is a film where you make a new discovery with every viewing. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is a great film.
Dr. Strangelove is a comedy satirizing the Cold War and tells the story of a crazed Army General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) who orders an unauthorized nuclear strike against Russia. British Attaché Group Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers) realizes that Gen. Ripper must’ve made some sort of miscalculation and so tries talking him into calling off the strike, yet only manages to get himself locked in an office with the nutjob General. The situation quickly escalates, and the President of the United States (again played by Peter Sellers) holds a meeting with several Military leaders in one of the most widely recognizable film sets of all time, The War Room, about what needs to be done. Top Military Scientist and crazy Nazi, Dr. Strangelove (yeah you guessed it, Peter Sellers) warns them of the devastating Doomsday Machine and the unavoidable destruction it would cause (all human and animal life obliterated) if a nuclear bomb were to strike it’s location (which happens to be Russia). As you can see, they’ve got a dilemma. Through a dark comedy of errors, the characters try and fail repeatedly to call off the nuclear strike until eventually, B-52 Pilot Maj. King ‘Kong’ (Slim Pickens) rides the H-bomb bareback into it’s target.
To prepare for this review, I had to watch the film again for the first time in about two years or so since I needed to reacquaint myself with the material. I’ve read several reviews for this film, all of them praising George C. Scott’s performance, which I thought (back when I first saw it) wasn’t anything amazing. This time around, however, I knew exactly what everyone was talking about because I discovered what he can do with his face.
When I watched it again, all of his grimaces, facial tics, twitches and eyebrow arching were crystal clear. I passed over all of this the first few times because Scott’s work hides in plain sight. His face is so plastic and mobile, yet you don’t consciously notice it because he sells his performance with such conviction. Take, for example, a small scene where his character Gen. Buck Turgdison is running around the War Room and then trips, rolls on the floor, rights himself up and carries on all without dropping a line. Kubrick (known for being a perfectionist) left this unplanned fall in, because Scott made it seem so convincing.
Scott’s performance is just one example of the comedy in this film. As Roger Ebert put it, Dr. Strangelove’s humor is generated by a basic comic principle, “people trying to be funny are never as funny as people trying to be serious and failing”. All the characters in Dr. Strangelove are played so seriously that you can’t stop yourself from laughing when they all fall apart.
General Ripper’s dialogue is so sexually charged that it leads to the most ridiculous and awkward conversations between him and Captain Mandrake, as he goes on a tirade about how the commies are poisoning the “purity and essence of our natural bodily fluids” while fondling his phallic cigar. One of the funniest bits in the movie is when Ripper is explaining to Mandrake how he concocted this crazy conspiracy theory during “the physical act of love” where he suddenly had a feeling of great fatigue and loss of “concentration”. Naturally, his impotency was caused by those damn Ruskies poisoning the water supply.
Peter Sellers’ Oscar nominated triple performance accentuates the dead pan, failed seriousness humor of this film. He plays the roles of Group Captain Mandrake, President Muffley and Dr. Strangelove and gives each of them their own distinct accent, physical appearance and movement. His character of President Muffley is a great example of being extremely serious and failing. One of the best scenes in the film is where he is having a conversation over the phone with Russian Prime Minister Kissoff. He gets into an argument about how the President never calls Kissoff just to say hello, and then they fight over who is more sorry about the fact that nuclear warheads are on their way to Russia.
Peter Sellers was known to be quite…uncontrollable on the set of films. He would go off script and improvise dialogue, was always doing different accents and acting out of character, and was just enjoying himself. Stanley Kubrick was known for his attention to detail and for being a perfectionist, so naturally you’d think these two would collide. On the contrary, Kubrick actually encouraged Peter’s improvisation and the character of Dr. Strangelove (a maniacal nazi scientist with a possessed arm) was actually developed through Peter goofing around the set and playing with one of Kubrick’s lighting gloves. Watching these two artists work together (although it was not the first time they have done so) is spectacular and their finished product is tremendous.
Dr. Strangelove captures the spirit of the cold war and the “we better attack before they do” mentality, yet it does so in a way that is absolutely hilarious. This film is a timeless masterpiece that is still as poignant as it was when it was first released. Go buy it on DVD, it is a classic that you must watch!