You might wonder why America didn’t just build the underground bunker network proposed by Nelson Rockefeller and Edward Teller (“the father of the H-bomb”) in 1961. You see, it would have contradicted the spirit of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) by suggesting that in the event of nuclear war, the U.S. could strike first with greater impunity against retaliation. Something as simple as building a hiding place would have been an international offense and a potential precursor to global nuclear war. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a very serious movie that knows this situation is funny. Stanley Kubrick didn’t make a serious situation silly: he saw the silliness that we put there to begin with.
Kubrick’s great feat of satire is not in parodying war, with its costs and excesses and big shiny boards, though this is his means. It isn’t in Peter Sellers’ spectral ex-Nazi called “Strangelove” (changed, we are told, from his German surname, Merkwürdigliebe, which means approximately the same thing). His great accomplishment is in what he chooses as the antagonist of Dr. Strangelove, against which he leverages his whole hilarious declension of genre staples. It isn’t the Ruskies or corrupt politicians or military whelps or the echoes of Operation Paperclip. Even ultra-nationalist Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), whose paranoia ignites the whole mess, proves no lasting issue to God and Country, as the exertive clown Gen. Buck Turgidson does not (brought exhaustively to life by George C. Scott, but more on him later). Seller’s other two roles as the milquetoast RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake and pantywaist President Merkin Muffley are also, in the end, as inconsequential as if the country was run by comedians.
What propels Kubrick’s war fantasy to a fetish, the antagonist that drives its battles and pratfalls to its inevitable and now infamous conclusion is the homegrown fighting spirit of the men aboard the AWOL aircraft (led by Major T.J. “King” Kong, played by Slim Pickens) that threatens to destroy the world by completing its mission. In another film, they would have been the heroes; they would have yeehawed to a patriotic victory, against all odds, by the will of God or fate or, perhaps, by what Kubrick must view as the hypocrisy of good ol’ American protagonism. And here, they are the reason the world will not survive. Everyone else was too ineffectual to do so much damage.
For Kubrick, the hearty soldiers in arms, the heroes of another film, are the catalyst for world-destruction. The world would have been saved if only they had less enthusiasm to complete their mission, or had been more effete, less manly and resolved. To make this material into the best satire, then, Kubrick’s task is not to ridicule the war movie but to indulge it. He was able to set up a situation where the more serious and aggrandizing the story, the more biting the commentary. By employing, perverting, and redirecting the rules of wartime filmmaking to primary targets of his own design, he creates an encompassing and indispensable work of satire, penetrating as Orwell, snide as Vonnegut, enigmatic as Heller. (I only question this: why the juvenile word-pun names? They would be the height of the humor in a Mel Brooks film but they are far, far beneath Dr. Strangelove).
The War Room is a sepulchral chamber of shiny floors and strategy maps with a dimly-lit concrete table in its center, huge and round and obscure, purposely like the setting of a medieval poker game (Kubrick upholstered the table in green baize to emphasize the effect to the actors). Kubrick’s choice to film in black and white accentuates these artifices of German Expressionism. And persisting in the image of harsh and slanted shadows, Dr. Strangelove himself chortles in his seat like Lang’s evil Rotwang from Metropolis, gloved hand and all. Why do the enigmas of movie villainy share in this cult of onehandedness? From Rotwang to Strangelove to Dr. No to Darth Vader, the “alien hand syndrome” by which a limb becomes not quite one’s own continues to reappear, drawing out the mechanized imperialism these villains inevitably share. Dr. Strangelove doesn’t choke people with the Force, but he is still guided by the will of his machine parts, as he bites his hand to restrain the impulsive gestural outbursts of “Heil Hitler!” in a United States conference room whose use of light and space takes the art of his own fatherland above all others.
In this chamber, Kubrick enacts his great farce. President Muffley questions his appointments and their choices. When they start getting rowdy, he cries with paradoxical sincerity, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” The inevitable source of the corn-fed roughhousing is Gen. Buck Turgidson, whom Scott gives such hefty wit in every crease-faced speech, laying as much of his weight into a serious plea as into a pratfall during a hilarious pantomime of a B-52 bomber. From another room he directs his lingerie-clad secretary in relaying the president’s phone call, slapping his gut as he enters at last, resigned to leave if he must. “Ol’ Bucky’ll be back just as soon as he can,” he grunts. He performs the overstated highlight of the film, tricked by Kubrick into overacting for “test takes” which the director then used purposely as the final cut (Scott vowed never to work with him again). But can you imagine the alternative? An actor with serious ambitions to depict a war general in a comedy, toning it down out of restraint or respect? Such a man would never have gone all-in with these faces: Scott is a big, burly contortionist in this film. Such a man would have never let them film him tripping and such a man is the absolute funniest to see do so. He is the perfect emblem of Kubrick's entire comedic scheme in Dr. Strangelove; he is the champing surety at the butt of Kubrick's joke brought to life and given broad shoulders to match his broad opinions. Though Buster Keaton perfected it over a lifetime, Scott’s may be the funniest pratfall in the movies precisely because he didn't really mean it.
Scott has a way of saying everything like it’s a pratfall to begin with, like it just comes out and you feel pressured to pretend like he meant it. No one could be further from him than Sellers, who has a way of saying everything like he’s about to fall. Together they sparkle. Here Sellers tops even The Pink Panther in creating that calm hilarity that makes his deadpan itself a critique of comedy. Clouseau was a character no bigger than Seller’s performance (notice how it can never be imitated). His triple performance in Dr. Strangelove extends even that expectation, becoming a performance so integral to the film that as the title suggests, actor and character and movie have become indivisible.
For God, country, and for the protection of his precious bodily fluids, Gen. Ripper enflames the Cold War and tempts MAD to enact its sinister end-game. He knows nothing of it, of course, because the Russians haven’t told anyone about their retaliatory Doomsday machine, which kind of defeats the purpose. With such a soft punchline, Kubrick clinches the hypocrisy he sees at work in all that wartime paranoia. But if he had openly made fun of it (the original cut of the film ended with a pie fight) he might never had made any lasting incisions, or: traded his comedic scalpel for a rotating saw. Unlike his heavy hand in Full Metal Jacket, here he knows what part of his subject is worth heckling, and he knows that people who think the era was no laughing matter will never be in on the joke. He seems to know the war better than those who almost fought it. It may be a mark of the film’s greatness that Dr. Strangelove feels just as toothed and timely today. But its true genius is that it’s so serious, which makes it funny now, that if it had been made 20 years earlier it could have sold bonds.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
Stanley Kubrick (screenplay)
Terry Southern (screenplay)
Peter George (screenplay and book)
|Group Captain Lionel Mandrake; President Merkin Muffley; Dr. Strangelove||Peter Sellers|
|General Buck Turgidson||George C. Scott|
|Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper||Sterling Hayden|
|Colonel Bat Guano||Keenan Wynn|
|Major T.J. "King" Kong||Slim Pickens|
|Soviet Ambassador Alexei de Sadeski||Peter Bull|
|Lt. Lothar Zogg||James Earl Jones|