The sheer audacity of attempting a dark comedy about nuclear annihilation at the height of the Cold War and only months after the assassination of President John Kennedy, would have assured Stanley Kubrick cult filmmaker status.
When US General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders wing attack plan R into operation he sets planes on an irreversible bombing run into Russia. Powerless to stop them without the relevant three letter access code, the US President (Peter Sellars) and his advisors plan to warn Russia as best they can to prevent as many of the planes reaching their targets as possible. However, when the Russian Ambassador (Peter Bull) warns of the doomsday machine – a machine that will destroy all life on earth in response to a nuclear attack – things look bleak.
Well shot, well written and well acted, it is a masterpiece of filmmaking. Kubrick embraced black and white when filmmakers began embracing it as an artistic choice. Camera composition and the use of light make every frame a painting.
The performances are strong on all accounts. Sterling Hayden is great as General Ripper – his cigar-chomping soliloquies on fluoridated water and the Red Menace are priceless. He delivers his madness with a straight face throughout, in a performance that only be described as ‘Purity of Essence’.
There are rumors that Kubrick never told Slim Pickens (the B-52 pilot, ‘King Kong’) this was a satire, so as to get him to play the role straight. This rumor does a great injustice to his performance. Once Pickens starts reading off the contents of the survival kits: ‘Two pairs a nylon stockin’s. Two pair a prophylactics. Shoot. A fella could have a good time on this in ’Vegas.’, you realize he was a master of comedic naivete.
George C. Scott plays General Turgison. It took the man who would later play Patton to convincingly sustain this character. The character’s precious habit of the military coda compels him to defend Ripper and take pride in the skill of his pilots even as their success means world destruction. The scenes where he stares down the president while stuffing gum in his face are definitely priceless.
But this film belongs to Peter Sellers. As Mandrake he is forced to order Col. `Bat’ Guano to shoot open a Coke machine in order to get change to phone the president (to put an end to the nuclear crisis): ‘You’ll have to answer to the Coca-Cola corporation of Atlanta Georgia’. As The President, he delivers one side of hilarious conversations with his Russian counterpart with great dialogue including the legendary `Gentlemen you can’t fight in here – this is the war room!’ But as Dr Strangelove he is hilarious – and downright iconic (‘Look, Mein Furher — I can VALK!’). The character himself is such a glorious indictment of the US Arms/Space program, wherein former Nazi scientists were recruited, to essentially compete with the Soviets’ former Nazi scientists. It is interesting how Seller’s Strangelove was eerily evocative (and prescient?) of Kissinger. I am shocked more people did not make note of it during the bombing of Cambodia and US meddling in Chile.
The USAF was going to cooperate with the making of this film until they read the script. The FBI is said to have investigated how they replicated the B-52 Bomber to near perfection. Strategic Air Command are among this film’s largest cult base, and it is easy to see why. On a certain level the film indicts the ideology of the cold war and the failure to create safeguards. But policy is not the concern of SAC; it recruits for and highly values dispassionate professionalism. The film portrays SAC as dangerously competent. Skill, ingenuity and esprit de corps are precisely what enables the bomber crew to get through.
The end of the Cold War may have taken some of the edge off this film had when we first saw it. It was widely seen as dangerous to American interests when it was first released. However, I once spoke to a Russian journalist friend about him seeing Strangelove as a student during the cold war. The Soviets showed the film anticipating a negative impression of the US. Instead, he claims it made him hopeful about the United States, saying that any culture that permitted such a film would also possess enough clarity of vision to prevent nuclear war. Thus Strangelove was dangerous and beneficial to both sides. Perhaps, in a small way, it contributed to the thawed relations that ultimately diminished its own relevance. Can you ask for more from a film?
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writer(s): Terry Southern, Stanley Kubrick, Peter George (III) (novel)
Runtime(s): 93 minutes
Language: English, Russian
Soren McCarthy, Cult Movies In Sixty Seconds: The Best Films In The World In Less Than A Minute, Fusion Press, 2003.