For the next review for this month’s Genre Grandeur – War, here’s another review from…..
Niall is a regular contributor to this series and if you don’t already follow his site, you should do so…right…now…
Don’t forget that next month’s Genre which was chosen by Tom of DigitalShortbread, will be Space movies, so send me your reviews for that genre to firstname.lastname@example.org by Sep 25th in order to be included.
Let’s see what Niall has to say about the Kubrick classic…Dr. Strangelove..or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963)
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love the Bomb
Summary: An insane general gives orders to attack Russia with nuclear bombs. The President and his advisors frantically try to stop it.
“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” President Merkin Muffley
Stanley Kubrick’s glorious satire on the military mindset, Cold War paranoia and confused sexuality still holds up 50 years after it was made. It begins with a scene obviously designed to make you think of sex: lush romantic music plays on the soundtrack as a plane is refuelled mid-flight via a rather phallic fuel pipe. It ends in an orgasmic mushroom cloud while Vera Lynn sings “We’ll Meet Again” (a song that belongs to a different, much hotter war).
Sexual dysfunction and sexual paranoia seem to go hand in hand with general ‘duck and cover’ nuclear fallout nerves in the film. Indeed, it’s General Jack D. Ripper’s concern that his vital bodily essence is being sapped through ‘the physical act of love’ that inspires him to give the order for Wing Attack Plan R and launch the H-Bomb against the Soviets, while Colonel Bat Guano thinks that Group Captain Mandrake is “a deviated prevert.”
Dr. Strangelove isn’t a particularly subtle film. Think of the character names, for example: the angel of death Jack D. Ripper; the nerdy, bald President Merkin Muffley; the bombastic, sexually aggressive Buck Turgidson; the awkward-sounding Burpelson Air Force Base. And yet at times it’s very subtle indeed, with plenty of decent sight gags. Notice all the phallic guns on Ripper’s wall, and his huge cigar. In the opening scene Mandrake is at first obscured by a giant roll of computer printout. The emergency kit includes a (very) miniature combination Bible and Russian phrase book.
There’s an awful amount of military jargon and doublespeak in the film (as there is in the military in real life). The motto of the US Air Force is Peace is our Business. Turgidson is afraid of ‘a Doomsday gap’ in the arms race, and later, pondering a post-apocalyptic life below ground, ‘a mineshaft gap’. The point of the film is how the martial mind suppresses any humanity (a point Kubrick would make much more seriously in Full Metal Jacket).
Ripper, of course, shouldn’t be able to give the order in the first place. The attack order cannot be countermanded by radio in case the pilots think it’s an act of Soviet sabotage: a special code (that only Ripper knows) must be given first, and once the machine that receives the code is destroyed, Major Kong’s aircraft cannot be recalled, not even by the President himself.
President Muffley: General Turgidson! When you instituted the human reliability tests, you assured me there was no possibility of such a thing ever occurring.
General Turgidson: Well, I, uh, don’t think it’s quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up, sir.
I suspect Kubrick gleefully allowed the ridiculous disclaimer at the beginning of the film because it doesn’t really inspire any confidence in the idea that anyone has a clue.
“It is the stated position of the U.S. Air Force that their safeguards would prevent the occurrence of such events as are depicted in this film. Furthermore, it should be noted that none of the characters portrayed in this film are meant to represent any real persons living or dead.”
I think that one of the reasons why Dr. Strangelove works so well is that, like Catch 22, it’s played completely straight: everyone behaves like they’re in a serious political melodrama instead of a sublime comedy (Slim Pickens wasn’t actually told it was a comedy and Kubrick directed him as if he was in a straight war film). The aircraft crew-members robotically and monotonously convey information to each other by radio even though they are sitting mere feet apart from each other. Ripper is deadly serious about his concerns over flouridation and how the Communist plot “to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” Mandrake humours him desperately (“I’m what you call a water man, Jack – that’s what I am. And I can swear to you, my boy, that there’s nothing wrong with my bodily fluids.”) Turgidson doesn’t want the Russian ambassador in the War Room because “he’ll see the big board!” Muffley has to mollify the Soviet Premier:
“Dmitri?… Why do you think I’m calling you? Just to say hello?… Of course I like to speak to you!… Of course I like to say hello!… Not now, but anytime, Dmitri. I’m just calling up to tell you something terrible has happened… It’s a friendly call. Of course it’s a friendly call!”
Famously, Peter Sellers plays three parts: Strangelove, Muffley and Mandrake. He was supposed to have also played the pilot Major Kong, but after he sprained his ankle he couldn’t work in the cramped cockpit set.
The most glaringly over the top part is the character of Dr. Strangelove, with a coif of blond hair and a right arm that he cannot stop from giving a Nazi salute. Sellers is reported to have improvised many of his lines. If you look closely in one scene, you’ll notice Peter Bull (the Soviet ambassador) trying and failing not to laugh at Sellers’ performance.
Another point of note is just how well it’s photographed (in crisp black and white deep focus by Gilbert Taylor). Before he became a filmmaker, Kubrick was a photographer. His mentor was famed New York street photographer Weegee, who Kubrick brought to England to consult on the film’s lighting. Legend has it that Sellers’ Strangelove accent is an impression of Weegee’s voice.