War Movie Mondays: ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Bomb’

Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) is the ultimate black comedy, war movie which pokes fun at the absurdity of nuclear war and those responsible for escalating tensions throughout world during the Cold War. The film stars the great Peter Sellers as three of the film’s major characters, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake of her majesty’s R.A.F., U.S. President Merkin Muffley, and as crippled ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove who tries to educate the president and his staff as to the intentions of the Soviets, and how America can survive World War III.

Other talents include Sterling Hayden as Gen. Jack D. Ripper, (the commander of Burpelson A.F.B.), and George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson, a fanatically anti-Soviet member of the president’s staff, and loosely based on actual American Air Force Gen. Curtis “bombs away” LeMay who was one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a veteran of the Pacific Theater during World War II.

Dr. Strangelove was based on the novel Red Alert written by Peter George. The screenplay was written by Kubrick, George, and satirist Terry Southern as a film which shows just how crazy and simple it truly is for the super powers to plunge the world into nuclear Armageddon. As tensions flare around the world due to Soviet and western policy expansion, Gen. Jack Ripper (a stellar performance from actor Sterling Hayden) orders the air wing of his B-52 bomber squadron to initiate “Wing attack plan R”, a plan which gives lower echelon commanders the authority to launch a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union if the normal chain of command is disrupted, e.g. if the president and Washington D.C. were taken out by a sneak attack.

The Gen. does this due to paranoid fears of communism trying to take hold of Americans “precious bodily fluids.” This was actually a fear throughout the 1950’s that the fluoridation of water supplies would make Americans susceptible to communist ideas. Yes really.

Racing against the clock in hopes that the bombers can be recalled before they reach their targets in Russia, Ripper’s aid Capt. Mandrake (Sellers), tries to figure out the code prefix which will recall the bombers. When news reaches Washington D.C. that Ripper has begun an attack, the president (Sellers) tries to avert war with the Soviet Union at all costs, even if it means getting Soviet Premier Dimitri Kisov on the phone while he’s in a drunken state in his office in the Kremlin. Overly patriotic and war happy Gen. Turgidson (Scott) sees this first strike as America’s opportunity to wipe out Russian opposition in one swoop.

Meanwhile, one of Ripper’s planes fails to be recalled and plans on attacking its target in Russia. The pilot, Maj. T.J. “King” Kong (a dynamite performance from veteran actor Slim Pickens), tells the men of his bomber that “It’s nuclear combat toe-to-toe with the Russkies.” Many of the scenes concerning the crew of the bomber have the song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” playing in the background as symbolism for these patriots who will take the fight to the enemy and insure that they drop their payload as ordered to avenge American ideals. Look for a young James Earl Jones as the bombardier. This was one of his first roles.

Dr. Stangelove is a film which is impossible to say that you have a favorite scene, because the whole film is a masterpiece. Kubrick’s top notch direction, the cast, and the script contribute to this classic that is relevant to today as it was in 1964 when tensions between both super powers was at an all time high. Little details that pop up in the film e.g. the phrase that is stenciled on the spine of Gen. Turgidson’s binder “World Targets In Megadeaths”, to the slogan of Burpleson A.F.B. which reads “Peace Is Our Profession” highlight much of the film’s brilliance.

The slogan “Peace Is Our Profession” was actually chosen by General Curtis LeMay who was the head of S.A.C., the Strategic Air Command which was America’s 24 hour airborne alert force throughout the dark days of the Cold War. My favorite has always been what is written on the rear half of the two nuclear bombs in Maj. Kong’s bomber “Nuclear Warheads, Handle With Care.” These little gems show up nicely especially on the Blu-Ray version of the film which is one of the best prints of the film which I’ve ever seen. I highly recommend picking it up.

Peter Sellers is the actor who really lends his incomparable talents to the film. His three pivotal characters are some of the funniest characters ever created. As Capt. Mandrake, Gen. Ripper’s executive officer, he is the man who has to try and extract the prefix code from the paranoid Gen., even while the Gen. is fending off an attack from army personnel who have infiltrated the base. The Gen. pulls a 30. caliber machine gun out of his golf bag and asks the Capt., (a British officer) to help load the machine gun. The Gen. turns to him and says “Mandrake, the Redcoats are coming. Hurry up!” BRILLIANT! The scenes where he plays the president trying to explain the situation to the drunken Russian president are fantastic. Sellers plays the president straight faced and it adds to the scenes immensely.

His performance as Dr. Strangelove shows his true comedic genius and how he is still one of the funniest actors of all time. The character is a composite of famed German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, the father of the hydrogen bomb, Edward Teller, and nuclear RAND Corporation strategist Herman Kahn. In several of the scenes when Strangelove is addressing the president he refers to him as “Mien Fuhrer” followed by “I’m sorry Mr. President.” Strangelove’s theories on how America can emerge the victor in a nuclear war are fantastic and are discussed in the event that if a nuclear device is detonated in the Soviet Union then the “Doomsday Machine” (as described by Russian ambassador DeSadeski) (Peter Bull) will trigger a chain reaction which will destroy all life on Earth through a series of nuclear explosions.

When Kubrick bought the rights to the script, there was a problem concerning another film which message was a serious one concerning a nuclear war which erupts due to mechanical error. Director Sidney Lumet was directing the film Fail-Safe which was supposed to come out at the same time as Dr. Strangelove. Columbia felt that two films with a similar plot, yet two different genres would battle one another at the box office and create a rift with ticket sales. Columbia ended up buying the rights to Fail-Safe to end a legal feud that would halt the release of both films. Fail-Safe was released eight months after Dr. Strangelove. The film met with a lot of critical success, but wasn’t as popular at the box office as Dr. Strangelove was.

Dr. Strangelove is my absolute #1 favorite film of all time, tied with David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. It is a film which has stood the test of time and is one of the funniest films of all time. In the twenty plus years since the end of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear confrontation from a super power have slightly diminished, doesn’t mean that it couldn’t still happen. The current situations in the world today are just as terrifying as they were in 1964. Strangelove still manages to show a new generation of movie goers just how terrifying it was to live in a time when the world could end by the next commercial break, and that there were radical die hards on both sides who were willing to ensure that theirs won in an all out nuclear attack.

Favorite quotes: “You gentlemen can’t fight in here this is the war room.” “Now look here Col. Bat Guano if that really is your name?” “I don’t think it’s fair to condemn the whole program just because of a single slip up.” “I do not avoid women Mandrake, but I do deny them my essence.” “Hello Dimitri I can’t hear too well. Do you think you could turn the music down a little?” “Well boys I recon this is it. Nuclear combat toe-to-toe with the Russkies.” “Why don’t you try one of these Jamaican cigars ambassador they’re pretty good.” “Thank you no, I do not support the work of imperialist stooges.” “Oh only commie stooges huh.” “It wouldn’t be difficult Mien Fuhrer, nuclear reactors could, oh, I’m sorry Mr. President.”

“Alright, I’m gonna get your money for ya but if you don’t get the president of the United States on that line, do ya know what’s gonna happen to ya? You’re gonna have to answer to the Coca Cola company.” “Dimitri there’s no reason for you to get hysterical like this. Keep your feet on the ground when I’m taking to you Dimitri.” “We got one budge on them Russkies. At this height they might harpoon us but they dang sure aren’t gonna see us on no radar screen.” “A fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.”

Dr. Strangelove is available on Blu-Ray and DVD disc through Columbia/Sony Pictures and can be rented via Netflix.

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