I, completely unintentionally, seem to have created a mini-marathon lately here on Cinematic Century revolving around the Cold War. I guess by this period in time, the early sixties, the paranoia and stress of the Cold War had finally percolated in the American subconscious enough that we were starting to try and make some sense of it all through stories. And, we’ve gotten some very different ways of looking at this scary topic. Manchurian Candidate gave us a political thriller, From Russia With Love gave us a rollicking action story, and today we’re looking at the Cold War through the lens of comedy! And, it’s one of my absolute favorite films of all time. Dr. Strangelove, the second film from Stanley Kubrick that I’ve tackled on this project, was a pretty sure lock for my favorite film of 1964. But, there are still some other great films from the year. If you’re in the mood for some feel-good music you can’t go wrong with Mary Poppins or the incredible strangeness of A Hard Day’s Night. You could keep up with the ongoing adventures of James Bond with Goldfinger, the film that often gets considered the greatest Bond film of them all. I don’t feel that way, but we don’t need to re-litigate James Bond yet again this week. The beginning of the spectacular Dollar Trilogy starts with A Fistfull of Dollars this year, unofficially remaking the previously discussed Yojimbo. And, hey, we’ve already talked about the Vincent Price film The Last Man on Earth on this site, so if you need a Vincent Price fix you can get it there. But, oddly enough, I think that the film that had the best chance of taking down Dr. Strangelove is a film called Fail Safe. And, if you enjoy Dr. Strangelove I highly recommend checking out Fail Safe. If you’ve never heard about it, it’s basically the exact same movie as Dr. Strangelove, but told deadly seriously. It’s a really great movie, and if you’re interested in a more serious take on the Cold War I highly recommend it. But, we’re here to talk about the sillier side of nuclear annihilation.
Stanley Kubrick seemed to build his entire career on trying new things. He dabbled in a variety of different genres, and seemed to take on each of his projects looking for something new to try. And this film all began with Kubrick deciding he wanted to make a Cold War movie. He began researching the way that the Cold War worked, learning about the might of the superpowers, the idea of mutually assured destruction, and how incredibly easy it would be to destroy the entirety of human society. And, he found it all absurd. So, Kubrick ended up optioning the film right for a book called Red Alert by Peter George, a novel that told a very dark, serious, and plausible story about the destruction of humankind thanks to nuclear war. Kubrick took the basic bones of the story, and ended up finding a way to tell the story in a tongue-in-cheek manner, finding the humor in the horror of reality. Much to the chagrin of Peter George. He helped write a draft of the screenplay, and wasn’t exactly pleased when Kubrick brought in comedic writer Terry Southern to help punch up the script, making it much goofier than what George was envisioning. The inclusion of Peter Sellers, playing three different roles no less, also helped push the film into an even sillier space. There’s a lot of legends surrounding the filming of this film, such as Slim Pickens not being told it was a comedy to get the driest performance possible and the film being primarily comprised of first takes that Kubrick swore were just to be silly, and it’s hard to tell if these are apocryphal or not. But, what may be the strangest aspect of the film is the ending. Dr. Strangelove was a legendary lost ending, where the entirety of the war room devolve into a massive pie-fight, pushing the film completely into the world of farce. And, it wasn’t used. There’s a few different stories of why that happened, either it was just Kubrick not liking the tone, or the fact that a scene featuring the President of the United States being attacked only months after John F Kennedy had been assassinated was in poor taste. And, they were probably right. Because whether or not that scene would have had a big effect on the success of the film or not, it actually did connect with audiences. It was a critical and commercial success, and has gone on to be considered one of the greatest comedies ever released.
The film takes place over a tense and ridiculous two hours that begin with the actions of Air Force Brigadier General Jack Ripper. Ripper is a lunatic who is convinced that the communists have infiltrated the United States to the point where the only way to survive the Cold War is to launch a full-scale nuclear war on Russia. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really have the ability to just declare war, but he has found a loophole. He’s able to transmit an order to a group of bombers that are constantly flying around the border of Russia, loaded with nuclear bombs, telling them that Washington DC has been attacked, the normal chain of command has been shattered, and that they’ve been ordered to attack Russia while also not accepting any further orders from anyone in the Air Force, because they’re probably actually Russian operatives trying to trick them. The pilots get their orders, and begin flying into Russian territory, ready to nuke the country to kingdom come, while Ripper convinces the men in his Air Force base that World War III has begun, and that they have to defend themselves.
This news pretty quickly starts spreading around the country, especially when the rest of the Air Force finds the plane deviating from their normal flight paths and into Russia. An emergency meeting of the American military begins in the War Room beneath the Pentagon, filling President Merkin Muffley in on what’s going on. General Buck Turgidson takes over the brunt of the information, telling the president about the situation they’ve found themselves in. The only way to call back the planes is to send them a special three-letter code to them, which only Ripper knows. The President orders soldiers storm Ripper’s base, hoping to capture Ripper and force him to end this charade, while also planning for the worst. Turgedson tries to convince them that they should just go with it, nuke Russia and pretend it was the plan all along, but the President doesn’t really want to be responsible for nuclear genocide, so he decides to reach out to the Russian government and warn them.
The Russian ambassador shows up in the War Room, much to the chagrin of General Turgedson. They’ve decided to tell the Russian government about the incoming planes in the hopes that the Russians will be able to shoot them down if things get too dire. Because things aren’t going well at Ripper’s base. A British soldier, Lionel Mandrake, is working with Ripper and trying to get him to stop his mad plan, but it’s not going well. So, the order to shoot down the planes is given, and the Russians are able to shoot them all down. Except one. A bomber flown by Major T.J. Kong was damaged in the fire-fight with the Russians, but it survived, deciding to go off book and fly to the nearest place to bomb. Which becomes a problem when the Russian ambassador announces that Russia has recently created a device called the Doomsday Machine, a sophisticated computer system that would register any sort of nuclear attack on Russian soil, only to automatically launch every nuclear bomb the Russian army has in retaliation, covering the entire Earth in a cloud of radiation for almost a hundred years. President Muffley calls in Dr. Strangelove, a former Nazi scientist who is working with the US government for advice. And, he decides that if Kong’s ship is able to drop a bomb, the end of the world is unavoidable, meaning that the only way for the human race to survive is to immediately send as many Americans into mine-shafts, where they’ll stay for the next hundred years, ready to start the Cold War up again as soon as their out. And, sure enough, Kong is able to drop his bomb, riding it down to his own oblivion and triggering the Doomsday Machine, ending the film with a montage of nuclear explosions as then entire earth is destroyed.
Dr. Strangelove is a film that’s kind of hard to explain. When you hear that it’s a movie about the literal destruction of the human race thanks to nuclear Armageddon, and then say it’s a comedy, there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance involved. But it works. It works so well. This film probably gets overshadowed by a lot of Kubrick’s later work, but I think I’m comfortable saying it’s my absolute favorite of his. It’s a movie that I’ve always loved, and I feel like was a real foundational film in my sense of humor. It’s so pitch-black, while also bizarrely absurd. The film gets a lot of humor out of the idea that everything is so dark and depressing, a sort of gallows humor, while also giving everyone weird sex names and occasionally tossing in little slapstick gags. It’s a film that should be a tonal trainwreck, released at a time where the fear of nuclear destruction couldn’t be higher or more possible, and featuring a bunch of people being completely ineffectual. It shouldn’t work. And yet, between the stellar direction of Kubrick, the razor-sharp script, and some of the greatest performances in the history of comedy, it works wonderfully. There are so many stories about the way this film was actually directed, telling the actors that they were allowed to be ridiculous because the takes would never be used, only to turn around and put them in the film. But, whatever the real case is, it’s brilliant. Everyone is vacillating between goofy optimism, sincerity, and existential dread, realizing that they’ve built a system that’s incredibly easy to result in the destruction of humankind, and there’s nothing they can do about it.
Which ends up becoming the strongest element of this film. Earlier in the article I mentioned that a movie came out in the same year called Fail Safe. It has an incredibly similar plot, following a group of military men and the President of the United States trying to reckon with a seemingly inevitable nuclear annihilation. But, Fail Safe is played deadly seriously, with a cast of characters who are trying their best to be sober adults, dealing with the most serious conundrum imaginable. Dr. Strangelove, alternatively, has a very similar cast of characters running around terrified, making blustery statements, and utterly failing to get anything accomplished. And, as time has gone on, I think it’s become abundantly clear that reality is closer to Dr. Strangelove than Fail Safe. Especially looking at the current American political climate it’s hard not to see a similar situation playing out similarly to Dr. Strangelove. We dependently hope that the people in charge of our governments are sober, serious, competent people. But it’s not the case. We’re all humans, and none of us know what to do when placed in charge of other humans. In reality we’ve created webs of bureaucracy that end up strangling us, making it impossible to get anything done, even stopping the world from having a nuclear apocalypse inflicted upon us.
Dr. Strangelove or : How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was written by Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, and Peter George, directed by Stanley Kubrick, and released by Columbia Pictures, 1964.
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