Dr. Strangelove (1964)
aka: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
A film directed by Stanley Kubrick

Genre: Comedy / Sci-Fi / Thriller / War

Review published:


Dr. Strangelove photo
Convinced that the Communists are infiltrating his country, General Jack D. Ripper, the commander of a US military airbase, gives the order for a bomber wing to launch a first strike nuclear attack on the USSR. Ripper's executive officer, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, quickly realises that the general has lost his marbles and desperately tries to get out of him the three-letter code that will recall the bombers before they reach their target. Meanwhile, in the War Room of the Pentagon, President Merkin Muffley chairs a crisis meeting with military leaders and advisors, who include the belligerent General Buck Turgidson and wheelchair-bound scientist Dr Strangelove. Turgidson argues that the best option is to proceed with an all-out unprovoked nuclear assault on the USSR, thereby reducing the number of American casualties to a mere twenty million or so. Perhaps worried by the effect this might have on his approval rating, Muffley decides on a different tack and tries to persuade the Soviet Premier to shoot down the attacking aircraft. The President is aghast when he learns that the Soviets have built a Doomsday Machine, which will be triggered in the event of a nuclear strike on the USSR. Once activated, this device will release a radioactive cloud that will wipe out all human and animal life on the surface of the Earth. Surely the combined resources and intelligence of the American and Soviet superpowers can avert this calamity...?
© filmsdefrance.com 2012

Film Review

The blackest, and almost certainly greatest, black comedy of them all, Dr Strangelove thinks the unthinkable and achieves the impossible, finding humour in the prospect of global thermonuclear annihilation. Doubtless the film had its greatest impact when it was first released, just after the Cuban Missile Crisis at the height of the Cold War in 1962, the closest that mankind has so far come to blowing up the planet. Yet the film continues to have a powerful resonance and offers a compelling and strangely unsettling viewer experience. The Cold War may have ended, but the possibility of us all going up in a cloud of radioactive smoke remains a chillingly realistic outcome, particularly as an increasing number of nations are lining up to join to the nuclear club.

Dr Strangelove is not only a brilliant satire on Cold War hysteria and lunatic militaristic posturing (here the war-lust is rightly represented as just another facet of the suppressed male libido), it also pinpoints the one fundamental flaw in the much-vaunted strategy of mutually assured destruction (referred to by those in the know as M.A.D. and by everyone else as mad), namely that no system, however well designed, is foolproof. If a nuclear weapon goes off in the next century and triggers a holocaust that will wipe us all out, it will most likely be down to what Microsoft would term an undocumented feature.

Dr Strangelove marked a new high for Stanley Kubrick. Although the director had made a number of significant films prior to this, including his earlier anti-war drama Paths of Glory (1957) and a superlative adaptation of Nabokov's Lolita (1962), this was his first great auteur piece, the beginning of his run of cinematic triumphs that would include 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Shining (1980).

Not only is Dr Strangelove a supremely funny film that offers the most cogent argument for the outlawing of nuclear weapons, it is also a stunningly crafted piece of cinema. Kubrick knew instinctively how to construct a visual image that would deliver the greatest impact, emotionally and intellectually, and this is apparent throughout this film. Note the contrast between the static, almost unreal scenes in the War Room and the almost documentary realism in the cockpit scenes and the sequences where the airbase is attacked, achieved through innovative use of handheld camera. The political and military leaders are, as always, completely detached from the reality of the ludicrous situation they have created. Like the other great cineastes, notably D.W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock, Kubrick understood that images, not spoken words, are the means by which the true filmmaker communicates with his audience. Words are just window-dressing.

With Peter Sellers cast in not one but three roles, all played to perfection, the film could hardly fail to be a comic masterpiece. In their contract with Kubrick, Columbia Pictures had stipulated that Sellers would play four roles, but the actor was reluctant to play Major Kong and, after he sustained a minor injury, the part was given to Slim Pickens, who is an admirable replacement. Whilst Sellers dominates this film, reaching new heights of hilarity as the deranged Dr Strangelove, there are some memorable contributions from his co-stars. George C. Scott almost steals the show as the military man who sees all-out war as the solution to every problem and Sterling Hayden is frighteningly convincing as the general whose paranoid aversion to fluoride in tap water drives him to light the blue touch paper. And who can forget the sight of Pickens riding astride the atom bomb as it falls to Earth, unleashing a truly horrifying blast of Vera Lynn?  A propos, any resemblance between the mad Texan cowboy who can't wait to nuke his opponents and a future president of the United States is purely coincidental...

© James Travers 2009

The above article was written for filmsdefrance.com and should not be reproduced in any medium without the author's permission.

Other films that you may be interested in are: George Cukor's A Star Is Born (1954), Richard Fleischer's Blind Terror (1971), Preston Sturges's The Palm Beach Story (1942), Roberto Rossellini's Saint Francis, God's Jester (1950) and Arnaud Desplechin's La Sentinelle (1992).

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Film Credits

  • Director: Stanley Kubrick
  • Script: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, Peter George
  • Photo: Gilbert Taylor
  • Music: Laurie Johnson
  • Cast: Peter Sellers (Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake), George C. Scott (Gen. 'Buck' Turgidson), Sterling Hayden (Brig. Gen. Jack Ripper), Keenan Wynn (Col. 'Bat' Guano), Slim Pickens (Maj. 'King' Kong), Peter Bull (Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky), James Earl Jones (Lt. Lothar Zogg), Tracy Reed (Miss Scott), Jack Creley (Mr. Staines), Frank Berry (Lt. Dietrich), Robert O'Neil (Adm. Randolph), Glenn Beck (Lt. Kivel), Roy Stephens (Frank), Shane Rimmer (Capt. 'Ace' Owens), Hal Galili (Burpelson AFB Defense Team Member), Paul Tamarin (Lt. Goldberg), Laurence Herder (Burpelson AFB Defense Team Member), Gordon Tanner (Gen. Faceman), John McCarthy (Burpelson AFB Defense Team Member)
  • Country: USA / UK
  • Language: English / Russian
  • Support: Black and White
  • Runtime: 93 min
  • Aka: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

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