Half a century after Kubrick's film showed us that it was okay to laugh about the world's most unfunny subject — the prospect of a nuclear apocalypse, which was all too real at the time — it's hard to imagine this script getting the green light today. Never mind the obvious, that it's just not marketable to a public eager for escapism and superheroics. Never mind that modern audiences would be impatient with Strangelove
's slower pace and talky, expository sections, due partly to Kubrick's obsessions with static shots and long takes. Never mind that political correctness makes such blunt nose-thumbery about a taboo subject absolutely unthinkable in mainstream entertainment now.
is a movie that could have been made and appreciated only in the 1960s — not just because of the current subject matter but because of its anti-authoritarian tone. In a decade of great social unrest and of widespread distrust of political power in western culture, Strangelove
's then-daring irreverence of the men and organizations in charge of the world found its perfect temporal home.
For those who've never seen it (and if you haven't, what in the name of your precious bodily fluids are you waiting for?), Strangelove
is a bleak, black comedy of errors about a paranoid air-force general, Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who orders his patrolling aircraft to bomb their Russian targets and to cut off all communication with the base. The plot alternates between Ripper's office, one of his B-52 bombers (with real-life cowboy Slim Pickens as pilot Major Kong and a young James Earl Jones in the crew) and the fictional Pentagon “War Room.”
It's in the War Room — one of the most memorable movie sets ever designed — where weak President Muffley (Peter Sellers), hawkish General Turgidson (George C. Scott), a Russian ambassador (Peter Bull) and schizophrenic, ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove (Sellers again) try what little they can to recall the planes and avoid triggering the Soviet “doomsday machine,” a deterrence device designed to destroy all life on earth.
Upon the movie's original release — 50 years ago this week — New York Times
critic Bosley Crowther
disembowelled it. “The most shattering sick joke I've ever come across,” he called the film. “Somehow, to me, it isn't funny. It is malefic and sick.” But time has a way of softening the shock value of great works and revealing them to be truth-tellers. In 1999, the late Roger Ebert
“arguably the best political satire of the century.” Which is pretty high praise, considering that the same century also gave us George Orwell.
The best joke of all may be that Strangelove wasn't originally intended to be funny
. Kubrick initially planned to direct a serious adaptation of Peter George's novel Red Alert
, a thriller about a rogue nuclear attack. But as he worked on the screenplay, Kubrick realized that the notion of mutually assured nuclear annihilation was so ridiculous, so outrageous, that humour and exaggeration were the only proper ways to depict it. “In trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully,” he later said, “one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny.”
Kubrick was dead right. The best way to see why is to watch Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe
, the other
high-profile nuclear-war movie of 1964. Starring Henry Fonda as the U.S. president, along with Walter Matthau and Larry Hagman, Fail-Safe
is shockingly similar to Strangelove
in plot and set design, with one major difference: it's not a comedy. But whereas Strangelove
's Juvenalian satire still seems fresh and true, Fail-Safe
's ham-handed self-seriousness now plays as dated and melodramatic. Exaggeration is often the safest and most efficient way to tell an uncomfortable truth, and that's why Strangelove
holds up so much better.
We've all heard people refer to political conflicts as “d--k-waving contests”. For a movie that deals with political and military communication breakdowns with such unforgiving accuracy, maybe it's not so surprising that Strangelove
is loaded with sexual imagery. There's the opening-credits sequence, showing a bomber plane fueling another plane to the tune of “Try a Little Tenderness”. General Ripper sucks on a giant, phallic cigar as he talks about Communists adding impurities to his own “bodily fluids.” Turgidson learns of the crisis during a tryst with his mistress (Tracy Reed, director Carol Reed’s stepdaughter), who later phones him in the War Room. Turgidson and the ambassador are intrigued by Strangelove's vision of an underground post-apocalyptic civilization with ten females for every male. And, of course, there's the shot of Major Kong riding the bomb. Kubrick puts the fate of the human race in the hands of a bunch of petty adolescent schoolboys who always think with the wrong head. What could be funnier — and scarier — than that?
Among these schoolboys are three ingenious roles by Sellers, who was fresh off the success of the first Pink Panther
flick when Strangelove
came out. There’s RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, a tweedy British soldier who tries to get the bombers’ recall code from Ripper; there’s the straight-man role of President Muffley, modeled off of Adlai Stevenson; and there’s the sinister title character, inspired partly by Wernher von Braun
, with an out-of-control bionic right hand that keeps heiling Hitler of its own will. (Sellers was also cast as Kong, but broke his leg after literally falling off the bomb.)
It’s not just the amazing diversity of these three roles — it’s Sellers' mastery of improv that makes them a tour de force. Kubrick reportedly let Sellers ad-lib whatever he wanted
, and many takes were ruined by the cast’s and crew’s irrepressible laughter. (Bull tries to stifle a giggle near the end of the film, as Sellers battles with Strangelove’s right hand. Look for it.) Note the words that Strangelove unnaturally emphasizes in his speech — “will” (as in Triumph of the
...), “fear” and “slaughtered” — revealing his inner Nazi trying to break out. And note how Mandrake's babbling, impotent disbelief grows as he gradually realizes how bonkers Ripper is — mumbling the nonsensical “It's the string... the string in my leg” as an excuse not to aid Ripper's scheme.
And Muffley’s awkward phone conversation with the drunk Russian premier, also improvised by Sellers, is still one of the funniest monologues I’ve ever heard in a movie. “Well now, what happened is, um, one of our base commanders, he had a sort of, well, he went a little funny in the head. You know! Just a little... funny. And, uh, he went and did a silly thing... Well, I'll tell you what he did. He ordered his planes... to attack your country, and – well, let me finish, Dmitri... Let me finish, Dmitri... Well listen, how do you think I
feel about it?”
So much has been said about Sellers' triumphant hat trick that it's easy to forget how good Scott and Hayden are. Scott's childish, big-mouthed Turgidson is cartoonish and over the top in all the right ways, pouting and chewing gum when the president silences him and cheerfully dismissing the prospect of murdering millions of innocent civilians as “getting our hair mussed.” As he suggests joining in Ripper's attack as the only realistic option, Turgidson promises with a grin, “No more than ten to twenty million people killed, tops!” with utterly convincing cluelessness.
Actually, Scott loathed his performance in this movie. Kubrick supposedly tricked him into playing Turgidson as a goofy caricature through “practice takes”
that Scott assumed wouldn't be in the final cut. The director employed similar manipulation of Pickens by not even telling him
the movie was a comedy
; this explains the hilarious sincerity in Kong's patriotic speeches and Texan yodelling.
There's so much else you can praise about this film. The script that Kubrick polished with legendary satirical wit Terry Southern not only has one of the most perfectly worked-out comedic plots in movie history; it's also rife with great lines like Muffley's “Gentlemen, you can't fight in here. This is the War Room,” and Strangelove's “But the whole point
of the doomsday machine is lost
... if you keep it a secret!” Kubrick's documentary-style footage of the army attacking Ripper's base is a bold stylistic choice that nails the dark subtext of the comedy; it foreshadows the televised Vietnam coverage that would invade American living rooms within a few years.
And you have to admire a movie perceived as so dangerous that the Air Force demanded an introductory title insisting that the movie's plot could never happen in real life. What were they afraid of, exactly? You have to wonder.
The most telling evidence of Strangelove
's contribution to the culture came less than 20 years after its release. When Ronald Reagan — arguably the Cold War U.S. president with the type of stupidity mostly likely to cause a Strangelovian disaster — toured the Pentagon for the first time, so the story goes, he asked to see the War Room
. Officials awkwardly explained that there was no such thing. “But I saw it in that movie!” Reagan supposedly said.
In a way, it was a case of art becoming real life. And, frighteningly, it might not be the last time. As Vera Lynn sang, “We'll Meet Again...”