Sunday, 2 September 2012

Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Dr. Strangelove
I will without blinking boldly declare “Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb” to be one of the best, maybe the best (and blackest), comedies of all time.

Done by lesser people a comedy about the destruction of the world might easily have been very bad taste and indeed few people have been able to pull this stunt (recently “Iron Sky” did an excellent job at it), but Stanley Kubrick, Peter Sellers and George C. Scott are up to the task.

According to the background material on the movie Kubrick was very worried about the prospect of nuclear war and wanted to make film about it. He found the story “Red Alert”, but while working on the script he and producer Harris started getting silly about it and realized that the best way to serve the message was as a comedy. That was a very smart decision. Because the setting is very real and the topic is very serious and deadly indeed, the comic characters work superbly and instead of deflating the message it becomes so much more poignant. It takes only so many nutcases and screw-ups to set off a nuclear war and destroy the world. We are all at the mercy of, well, humans and humans come in many different… types, and who is to say that we are not trusting our lives with a loose cannon somewhere?

The situation briefly is that General Ripper (Sterling Hayden), the commander of a wing of B52 bombers set off a nuclear attack on Russia. He has isolated the airbase and is convinced that he is doing the right thing to protect American bodily fluids (well, everybody has their own reasoning…). Now the President (Sellers) and his advisors are gathered in the War-room to deal with this crisis.

“Dr. Strangelove” works best when people have to explain the, erh, awkward positions they are in. General Turgidson (Scott) has to explain why this could happen in the first place and the excuse is of course really lame and paranoid, President Muffley has to explain to the Russian leader, Kissoff, that one of his generals went a bit funny in the head and, ups, we accidentally launched a nuclear attack on you guys and not least the Russian ambassador has to explain why they made a secret doomsday weapon that only can serve as deterrence if it is commonly known: well, it was cheaper and we were going to tell on Monday, the President likes to come up with surprises.

All these screw-ups seem to follow normal military doctrine, but in this context they become totally outrageous and insane.

This is one of those movies where it is difficult to point out specific favorite moments because there are so many and most of them you have to see, they cannot be explained.

A few examples:

Group Captain Mandrake (Sellers) trying to call the President from a phone booth, but run out of coins and have to intimidate Colonel “Bat” Guano to shoot open a coca-cola vending machine: I hope you are right. Otherwise you will have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company. Well, they are just trying to avert a nuclear war!

The before mentioned phone call between President Muffley and President Kissoff: I am sorry too, no, I can be as sorry as you are…

Dr. Strangelove, the insane Nazi scientist (Sellers again) explaining as everything is going to hell that they will do just fine in the bottom of deep mine shafts and that the human race will survive as long as there are 10 women to each man and since these men must be performing heroically the women will have to be “stimulating”. So the future is not so bad after all…

And of course the final scene where the cowboy captain on the loose B52, Major “King” Kong (Pickens) rides the bomb as a huge fallos as if it was a rodeo horse.

Note the names of all these characters: Jack D. Ripper, Major “King” Kong,  Colonel “Bat” Guano, President Kissoff. They are hilarious.

And then there are all the details scattered through the movie. I never becomes lame low comedy like “Airplane”, it sticks to the context and becomes funny because it is so grotesque, but also bitter sweet for the same reason, like the end titles with a sweet version of “We’ll meet again” while the world is blowing up in multiple mushroom clouds.

When it comes to intelligent, dark comedy, it just does not get better than this.


  1. The conversation between the president and the Russian president is hysterical.

    To me, George C. Scott is the one person in this movie who manages to upstate Peter Sellers.

    1. They are both great. Fortunately it is not a competition between them, they supplement each other excellently. The more I think about this movie, the more I love it.

  2. I love this film, too. I can see people not liking it, though. If you don't get that it's a comedy, it's a terrible film. Of course, I don't see how you can't get that, but there it is.

    There isn't a single performance in this film that I don't like, though.

    Oh, and you missed the best character name: President Merkin Muffley. If you don't know what a "merkin" is, Google is your friend.

    1. That one is good too. One of those many details that makes the film great.
      When I was a child it actually scared me. I did not get the jokes, but the prospect of a nuclear war terrified me. I guess you have to pass that tipping point where you get it... and of course have a black soul :-)

  3. "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!"

    I saw this film quite a few years ago. While I liked most of the humor in it, the parts that really irritated me were the ones Sellers played. I'm in the minority here, but his performances in the 60s just seemed to be not much more than "look at me!" mugging for the camera. I much prefer his performance in Being There.

    1. Well, I am a biiiig Sellers fan. In my eyes he could do and did nothing wrong, ever. While my favorite is "The Party" I think his performance in "Dr. Strangelove" was excellent too. The main difference is that here he does not outshine everybody else, partly due to some excellent perfomances particularly by George C. Scott and partly due to good direction. Kubrick is able to tie something that easily could have gotten out of hand together to a coherent movie. No trivial feat with Sellers around.