(director/writer: Stanley Kubrick; screenwriters: Peter George/ Terry Southern/based on the novel Red Alert by Peter George; cinematographer: Gilbert Taylor; editor: Anthony Harvey; cast: Peter Sellers (Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake/President, Merkin Muffley/Dr. Strangelove), George C. Scott (General “Buck” Turgidson), Slim Pickens (Major T. J. “King” Kong), Sterling Hayden (General Jack D. Ripper), Peter Bull (Ambassador de Sadesky), Keenan Wynn (Colonel “Bat” Guano), James Earl Jones (Lieutenant Lothar Zogg); Runtime: 94; Columbia/Hawk; UK-1964)
“This is one of the greatest political satires, if not the greatest ever made.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
This provocative black comedy/fantasy regarding doomsday and cold war politics, features a planned nuclear attack by a psychotic commander of a nuclear base, General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling), who blames the Commies for messing up the water with fluoride and trying to ruin our body fluids. The film takes place in the ’60s, after the showdown with the Russians over the “Bay of Pigs” failure. President Johnson, as the new American leader, is not in a position to take any threat from the Russians lightly. The country itself was a bit paranoid during this tense period of the Cold War. As technology used in the wrong way was no laughing matter, a nuclear war was a strong possibility. This film is able to exploit that craziness of attitudes prevailing and make a stinging satirical comedy out of it; it’s a film that is not passé, even in 1999 after its inception 35 years ago, which speaks volumes for its satirical power.
Dr. Strangelove is noted for Peter Sellers’ masterful performances in three distinct roles: Dr. Strangelove (an eccentric scientist), Mr. Merkin Muffley (President of the U.S.), and Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (a stereotype of a British officer with a stiff upper lip).
The film ominously opens as the narrator in a voice-over tells about a top-secret Doomsday Machine which could reduce the world to nothingness, as we look over a trail of dense cloud cover and Rocky Mountain peaks in the distance, with the Earth uninhabited by humans.
There’s a healthy dose of irreverence throughout for those who are involved in building up this nuclear conflict. Kubrick is cleverly able to connect the sexual obsessions the male caricutures have with the Cold War, which is clearly indicated by the names he gave them: Jack D. Ripper (a notorious English sexual serial killer), Mandrake (a plant root said to encourage fertility), George C. Scott as Buck Turgidson (a male stud), Merkin (slang for the female pubic area), Muffley (a pubic hair wig), Keenan Wynn as Colonel Guano (meaning bat excrement), the name used for the unseen Russian President, Kissof ( literally- ‘start of disaster’), Peter Bull as the Russian Ambassador de Sadeski (named after the Marquis de Sade), and Slim Pickens, the nuclear flight commander, “King” Kong (signifying a beast with a destructive lust).
The film cuts back and forth from three main set locations (the office of the bomb group commander of Air Force command base, the claustrophobic flight deck interior of the B-52 bomber, and the Pentagon’s War Room). The actors play their roles with mock seriousness, seemingly trapped by their physical surroundings and by their cartoon-like roles they are playing.
Group Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers) receives a phone call from his supervisor, Strategic Air Command General Jack D. Ripper, who sits at his desk in a dark room, chomping on a large cigar. The obsessively paranoid, crazed, right-wing commander informs Mandrake of a “shooting war”: as the base is sealed according to Condition Red and all radios are impounded because they can be used to issue instructions to saboteurs. Ripper is beyond being dissuaded from going over-the-top, as he does not respond to Mandrake’s attempts at stopping him from following through on the nuclear attack.
In the B-52 bomber the crew is busy doing their pilot routines, with Major Kong gaping at the centerfold of a Playboy Magazine when his radio man tells him about the Red Alert. At first, he thinks the men are horsing around but when convinced this is for real, we see the Texan don his ten gallon cowboy hat and open up the instruction manual for such an emergency and literally take us through the necessary steps to get their mission on the way. The music in the background strikes up ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home.’ Over the intercom, he delivers in his heavy Texas drawl a patriotic speech to his men – a parody of what a real American might be thinking.
The Pentagon’s huge underground War Room is a cavernous site with a round conference table and is the third central focus of the film. Lights illuminate the room from above in a circle casting a glow over the ‘Adlai Stevenson-like’ President, Merkin Muffley, and his advisers, who sit at the round table. At the far end of the room is the Big Board – a massive graphic display strategic map lit to indicate the progress of the bomber wing planes to their Russian targets.
The President is briefed by the hawkish Air Force general, Buck Turgidson, of the orders issued by General Jack Ripper to the 34 B-52’s engaged in an airborne exercise dubbed “Operation Dropkick.” The planes are now fully armed with nuclear weapons and are on their way to hit their designated targets in Russia.
Kubrick leaves us with a score of memorable scenes: The President talking to his Russian counterpart and they each try to decide who is sorrier about what is happening. Major Kong is descending atop the bomb when the bomb-release mechanism fails to function; and, Colonel Guano shooting the sacred private property Coca-Cola machine to get change for Mandrake, who is busy trying to save the world by getting some small change to call the White House on a public pay phone. But none is more memorable than seeing President Muffley consult with a wheelchair-bound German nuclear scientist (an ex-Nazi who changed his German name from Merkwuerdigich-liebe to its literal English name “Strange-love,” when he became a U.S. citizen). Wearing thick, dark sunglasses, Dr. Strangelove, director of weapons research and development, also has a black-gloved mechanical, robotic hand which shakily holds his cigarette, as he whines with a German accent: after making calculations with a slide ruler with his black-gloved robotic hand, which he can’t stop from raising in salute to his Fuehrer, as he tells the President that certain select elite people could survive a nuclear attack for a 100 years by living underground. Strangelove’s future vision of “strange love” is a love-less, impersonal sexual one, in a world in which everyone can “Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” A theme of inhumanity Kubrick kept intact throughout his film career, even in his last film, Eyes Wide Shut. This is one of the greatest political satires, if not the greatest ever made. A not to be missed film.
REVIEWED ON 7/23/99 GRADE: A+