This is the way the world might have ended: not just with a bang but with a custard pie fight.
Made at the height of the cold war, with the Cuban missile crisis a fresh memory, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1963) dramatises an escalating doomsday scenario in which a rogue American air strike on the USSR sets the two superpowers on an inexorable path towards mutually assured destruction.
Get the latest from the BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
Dr. Strangelove took a leap of absurdity away from the serious tone of its source novel, Peter George’s Red Alert, instead treating nuclear brinkmanship as farce of the blackest kind. What’s more, it goes further than the book (in which catastrophe is averted) by climaxing with nothing less than the end of civilisation on earth – with atomic mushroom clouds billowing to the tune of Vera Lynn’s sentimental favourite ‘We’ll Meet Again’.
But for a last-minute change of Kubrick’s heart, the moment of reckoning was to be preceded with a riotous battle with pastries from the War Room buffet table. The fight, which was shot but cut out before the final print, begins with Soviet Ambassador de Sadeski (Peter Bull) responding to the threat of a strip search by hurling a custard pie at US general Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), which misses and hits the American president.
“Gentlemen,” rallies Turgidson, holding his wounded leader (Peter Sellers) in his arms, “our beloved president has been infamously struck down by a pie in the prime of his life! Are we going to let that happen? Massive retaliation!” Chaos ensues in fast-motion, in a manner recalling the silent slapstick of Mack Sennett and the Keystone Cops.
Critic James Naremore has described the fracas in his book On Kubrick:
Characters climb atop tables and swing from the overhead lights; Turgidson sits atop somebody’s shoulders, stuffing pie in his mouth between throws, and the circular conference table becomes a sort of boxing ring filled with white cream. Eventually, Strangelove fires off a gun and shouts ‘Ve must stop zis childish game! Zere is Verk to do!’ The other characters sit around on the floor and play with custard cream like children building sandcastles. ‘I think their minds must have snepped from the strain,’ Strangelove announces.”
But after test screening the film on or around the 22 November 1963 – the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination – the scene was taken out, Kubrick having decided “it was too farcical and not consistent with the satiric tone of the rest of the film.” That line of dialogue about the president being struck down in the prime of his life was a little too close to the bone, too.
“They were very worried, the studio, about releasing it,” remembers editor Anthony Harvey. “They found it might be offensive or something. So Stanley took it out for the moment, and then the film opened and he just didn’t feel like putting anything back. So that remained in the cutting room floor. But it was a brilliant piece of work. Who knows? I certainly thought it was. But I think when you get to a point in working on a film for almost a year, and this sort of sudden pressure comes in as a result of what happened to Kennedy, it’s a sort of clear-cut situation. So that was removed. And it never went back.”
All-you-can-watch access to 100s of films
A free trial, then just £4.99/month or £49/year.Get free trial