Dr Strangelove archive review: a mirthful Machiavellian nightmare

Now on re-release, Stanley Kubrick’s nuclear caper is revered as a comedy classic. Back when it first emerged, our critic found both fear and hope in the film’s all too topical treatment of global destruction.

Tom Milne
Updated:

from our Winter 1964 issue

Peter Sellers as Group Captain Lionel Mandrake in Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Peter Sellers as Group Captain Lionel Mandrake in Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Writing this review in the shadow of the assassination of President Kennedy, when the unbelievable actually occurred, one’s mind is forced back by an irresistible connection to The Manchurian Candidate; and even if Frankenheimer’s film got the plot details wrong, events have made mincemeat of criticisms that it was all too extravagantly improbable. Now Dr. Strangelove stalks the same far-out country, and comes up with the same chillingly mocking warning that tragedy is not only possible, but probable.

General Ripper, commander of an American nuclear base at Burpelson, mentally unbalanced by health worries, suddenly initiates a B-52 nuclear attack on Russia. When the news reaches the Pentagon war room, a recall is ordered, but the aircraft, following operational instructions designed to foil enemy interference, have cut off radio communications. They can be reached only by special code, known only to General Ripper; and Ripper, also according to instructions, has sealed off his base.

An American task force, sent to Burpelson, engages in fierce combat with the American defence force, who believe them to be disguised Communist invaders. Meanwhile, US President Muffiey puts through a personal call of apology to USSR Premier Kissov, to meet with sympathetic regret and a revelation that the Russian ‘Doomsday’ master deterrent, powerful enough to destroy the entire planet, is primed to be set off by any nuclear explosion, and cannot be un-set.

Group Captain Mandrake, R.A.F., a survivor of the Burpelson battle, at last deduces the code from Ripper’s ravings, and a recall is sent. One aircraft, its wireless destroyed by missiles, does not respond. Its course and target are revealed to the Russians, with a request that they concentrate all resources on shooting it down. Meanwhile the pilot, dangerously short of fuel from damaged tanks, changes course for a closer target…

As the foregoing may suggest, Dr. Strangelove, or (one must get its enchanting subtitle in somehow) How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is a very tough film indeed, which makes no last-minute concession, and which bids fair to achieve the unlikely distinction of being the most hilariously funny and the most nightmarish film of the year. Stanley Kubrick, on ample evidence, is not only a clever but a cunning director, and Dr. Strangelove is his most Machiavellian film yet. Although it develops, ultimately, into wild farce (one can easily see how the custard-pie finale, not actually used in the film, could have been conceived), it has laid its serious basis so firmly that its grip cannot be loosened. Everybody, one realises by the end, is mad.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963)

And Kubrick’s frightening vision here is the enormity of madness which can lie behind an exterior sane enough to walk, talk and work with calm competence, or behind a perfectly reasonable remark. General Turgidson, for instance, challenged by his President with the fact that the attack is an unauthorised error, responds with offended dignity, “I don’t think it’s fair to condemn a whole programme because of a single slip-up.”

Character after eminently reasonable character reveals some mild quirk which swells uncontrollably into blinkered obsession: General Ripper’s health fad about distilled water, we realise, becomes diseased terror of a Communist plot to debilitate the liquids of the human body by tampering with the world’s drinking-water; Colonel Guano mutters agitatedly about “deviated preverts” (sic); General Turgidson screams about “moronic peons” and hugs secret files to his breast like an anxious schoolboy as the war room is thrown open to the Russian ambassador; the Russian ambassador busily photographs secret equipment as the world literally disappears. Even the British sang-froid of the R.A.F. officer, the most sympathetic character in the film, takes on the dimensions of rigor mortis.

By the time Dr. Strangelove himself appears, about halfway through, the familiar world we know from Defence Plans, White Papers and Summit Conferences has undergone a perfectly logical metamorphosis into a nightmare version of Carroll’s Wonderland. In a world studded with throw-switches invitingly lettered “AutoDestruct” and files labelled “World Targets in Megadeaths”, Dr. Strangelove – American nuclear expert of dubious Germanic origins – is a natural inhabitant: a latter-day Dr. Mabuse, whose metal arm springs automatically to the “Sieg Heil!” or twitches frantically to key words like ‘slaughtered’ and ‘sexual’, and who chuckles in manic glee as he calculates that survivors will be able to emerge from subterranean hideouts after only 100 years.

Kubrick manages this bewildering slither from real to unreal and back again with total mastery. Unlike Paths of Glory with its lazy sweep of tracking shots, or Lolita with its arrogantly sensual arabesques, Dr. Strangelove is choppy, abrupt, at times as urgently graceless as a newsreel, at others breathtakingly well-lit and shot. The battle between the two American units looks like a documentary; the flight of the aircraft (travelling matte and dummy plane) looks, exactly as it is meant to look, contrived; the President is seen at one moment half-obscured by intervening shoulders, as though photographed by an intruding newspaperman, at another in studio close-up exchanging telephonic civilities with his Russian counterpart (“No, Dimitri, no… you couldn’t be more sorry than I am…”). The result is that we are faced with a reality that becomes fantasy and, by extension, a fantasy that could so easily become reality.

Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963)

The same tightrope balance is, miraculously, sustained by the acting. Central, obviously, is Peter Sellers in another multiple role as President, R.A.F. Officer, and Strangelove. What might so easily have been a trick is, in fact, completely successful, partly because only Strangelove is played for full Goon extravagance, with the R.A.F. officer an affectionately gentle caricature, and the mild, balding, affable President played almost straight. The real saving factor, however, is that Sellers is only a brilliant key in a brilliantly cast film, where each actor (with the exception of Peter Bull’s self-indulgent Russian ambassador) finds an image which is both ludicrous and unnervingly exact: Sterling Hayden (Ripper), impassively stem and cigar-chewing through all his ravings, ominously shot from below; George C. Scott (Turgidson), all jumping-jack volatility, enthusiasm and little-boy hurt looks; Keenan Wynn (Guano), bovine devotion and indifferent incomprehension; Slim Pickens (the pilot), Texan drawl, gallantry, and wild incongruity.

A film which maintains the courage of its convictions to the bitter end is rare enough; even rarer is one which pursues its course with such relentless logic. Kubrick tells his story with such control that, although one knows the inevitable conclusion, one has no idea how it will happen, and each episode comes not only as another nail in the coffin, but as a frightening demonstration of how power politics have become a Frankenstein monster which one little error can send out of control.

A tough film, then, which makes one think, laugh and weep in equal proportions, and which ends on an image which makes every other film about The Bomb look like a pretty game: mushroom clouds billow over the vast, unpeopled surface of the earth, and Vera Lynn’s voice croons consolingly from a mysterious limbo beyond the soundtrack, “We’ll meet again… some sunny day.” A sick film? I think, rather, one of bitter denunciation and hopeful warning. A lot of Americans, unfortunately, are likely to find it hard to take.

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