Wednesday, April 6, 2011

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

We will not stray too far from the theme of the possible destruction of civilization in a cold war allegory, but we are going to take a darker, far more satirical turn with Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop worrying and Love the Bomb. I am a relative newcomer to the film. I first saw it nine years ago during a film festival to raise awareness of the American Film Institute’s film preservation efforts. It immediately appealed to my off kilter sense of humor, cynical view of human nature, and weariness over the game playing aspects of international relations.

Stanley Kubrick, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay, initially wanted to do a straightforward thriller about nuclear brinkmanship. He got the rights to peter George’s novel Red Alert and began adapting it for the screen. Early on, Kubrick had an epiphany regarding the absurdity of mutually assured destruction as the only true safeguard against the use of nuclear weapons. He re-envisioned his film as a black comedy about how men of influence getting the wrong idea, no matter how well intentioned, can be disastrous.

The story is about the unhinged Air Force Gen. Jack D. Ripper who launches a nuclear assault on the Soviet Union after he is convinced the fluoridization of water is a Communist plot to destroy our precious bodily fluids. Ripper’s bombers, lead by over the top maj. T. J. “King” Kong, dutifully carrying out their orders while Ripper’s executive officer tries to get the recall code from him and the powers that be debate exactly how best to handle the situation. Unbeknownst to all but the Soviets, the USSR has a doomsday device which will set off the final nuclear war if the country is attacked.

It is the colorful characters that make Dr. Strangelove such an amusing film. Peter Sellers portrays three characters: Ripper’s XO, British exchange officer Lionel Mandrake, Pres. Merkin Muffley, and the wheelchair bound former Nazi Dr. Strangelove who hand has a Nazi mind of its own. Each character is distinctive and hilarious in his own way. Mandrake and Muffley are both desperate to defuse the situation peacefully, but wind up frustrated at every turn because everyone around them has other ideas, for better or worse. For Strangelove, the idea of destroying the current human race only to rebuild it later from the best and brightest of the survivors is a dream come true.

Also hilarious are George C. Scott and Slim Pickens, as Gen. Buck Turgidson and Maj. Kong receptively. Scott plays Turgidson as a gung ho American soldier without falling into the typical Hollywood trap of making such characters into sadists or idiots. Turgidson is proud of the American military’s capabilities of wiping out the Soviet Union, and is not adverse to thinking a devastating attack would not be for the greater good, even if the United States gets its hair mussed by the deaths of twenty million Americans. Turgidson occasionally lapses into slapstick comedy with pratfalls and the like, but is still one of the most memorable in film history. Pickens was not told the film was a comedy, so he played Kong as a straightforward, patriotic warhorse doing his duty no matter what the cost. It is his dedication that prompts the fateful field decision to drop his nuclear bomb and unwittingly set off the doomsday device.

Dr. Strangelove is a conspicuously low budget film. There are only three major sets: Ripper’s office, the war room, and Kong’s bomber. But Kubrick manages to do much with very little. The sparse settings actually enhance the claustrophobic feel. The fate of the entire planet rests on the actions of just a few men in terribly confined spaces.

I do mean men. If you have not been able to tell by the sexually suggestive character names, Dr. Strangelove is as much a satire on male potency worries as it is the Cold War. You cannot deny bombs are shaped like penises. If that image is not strong enough for you, Kong rides a bomb down to its target, legs straddled around, in the climactic scene. There is only one actress in the film--Turgidson’s bikini clad secretary and mistress. She is played by Playboy model Tracey Reed, and is featured in only one scene.

Dr. Strangelove was originally intended to end with a pie fight in the war room. The ending was filmed, but never used. Kubrick subsequently stated the pie fight was too farcical. I am inclined to agree. The ending as it is in the final film, with nuclear bombs dropping to the sounds of Vera lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again’ is perfect. Far more so than a Three Stuuges-esque ending. The table with all the pies still makes an appearance early on, but is never seen again. Such violates Anton Chekov’s axiom that if you introduce a gun in act one, someone has to have fired it by the end of act two, but Dr. Strangelove is such a good film, you will not care about that minor quibble.

Granted, as good as Dr. Strangelove is, dark comedy is not everyone’s cup of tea. I have recommended the film to friends who have come back to complain the characters’ humorous demeanors were too much to take in light of what was at stake in the story, and the downer ending made viewing the film an unpleasant experience. I freely admit you have to have an appreciation for satire and a cynical view of people in order to enjoy it. If that sounds like you, you should definitely see it. The film holds up well nearly fifty year after its release and twenty-one after the end of the Cold War. I list it as one of my alll time favorite films.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

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