A sign that reads “Peace is our Profession” is firmly planted outside the main building of the Burpelson Air Base. Several shots from cinematographer Gilbert Taylor feature this sign as a battle rages on against the rogue occupants of the Strategic Air Command building, bringing a sense of extreme irony to the sign with bullets whizzing by at top speeds, troops gaining and losing position and cars set ablaze. Peace may be the goal but in the wrong hands like the antagonistic General in charge of Burpelson air base, peace can only be attained by presumptuously destroying the enemy before they can strike first.
Upon its release in 1964, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the Cold War and nuclear deterrents were the main threats against humanity. Fingers are held inches from the buttons that could at any point set a bomb off and proceed start a third world war decimating society as we know it. As true as it was back then, the same fear is present nearly 60 years later. All it takes is one lunatic with the right clearances and mushroom clouds would soon follow. That’s just one of the beautiful things about the 7th feature film (If you’re counting his first two films, Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss) from director Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove will forever be relevant as long as there are superpowers with these last resorts available at the push of a button.
Presented as a satirical black comedy, Dr. Strangelove for short doesn’t hold back its numerous jokes nor pull it’s punches from stinging the face, interjecting subtle comedy into the heart of the conflict. Aboard one of the B-52’s the survival packs contains 9 packs of gum, just in case, among other key items. The other pilots and soldiers in close proximity giving one another looks of confusion as they unpack the goodies. Being put in the same rooms where the gravity of these undoable decisions are made like the impressive war room takes the pressure off with committed performances and dialogue that makes you wonder if this is how these conversations actually go between people in power.
For one, General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) and his obsession with only drinking pure water to preserve precious bodily fluids compared to what only drinking vodka will do is revisited occasionally, never once losing its comedic impact. On the other hand, President of the United States Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) conversing with an offscreen probably drunk Russian President about the silly actions of the rogue General Ripper sending B-52’s to attack Russia and the back and forth the two share about potential catastrophic outcomes.
The threat of a doomsday device being automatically triggered but potentially un-triggered works to the satirical nature Kubrick is putting all of his energy toward. The human behavior during these situations is ripe for ridicule and mockery and Kubrick takes advantage whenever possible. Kubrick does build a steady amount of tension however, its undercut with comedy, creating a perfect balance within its sexual and playful outlook.
Seared into my memory banks forever will be the titular Dr. Strangelove (Sellers second role of 3) a former Nazi, renamed from Merkwürdigliebe, who at first lurks among the shadows and offers his plan for rebuilding civilization underground with a ratio of 10 women to 1 man for breeding purposes among the all-male war room. Of course no one would disagree with that plan as it has universal appeal from the male perspective. All while his mechanical hand malfunctions with alien hand syndrome to hail the President as if he were Hitler during his grand scheme. Though the monologue itself is redundant to the overall conclusion, it’s but another reminder of the satire’s ability to caricatirize the real life counterparts depicted in the war room.
Loosely based on the novel Red Alert by Peter George who co-wrote the screenplay alongside Kubrick and Terry Southern, Dr. Strangelove quickly establishes itself with Kubrick’s meticulous directing style. Coming in at a solid 94-minute runtime, Kubrick and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor put the camera in one spot and let the carefully constructed scenes develop, rarely cutting while the absurdity unfolds. With the threat of nuclear destruction serving as the backdrop, the comedy is given room to breathe bordering sexual innuendo from the mostly all male cast. As General Ripper is enacting his ploy for nuclear war, he openly brings up the fluoridation of the water to Lionel Mandrake (Sellers third and final role) who goes along with how juvenile the topic of conversation is among an array of bullets entering the room.
Another instance of the overt sexuality comes toward the end when Major T. J. Kong (Slim Pickens) finally releases the bomb bay hatch and straddles the H-bomb toward its destination, fulfilling the films climax. Maybe the deleted cream pie scene should have made its way in, but I can understand the disruption of fluidity of the scene and can agree with it being cut from the final film.
In his 3 roles, Peter Sellers is at the front and center of Dr. Strangelove. Coming off his performance as Quilty in Lolita, Sellers talent in multiple roles with vastly different personalities is fully on display. There’s an energy to each role he plays, adding layers of dimension to the film from different angles. It’s remarkable the commitment Sellers gives in the final war room scene as 2 of his characters go back and forth discussing civilizations survival. Sellers is but one of several standout performances along with, Sterling Hayden’s paranoid General, Slim Pickens cowboy pilot and George C. Scott as General Turgidson – a gum chewing pessimistic chief of staff.
Ultimately, Dr. Strangelove is a timeless satire masterpiece for the ages, bringing awareness to the absurdity of a global nuclear threat between countries while still being light hearted among the mature themes. There’s a caricature nature to all characters involved in which Kubrick finds a perfect balance between the male gaze and how ridiculous these situations are, providing plenty of laughs and some remarkable performances from the ensemble cast. Only a few films to date for Kubrick pose a re-watchability factor and Dr. Strangelove provides the most bang for its buck.
Screenplay By: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern & Peter George
Directed By: Stanley Kubrick
Music By: Laurie Johnson
Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor
Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Jack Creley, Slim Pickens, Peter Bull, James Earl Jones, Tracy Reed, Shane Rimmer
Edited By: Anthony Harvey
Release Date: January 29, 1964
Running Time: 1 Hour 34 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%
Based On: Red Alert by Peter George