THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 44: DR STRANGELOVE

by Daniel Suddes

Dr. Strangelove or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)  Directed by: Stanley Kubrick Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Peter George, and Terry Southern –  Based on the novel Red Alert by Peter George Starring: Peter Sellers, George C Scott, Sterling Hayden, and Slim Pickens. Oscar Count – 0 (Nominated for Four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor in a Leading Role)

Dr. Strangelove has become one of those films that everyone believes they can imitate (how many times have you heard film directors or critics calling a property “the next Strangelove?) but no one really knows how to do so. Yes, Dr. Strangelove is perhaps the most subversive film of all time. But it was not trying to be as subversive as it ended up being. In fact, the film was planned as a straightforward thriller when it was being scripted, but Kubrick found the whole situation so bizarrely funny that he had it changed. He was not trying to be subversive. He just felt there was no other way to handle this material. As time went on, Kubrick was proven correct.

That is why Dr. Strangelove is among the greatest films ever made. It launched an entire subgenre of film, but it has never been equaled despite other directors’ best efforts.

Most people recognize that Strangelove is about the Cold War. To say otherwise would be foolish. But that is not all that is present – otherwise the film would have become a dated relic. Instead, as Freud would say about anything, Dr. Strangelove is about sex. Specifically, it is about how men in power try to assert themselves by any means necessary, even if it means destroying civilization just so they can get their rocks off. I firmly believe that General Ripper is gay, is unable to come to terms with it, and thus launches a nuclear war just so he can prove to himself that what he thinks is a problem is the result of a communist conspiracy. The wheelchair bound Doctor is useless (presumably) and thus comes up with a way to make himself feel better by creating a post-apocalyptic scenario in which the ratio between men and women is ten to one. Maybe then he could finally get some attention from the opposite sex (he also regains his ability to walk after coming up with this plan….presumably, making the organ between his legs “alive” as well).  In addition, all of the names are double entendres (Buck Turgidson? Merkin Muffley? Premier Kissov? Dr. Strangelove?). Kubrick’s thoughts about sex and politics were not that far apart, and so profound was his vision that those ideas have not been far from the public consciousness since the release of this film.

This post Hayes Code fascination with sex helped ring in the free love mentality of the 1960s, in which many felt that if only those squares in Washington had a massive orgy, maybe they would stop the killing and finally be attuned to the general populace. For Strangelove to take this view at the time that it did must have seemed downright revolutionary. It was only released not even two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis and mere months after the assassination of Kennedy. America may not have been ready to deal with the inevitable message of doom that Strangelove predicts, or to have our mortal enemy and the people keeping us safe poked fun at. Charlie Chaplin learned this the hard way when he made a satire against Hitler before it was exposed what a monster Hitler was.

But Strangelove came at exactly the right time. The rest of the 1960s demonstrates just how much of an impact the film had, and how people felt that there was no good and bad in this war, and that civilization could be destroyed by people who had no clue what they were doing, and whose personal reputations were more important than the deaths of millions of people. Woodstock and the rejection of the Vietnam War would not exist without Strangelove.

I cannot pick a favorite scene in the film. There are so many memorable moments in the film that so well together it makes separating any of them quite a challenge. I would like to call attention to one particular gag – the one involving the survival kit check list. It approaches the level of surrealism, considering the sort of things that are in there. How exactly would a miniature Russian phrasebook and Bible keep the soldiers safe? Who on Earth placed prophylactics in these containers? Actually, that last was problem the most helpful thing in there. The scene is also played absolutely straight – the soldiers take the contents out and move onto the next thing, with nary a comment. In fact, Slim Pickens (who plays Major Kong) may be my favorite character in the whole film, because he acts as though he is in a serious drama and as though his life has been building up to this moment. He talks about heroism (while the fact the U.S. government is desperately trying to get him to abort his mission) and rides down the bomb with the utmost glee (despite the fact he is causing Armageddon). This scene exemplifies what works about the film – utmost sincerity in an absurd situation.

Did You Know: This film could have had some of the people involved arrested. Production designer Ken Adam’s design of the interior of the still classified B-52 was quite accurate. For leaking this information, Kubrick was worried that the FBI could investigate the production team. Adam’s source for the design was a single photograph in a flying magazine.

 


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