A funny, provocative, and thoroughly entertaining satirical masterpiece
A brilliant comedy about nuclear annihilation and paranoia that is funny and entertaining? Well, this week’s classic, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”, is all that and more. Not only is this black comedy (which I’ll call “Dr. Strangelove”) equipped with enough laughs and suspense to keep viewers eagerly watching, it also gives one pause. With superlative direction, performances, lighting, and script, this hit film earned four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. Considered one of the best comedies and greatest films ever made, its countless accolades include Entertainment Weekly calling it the 14th Greatest Film of All-Time, the American Film Institute (AFI) naming it the 26th Greatest Film and the 3rd Greatest Comedy, and a BBC critics poll choosing it as the 2nd Greatest Comedy of All-Time. This film is about as perfect as a film can get.
Boiled down to basics, the plot is pretty simple – an unbalanced US Army General sets in motion an unprovoked nuclear attack on the Soviet Union which will end up destroying all life on earth. The US and Soviets do what they can to stop it, and the film plays out as a countdown to prevent the first bomb from dropping. Loaded with suspense and an endless parade of ludicrous mishaps, it exposes the preposterous and fallible side of human beings and how dangerous things can get when they have toys as treacherous as nuclear technology at their disposal. But even with dark underlying themes, through and through “Dr. Strangelove” is a comedy. Just a mention of a few characters’ names will provide proof, such as pilot "Major T. J. 'King' Kong", nuclear expert "Dr. Strangelove", and the man who starts all the trouble, "Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper”.
One reason “Dr Strangelove” is so triumphantly successful is due to its impeccable tone. Every time I watch this film I’m astonished at how masterfully the performances and story are presented – all riding a fine line between comedy that is never so over-the-top it's cartoony, and a reality that as dark as it may get, remains light and feels real. It's picture-perfect satire. This film has so much detail that I find new things with repeated viewings, making an already great film even better every time. Getting this tone just right is an artistic feat unmatched by any other film I can think of, due in large part to the man who birthed it, its producer, director, and co-writer, Stanley Kubrick.
Kubrick's talent at filmmaking and personal style make “Dr. Strangelove” both dynamic and convincing. His knack for satire and irony were never better, as this film is filled with laughs that make you stop and think about logic, trust, loyalty, war, conspiracy theories, the arms race, political loopholes, and even a word or two about bodily fluids. It bristles with sexual innuendo, from the opening credits as one phallic-looking plane refuels another to the song “Try a Little Tenderness”, and in details such as having photos of pinup models taped on the inside of a Top Secret safe, the fact that “Ripper” is sexually inept, and the film’s “orgasmic” ending (which I’ll write about in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section so I don’t spoil things for new viewers). With all the sexual references, it's interesting that there's only one female in the cast, Tracy Reed, in a brief role as "Miss Scott'.
Juxtapositions also abound as food for thought and laughs. Soldiers fight in gun battle on an army base under a billboard that reads “Peace is our profession”, and there’s the film's most famous line of dialogue, when "General Turgidson" and the "Soviet Ambassador” have a physical altercation and the President of the United States exclaims, "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!" (which AFI named the 64th Greatest Movie Quote of All-Time). The entire film is a contrast of the absurd and reality. The film opens with a disclaimer, “It is the standard position of the US Air Force that their safeguards would prevent the occurrence of such events as are depicted in this film. Furthermore, it should be noted that none of the characters portrayed in this film are meant to represent any real persons living or dead”, surreptitiously letting us know this film is plausible.
Along with his talent for poking thoughtful fun, Kubrick was a virtuoso technician. A photographer at a young age, he quickly developed a firm grasp on lenses, lighting, focus, composition, and creating depth – all of which are used to perfection in “Dr. Strangelove”. He chose to have the film’s gorgeous lighting stem from natural sources on sets, such as having a giant hanging circular light in the War Room be the only light illuminating the actors below it, or having light in “Ripper’s” office only stem from light fixtures or windows. Kubrick’s technical savvy is also apparent in his approach with filming different locations. War Room scenes are steady and glamorized with an artificial Hollywood feel, while scenes inside the B-52 bomber are more rough with slight camera movement, evoking motion and unsteady edginess. And the scene of soldiers in battle is filmed in a gritty, documentary, handheld camera style, emitting a dangerous, chaotic energy (which Steven Spielberg said influenced his approach to filming his Oscar-winning “Saving Private Ryan”). Viewers may not notice Kubrick’s camerawork or lighting, but are undoubtedly affected by the emotions they create.
“Dr. Strangelove” was very much a child of its time (though it's lamentably still relevant). Tensions had been mounting between the US and the Soviets and their allies since the end of World War II, and by the early 1960s, the conflict in Vietnam was escalating, the Berlin wall had just been erected, and the Cuban missile crisis had just occurred, putting the world on the brink of nuclear war. The Cold War was at its peak and fears and tensions were high all over the globe. While Kubrick was making his 1962 film “Lolita”, like everyone else, he became worried about nuclear war. He read dozens of books about it, including the 1958 novel “Red Alert”, written by Royal Air Force Officer Peter George (under the pseudonym Peter Bryant).
Kubrick bought the rights to “Red Alert”, setting out to make a dramatic thriller about nuclear war, working with George on the script. While writing, Kubrick found so many absurdities and paradoxes regarding nuclear war that he felt he’d have to omit much of the story or people would laugh. It then dawned on him to turn it into a nightmarish comedy which would be easier for audiences to digest. So he and George reworked the script as a black comedy.
Renowned satirist Terry Southern was then hired to make changes to the finished screenplay, and Kubrick, George, and Southern shared a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination for their efforts. Additionally, Kubrick earned a Best Director Academy Award nomination for the film, and a third as producer for Best Picture. These were Kubrick's first three Oscar nominations out of thirteen in his career, and he would win his only Oscar for his next film, 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. You can read more about the life and career of Stanley Kubrick in my post on that groundbreaking classic. Click the film’s title to open it.
Because it remains one of the most famous sets in cinema, I should briefly point out the film’s War Room. The enormous, eerie, and modern concrete set was 130 feet long, 100 feet wide, and 35 feet tall, with colossal electronic maps of the world adorning a wall. In the center was a round table measuring 22 feet in diameter, covered in green baize cloth (you can't tell in black and white) to help the actors feel as if they were playing a giant game of poker for the fate of all humanity.
With lighting exclusively coming from the hanging circular lights and the maps on the wall, the rest of the cavernous War Room is engulfed by darkness, and in far shots, these powerful government leaders look like small, indistinguishable, and powerless creatures. In reality, no actual Pentagon War Room exists, but the set is so believable that when Ronald Reagan became President of the United States, he reportedly asked his chief of staff to show him the War Room. This iconic set was designed by British movie production designer Ken Adam.
Born in Germany and relocating to England at the age of thirteen, Ken Adam started work as a production designer with the 1956 Oscar winner, "Around the World in 80 Days", earning him his first Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration. About half a dozen films later, he was production designer for the 1962 "James Bond" film "Dr. No", which caught the eye of Kubrick, who then hired him for "Dr. Strangelove". Adam’s other films include "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang", "Sleuth", "Agnes of God", "Addams Family Values", and the "James Bond" films "Goldfinger", "Thunderball", "You Only Live Twice", "Diamonds Are Forever", "The Spy Who Loved Me", and "Moonraker". He earned five Oscar nominations with two Academy Award wins, one for Kubrick's 1976 "Barry Lyndon” and a second for 1994's "The Madness of King George". Adam was awarded the OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) before being awarded the Knight Bachelor of the Order of the British Empire in 2003 for his services to film production design and British-German relations. He married once, until his death. Ken Adam died in 2016 at the age of 95.
The exceptional performances in “Dr. Strangelove” help create that equilibrium of absurdity and reality, and at the helm is the film’s star, Peter Sellers. Often labelled a comedic genius, “Dr. Strangelove” gave him the opportunity to show his versatility, for in it he plays three characters: British Royal Air Force “Group Captain Lionel Mandrake”; the well-meaning President of the United States, "Merkin Muffley”; and former Nazi scientist and nuclear physicist "Dr. Strangelove". They all look, sound, and act quite differently and Sellers makes them all believable with humor stemming from their unique qualities. As outrageous as he can get (particularly as “Dr. Strangelove”), Sellers never feels out of step with the film. To play all three diverse characters so deftly is nothing short of a tour de force, and it earned him a Best Actor Academy Award nomination.
With his unusual voice and uncontrollable gloved hand, the character of "Dr. Strangelove" has become an icon. Because Kubrick always had a hand in lighting his films (both figuratively and literally), he wore black gloves so he wouldn’t get burned when moving hot lights. Sellers borrowed one of those gloves for the character, and his distinct voice was inspired by photographer Weegee (Arthur H. Fellig), who was taking photographs on the set. "Strangelove's" white hair, gloved hand, and mad scientist attitude is certainly a bow to the character of “Rotwang” in the silent sci-fi classic “Metropolis” (a film also on this blog).
Born in England to vaudeville performers, Peter Sellers made his stage debut when he was two days old. Virtually growing up backstage, he would mimic voices and manners of people he observed, while unintentionally honing his improvisational skills. Hungry for stardom, Sellers worked as a performer and eventually began appearing on British radio. From 1951 to 1960, he costarred (playing multiple characters) in the zany radio sketch comedy series "The Goon Show", which became a massive sensation, said to have influenced British and American comedy and pop culture (including The Beatles and Monty Python). It set Sellers on the road to stardom. His film career began in 1951 with voiceovers and parts in features and short films. An early notable success was the 1955 Ealing comedy, "The Ladykillers". He starred in four films opposite English actor and comedian Terry-Thomas in the late 1950's, including the British blockbuster "I'm All Right Jack", which earned him a Best British Actor BAFTA Award. In addition to acting, Sellers occasionally wrote or directed films (mostly shorts) including the 1959 short "The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film", which earned him a Best Live Action Short Oscar nomination. He also recorded hit comedy albums and a couple best-selling songs.
Sellers gained US notoriety playing multiple characters in the 1959 film "The Mouse That Roared", followed by international stardom with Kubrick’s 1962 film "Lolita", in which he played "Clare Quilty", a villainous man who wore several disguises and accents (it also earned him a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe nomination). He and Kubrick got along famously, and Kubrick encouraged Sellers to improvise, later saying that while improvising, Sellers would reach a "state of comic ecstasy". On “Dr. Strangelove” (which came shortly after), Sellers often only spoke the first line from the script as written and would then begin to improvise, sometimes for as long as ten minutes.
While ”Dr. Strangelove” is regularly deemed Sellers’ best film and finest performance(s), the character that made him a superstar was the bumbling detective ”Inspector Clouseau", who first appeared in 1963's "The Pink Panther", and then in five more films (including 1975's "A Shot in the Dark" and 1976's "The Pink Panther Strikes Again"). His other films include "What's New Pussycat?", "The Party”, "The Naked Truth", "The World of Henry Orient", "Never Let Go”, "Casino Royale", and one of my favorites, 1979's "Being There", which earned him his second and final Best Actor Academy Award nomination. His final film was 1980's "The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu”. In 1966, Sellers was appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in honor of his career achievements.
Known to be difficult, paranoid, demanding, and to throw tantrums at directors or fellow actors, Sellers could also be cruel to his children and wives (with cases of domestic violence) – allegedly due to insecurity, being career-obsessed, and feeling like a failure from being a perfectionist. He would famously say of himself that Peter Sellers didn't have a personality but was a blank slate on which his characters would emerge. He married four times, including to actresses Anne Hayes, Britt Ekland, and Lynne Frederick. Shortly after making "Dr. Strangelove", Sellers was diagnosed with heart disease and suffered a myriad of heart attacks at the age of 39. He died of a fatal heart attack in 1980 at the age of 54.
Also starring in “Dr. Strangelove” is George C. Scott as “General Buck Turgidson”, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In contrast to the reserved "President Muffley", Scott makes the gum-chewing "Turgidson" loud, gruff, emotional, and at times like an immature boy, pouting, or reassuring his mistress that “Of course it isn’t only physical. I deeply respect you as a human being”. And Scott does all of it with truth grounding his flamboyant, gleeful fanaticism, perfectly hitting a balance between larger than life and real. It is quite impressive.
Kubrick was known to be a control freak dictator on set, and Scott was known to be headstrong, and both loved chess (with Kubrick being a chess whiz). So to gain the upper hand, Kubrick set up a chessboard on the set and consistently beat Scott, which earned him Scott's respect, but it didn’t solve all their problems. As fellow actor James Earl Jones said in a 2004 The Wall Street Journal article: “The irresistible force met the immovable object when Stanley asked George to do over-the-top performances of his lines. He said it would help George to warm up for his satiric takes. George hated this idea. He said it was unprofessional and made him feel silly. George eventually agreed to do his scenes over-the-top when Stanley promised that his performance would never be seen by anyone but himself and the cast and crew. But Kubrick ultimately used many of these ‘warm-ups’ in the final cut. George felt used and manipulated by Stanley and swore he would never work with him again”. As much as Scott may have disliked his performance in “Dr. Strangelove”, it remains one of his best loved and remembered roles. I wrote more extensively about the life and career of George C. Scott in my previous post, "Anatomy of a Murder". Be sure to give it a read.
Sterling Hayden plays “Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper”, commander of Burpelson Air Force Base, part of Strategic Air Command. Hayden is terrific as the paranoid, cigar smoking and a bit insane general. He makes us believe this man would start all this chaos, yet still keeps him sympathetic no matter how mixed up he is. Hayden had left Hollywood and acting, but Kubrick called him for the role. Hayden told Kubrick “You’ve got the wrong man to play the part of a general”, and Kubrick replied “That’s why I want you”. “Jack D. Ripper” became one of Hayden’s most famous roles.
With the death of his father at age 9, New Jersey born Sterling Hayden moved around eastern coastal towns from Maine to Washington D.C., and at 16, ran away and took a job as mate on a schooner. He sailed around the world several times and by the age of 22, became a respected captain. When a photo of him from a fishermen's race appeared on the cover of a magazine, Paramount Pictures called and signed the handsome sailor to a seven year contract. With no real interest in acting, Hayden looked at Hollywood as a way to earn enough money to buy his own boat. Paramount labelled the 6’5" blond hunk as "The Beautiful Blond Viking God" and "The Most Beautiful Man in the Movies", and he was immediately cast as the second male lead opposite Fred MacMurray and Madeleine Carroll in 1941’s "Virginia", Hayden’s film debut. ”Bahama Passage” followed that same year, also opposite Carroll, whom he married.
After those two films, he enlisted in the Army to fight in World War II, only to break his ankle and be discharged during training. So as a private, he joined the Marine Corps, serving with the Office of Strategic Services in Yugoslavia, Italy, and Germany, and earned a Silver Star among other military honors. Because of fighting alongside Yugoslav Communists, he joined the Communist Party in 1946, leaving it after six months. He then returned to Hollywood and appeared in a couple of lesser films at Paramount. When the Red Scare hit Hollywood (which I talk about in my "High Noon" post), his past Communist Party membership led him to be called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Fearing he would lose custody of his children and go to jail, he named names of other Communist sympathizers, destroying their careers, something that left him with deep guilt and regret for the rest of his life.
In 1950, John Huston cast Hayden in his crime noir, "The Asphalt Jungle”, which Hayden credits as first making him take acting seriously. In it, he gave one of his strongest performances and established himself as a leading man, though it would be in mostly mediocre films. As he said in a 1970 interview, "I started up near the top and worked my way down”. There were exceptions, such as "The Star" opposite Bette Davis, "Johnny Guitar" opposite Joan Crawford, "Suddenly" opposite Frank Sinatra, and Kubrick’s "The Killing" in 1956. After multiple divorces, custody battles over children, and a film career going nowhere, in the late 1950s he took to writing and wrote his autobiography, "Wanderer", published in 1963. Then came "Dr. Strangelove", which led to work as a character actor. In his career, he accrued 73 film and TV credits, and his other films include "The Godfather", "The Long Goodbye", "Winter Kills", "Terror in a Texas Town", "Crime Wave", "King of the Gypsies", and "9 to 5". He was married five times, including three marriages and divorces to Betty Ann de Noon. He spent much of his life living and sailing on boats, and his true loves were the sea and writing. In addition to his autobiography, he wrote the acclaimed 1976 novel "Voyage". Sterling Hayden died in 1986 at the age of 70.
Another iconic role in “Dr. Strangelove” is played by Slim Pickens as “Major T. J. ‘King’ Kong”, the B-52 bomber pilot and commander. His raspy southern drawl, loud manner, and charisma make for one entertaining character. Evidently, the character of “Kong” was very much like Pickens, cowboy hat and all. “Kong” was originally to be played by Sellers (his fourth character in the film), but he had trouble finding the character’s voice and accent. Sellers needn’t have worried, for he broke his ankle while on set, forcing Kubrick to replace him. Pickens turned out to be a perfect choice. He adds great color to the film with his spot-on comic delivery, and this film took his career to a new level.
California-born Slim Pickens (whose birth name was Louis Burton Lindley Jr.) became a skilled horse rider at a very young age. As a teen, against his father's will, he began riding broncos and roping steer. He entered a rodeo and was told there would be "slim pickins" regarding prize money, so to hide from his father, he entered under the name Slim Pickens, and won $400. He kept the name for performing and became a well-known rodeo veteran. After about two decades in the rodeo, he made his first film appearance in an uncredited role as a rodeo cowboy in 1946's "Cowboy", followed by his first actual role in the 1950 Western, "Rocky Mountain". From that point on he worked continuously in films and starting in 1954 on television as well, playing cowboys, sidekicks, villains, and comedic characters, becoming a staple in Westerns (though he didn't only appear in Westerns). In nearly forty years, he amassed 173 film and TV credits, and his other films include "Blazing Saddles", "Major Dundee", "The Apple Dumpling Gang", "The Getaway", "The Cowboys", "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid", "In Harm's Way", "Will Penny", "One-Eyed Jacks”, and "The Ballad of Cable Hogue". His TV work includes recurring roles on "Outlaws", "B. J. and the Bear”, "The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo", "How the West Was Won”, "Bonanza", and many others. He was married once, until his death. Slim Pickens died in 1983 at the age of 64.
One last actor I must mention is James Earl Jones who plays “Lieutenant Lothar Zogg”, the B-52's bombardier. This was Jones’ film debut and he went on to have an illustrious and distinguished career, and is known to most of the world as the voice of “Darth Vader” in the “Star Wars” films and as “Mufasa” in “The Lion King”. In “Dr. Strangelove”, he plays one of the crew aboard the B-52 bomber, and though his part doesn’t involve much, his believability assists in making the world within the film feel authentic. Kubrick knew he wanted Scott to play “Turgidson” and went to see him in onstage in “The Merchant of Venice”. Also in the cast was Jones, and seeking diversity for the crew of the plane (Jewish, Irish, Black, etc), Kubrick offered Jones the role. His part was a bit larger when first cast and was shortened as the film turned into a comedy.
Born in Mississippi to Black, Irish and Native American ancestry, shortly after his birth, his father (Robert Earl Jones) left the family to pursue an acting career. Jones was raised by his maternal grandparents in Michigan, and the trauma of his youth left him with a stutter that was so bad he refused to speak for much of his childhood. A high school teacher encouraged him to write poetry and read it to the class, which helped him begin to speak. He studied drama in college and worked in theater before and after serving in the military. In addition to theater, Jones began appearing on radio and TV , and in 1957 made his Broadway debut as an understudy in "The Egghead". He soon became a well-respected Shakespearian actor, appearing in "Hamlet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" among others, and as leads in "Othello" and "King Lear". It was during this period Kubrick spotted him and offered him a part in "Dr. Strangelove".
Post “Dr. Strangelove”, Jones continued on television, film, and Broadway, and earned Tony and Drama Desk Awards for his starring role in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway production of "The Great White Hope". His reprisal of the role in the 1970 film version earned him his only Best Actor Academy Award nomination to date (becoming the second Black male performer to earn an Oscar nomination – after Sidney Poitier). 1977 brought his voiceover role as "Darth Vader" in "Star Wars: A New Hope", a role he's repeated in subsequent "Star Wars" films, shorts, and TV shows. He's lent his beautiful bass voice to many other films and TV shows as well, including "3rd Rock from the Sun", "Robots", "The Simpsons", “Recess", "Judge Dredd”, and most famously as "Mufasa" in the original 1994 Walt Disney animated "The Lion King", its sequels, shorts, TV movies, and video games. Of his nearly 200 film and TV credits, his other film appearances include films such as "Field of Dreams", "Claudine", "The Greatest", "A Piece of the Action", "The Comedians", "Conan the Barbarian", "Coming to America", and "The Hunt for Red October".
In seven decades of work, to date the very talented Jones has earned two Emmy Awards with eight nominations, a second Tony Award (for 1987's “Fences") plus two more nominations, a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album ("Great American Documents” in 1977) with two additional Grammy nominations, and in 2012, was awarded an Honorary Academy Award for his “legacy of consistent excellence and uncommon versatility” – making him one of the world’s few EGOT winners (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards). His other countless awards and accolades include being inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame, awarded a National Medal of the Arts, a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award, the Kennedy Center Honor, a Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, and in 2022, the Broadway Cort Theatre was renamed the James Earl Jones Theatre. He's been married twice, to actresses Julienne Marie and Cecilia Hart. As of the writing of this post, James Earl Jones is 92 years old.
This week’s jewel of a movie is filled with nonstop irony and wonderfully thought-provoking humor. So get ready to watch one of the most entertaining and best comedies ever made. Enjoy “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”!
This blog is a weekly series (currently biweekly) on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications for every new post. Visit THE MOVIES page to see a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog with family, friends, and on social media, and subscribe so you don’t miss a post. Thanks so much for reading!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
President John F. Kennedy was assassinated just before “Dr. Strangelove” was to open, and feeling it was better to wait, Kubrick cancelled the preview. Kubrick then changed one word of dialogue in the finished film – when “Kong” reads the contents of the survival kit to his crew. The original line was, “Hell, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff”. But because Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Kubrick had Pickens dub the word “Vegas” in place of “Dallas”. If you watch his mouth as he says the line, you can see Pickens' mouth say “Dallas”, while hearing him say “Vegas”.
The most famous image from “Dr. Strangelove” is the final shot of “Kong” riding the nuclear bomb (a giant phallus which climaxes in an orgasmic explosion). A true rodeo veteran, Pickens’ authentic whooping of “Yahoo’s” and arm waving help make the unimaginable ending both chilling and credible. He wasn't a big fan of Kubrick as a director because Kubrick was known for shooting many, many takes. This bomb riding scene alone took over 100 takes until Kubrick was satisfied. But it was worth it. That scene remains among the most famous moments in all of cinema.