Armageddon time: how Stanley Kubrick made us laugh at the annihilation of the human race

Re-issued in cinemas next week some 55 years after its initial theatrical run, Dr Strangelove is arguably the most improbable comedy ever made

 

Dr Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick’s biting cold war satire which is re-issued in cinemas next week some 55 years after its initial theatrical run, is arguably the most improbable comedy ever made.

Listed as number three on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years . . . 100 Laughs list, the film is a rich seam of quotable zingers: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”

It features Peter Sellers in three comedic roles and contains more double entendres than the average contemporaneous Carry On movie.

Even Kubrick owned up to the smut. In response to a fan letter received from an academic at Cornell University, Kubrick wrote: “Seriously, you are the first one who seems to have noticed the sexual framework from intromission (the planes going in) to the last spasm (Kong’s ride down and detonation at target).”

The sexual innuendo serves a serious purpose in a film featuring a title character who suggests that men of power can sit out the century of radiation by retreating underground accompanied “by, say, 10 females to each male”, not to mention a coda that features the world getting, well, f**ked

The additional inclusion of names such as Mandrake (nature’s viagra) and Merkin Muffley make for a surprising ratio of dirty jokes in a film that builds toward nuclear apocalypse.

Critics alarmed

Not everyone was convinced those things should go together.

Writing in the New York Times in 1964, the critic Bosley Crowther was unamused: “Stanley Kubrick’s new film, called “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” is beyond any question the most shattering sick joke I’ve ever come across . . . Somehow, to me, it isn’t funny. It is malefic and sick.” Philip K Scheuer at the Los Angeles Times dismissed the picture as “. . . an evil thing about an evil thing”.

Other critics were alarmed by the film’s still sharp takedown of military machismo and cold war paranoia. “I can quote a big newspaper without naming it,” says Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s brother-in-law and a producer on Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut. “They said: all of the Russian gold couldn’t have bought better anti-American propaganda than Kubrick did for free of charge with this film.”

Matthew Wells, the director of Stanley Kubrick Considers the Bomb, a new short documentary produced to accompany the new 4K restoration of Dr Strangelove, acknowledges the film’s audacious tone.

“The audiences watching this film on release have just lived through the Berlin Crisis, have just lived through the Cuban missile crisis,” says Wells. “They were very used to the idea that at the push of the button, the world could end. It was a live issue and for Dr Strangelove to come along and approach that subject as comedy was really bold in a way then maybe we’ve lost touch with.”

Kubrick was, according to his daughter, Katharina Kubrick, “terrified” by the potential for nuclear war, but careful not to convey his anxiety to his family. The culture of the cold war made it inescapable, regardless.

“He didn’t talk about that stuff to us because he didn’t want to transfer his real fears onto small children,” she recalls. “But I do remember being at school, especially when I was in America, and we were literally told to wear tinfoil hats and to dive under the desk. Which was ridiculous.”

Nightmare themes

In Stanley Kubrick Considers the Bomb, an archival interview underscores the director’s fears: “The atomic bomb is as much of an abstraction as you can possibly have,” he says. “It’s as abstract as that you know that someday you’ll die, and you do an excellent job of denying it, psychologically. I would say, in the minds of most people, it’s less interesting than city government.”

He remained engaged with the subject until his death in 1999. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly in 1991, he returned to the subject: “The nightmare themes portrayed in Dr Strangelove will be with us as long as we have nuclear weapons. Many experts believe the most likely nuclear war might arise from accident, miscalculation, or madness, which might then go quickly out of control due to the problems of authenticating what each side is saying or doing, and the sudden failure of communications, probably caused by the radiation effects of nuclear explosions.”

Dr Strangelove concerns a mad American SAC general named Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden) who deliberately launches an attack on the Soviet Union, having become consumed by the crackpot idea that “fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face”. (Hayden was a good call: he joined the Communist Party having returned from duties for the Office of Special Services during the second World War.)

Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, a British officer (Peter Sellers), realises that Ripper has dispatched bombers without authorisation, but he is powerless to intervene without the prerequisite military code. Meanwhile, in the War Room, the miffed President of the United States, Merkin Muffley (also Sellers) meets with various officials including the hawkish Air Force general, Buck Turgidson (George C Scott), the Soviet ambassador, Alexi de Sadesky (Peter Bull), and the sinister Nazi architect of the USA’s nuclear programme, Dr Strangelove (Sellers again.)

The Soviet ambassador has some bad news: the Soviet Union has created a doomsday machine, which consists of many buried bombs jacketed with “cobalt-thorium G” connected to a computer network set to detonate them automatically should any nuclear attack strike the country. Unless, the bombers dispatched by Ripper can be stopped, all animal life will be destroyed and the planet will become uninhabitable for 93 years.

Untrue claims

Dr Strangelove opens with a scroll: “It is the stated 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”. Kubrick knew both these claims to be untrue.

For one thing, the character of Strangelove is a composite The character was modelled chiefly after rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun, the Manhattan Project’s John von Neumann, hydrogen bomb designer Edward Teller, and RAND Corporation military strategist Herman Kahn. The latter is directly quoted in the film and thought he should get royalties.

In Almost Everything in Dr Strangelove Was True, a 2014 essay for the New Yorker written by Eric Schlosser, the author notes that, upon taking office, John F Kennedy “. . . was surprised to learn [that] a subordinate commander faced with a substantial military action”could start the thermonuclear holocaust on his own initiative if he could not reach you.”

Kennedy and his national-security advisers sought to encode the NATO stockpile of approximately three thousand American nuclear weapons stored in Europe, but the Air Force and the Navy refused to add code switches to the weapons in their custody, thus making the idea of a rogue commander all too chillingly plausible.

“When Strangelove was released,” says Schlosser. “There were all these articles about how implausible it was, how nothing like this could ever occur. And that was a lie. There were no locks on the bombs. There were no controls on them. When President Kennedy took office he didn’t know that the authority to use nuclear weapons had secretly been granted to low level commanders. Kubrick looked really closely at our nuclear war plan. He spoke to a lot of people in the military. And he was correct in assuming that we could have a nuclear war by accident.”

Daniel Ellsberg, a nuclear adviser on the Pentagon’s Scientific Advisory Committee during the 1960s, concurs with Schlosser’s assessment. Speaking to the Geek’s Guide to The Galaxy podcast last year, he described Dr Strangelove as a documentary: “Everything in that film existed as an operational reality at the time . . . “If (the US) had followed their actual plans, and they did what they were supposed to do under wartime contingency, it would have destroyed nearly all human life.”

Memorable set

Katharina Kubrick, the director’s eldest daughter was 9-years-old when she started to frequent the striking War Room set designed by Ken Adam, a set Steven Spielberg has called “the best movie set ever designed”.

“I would go with my mum after school,” she recalls. “We would always go and visit the sets and Ken Adam’s War Room was the most memorable set. It had a very shiny black floor and everyone was given felt shoes so that we didn’t scratch it. Somewhere, there’s a photo of my mother and I sitting on the table and smiling. It was great fun because there was always stuff going on we made friends with the actors.”

Strangelove wasn’t supposed to be a comedy. It was planned to be a thriller based on a novel by RAF officer Peter George, which was published in the US as Red Alert, in the UK as Two Hours To Doom under the pseudonym Peter Bryant. By the time Kubrick had finished his first draft, however, the absurdities underpinning mutually assured destruction nudged the project toward comedy.

Kubrick brought in the comic author Terry Southern as a co-writer in 1962. Casting pushed the comedy further. Columbia Pictures had initially agreed to finance the film if Peter Sellers played four major roles. A pre-production telegram from Sellers, stating that “ . . . there is no way, repeat, no way, I can play the Texas pilot, ‘Major King Kong.’ I have a complete block against that accent” made way for Slim Pickens, a horse opera veteran. (John Wayne, who was the first choice, reputedly never answered Kubrick’s calls and Bonanza star John Blocker’s agent sent a telegram that read: “Thanks a lot, but the material is too pinko for Dan. Or anyone else we know for that matter.”) Alternative accounts claim that Sellers had to pull out due to a leg injury,

“I think Peter Sellers just thought there was one role too many,” says Katharina Kubrick. “And Slim Pickens was fantastic. I remember him as a delightful man. A sweetie pie. He had been a rodeo rider and a stunt man and he was practically made of steel he had broken so many bones. I think it was very fortunate that Peter didn’t play that role because Slim Pickens brought a wonderful humour. It wouldn’t have nearly nearly as effective without him.”

Twenty years after Kubrick’s death, Katharina believes the film was rather high in the Kubrick pantheon by her father’s own estimation.

“As you know he tackled most genres and he always considered it to be a very important film,” she says.”It’s been consistently relevant since it was made. He was very, very pleased with Ken Adam’s set. He absolutely loved working with Peter Sellers and they had already made Lolita together. I think he was very proud of it. Famously, it was supposed to end with a pie fight sequence which he decided was far too slapstick and irrelevant. After that, he wouldn’t change a thing.”

Dr Strangelove is re-released on May 17th

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