“Just a little… funny.” Dr. Strangelove on its 50th anniversary.

Dr Strangelove

By Simon Miraudo
January 29, 2014

Stanley Kubrick‘s blistering Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb opened on January 29, 1964, simultaneously screening in New York, London, and Toronto. Despite there being no evidence to prove as much, I have a sneaking suspicion the usually-reasonable Canadian audiences enjoyed it most. In the States, at least, it was accused by some of being Soviet propaganda. There were also those who thought its premise was implausible at best and actively evil at worst. For Kubrick, who had previously unleashed Lolita on the world, and within the decade would begin work on A Clockwork Orange, this backlash probably seemed quaint. Strangelove was as close as he got to making ‘a lark’ – why was everyone freaking out?

Concerning a Yankee air force general going rogue and inciting a nuclear apocalypse while the President and his incompetent advisers fret about, basically achieving nothing, the flick is hardly an “Oo-rah!” celebration of American excellence. Based on Peter George’s novel Red Alert – as loosely as something can be while still being classified as an ‘adaptation’ – Kubrick’s grand farce stars Peter Sellers, offering up three gargantuan comic performances for the price of one: the diplomatic-to-a-fault President Merkin Muffley; the flustered RAF captain Lionel Mandrake, forced to negotiate with the crazed, nuke-firing Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden); and, of course, Dr. Strangelove, the wheelchair-bound ex-Nazi consultant to the President with a not-so-secret lust for nuclear winters.

Dr Strangelove

Kubrick’s black comedy must have seemed like the most inappropriate bucket of cold water when it was released, just two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis and mere months after the Kennedy assassination. (In fact, we’re only celebrating the pic’s b’day on January 29, 1964 because its original date – November 22, 1963 – coincided with JFK’s fateful visit to Dallas. The glitzy Hollywood premiere was cancelled, for obvious reasons.) That said, it was a box office success in the U.S., and went on to nab a number of Oscar and BAFTA nominations (including, at the latter academy’s ceremony, wins for Best British Film and Best Film From Any Source, whatever that means). Not everyone was scared away by Kubrick’s devilishly dark view of the world.

So, here we are, fifty years later, writing articles about how good Dr. Strangelove is even today; a genuine achievement not guaranteed to any film. Why do we celebrate this comedy and not, say, the 1964 rom-com Father Goose (which, unlike Dr. Strangelove, actually won an Academy Award, for Best Original Screenplay, and, impossibly, has an even sillier title)? It lives in a genre that ages quickly, with comic stylings swiftly moving in and out of fashion as the years pass. Consider, in contrast, the way modern horrors, espionage thrillers, musicals, and romances often look backwards for inspiration. What is it that makes Dr. Strangelove stand up?

Dr Strangelove

Well, it’s easy – and accurate – to thank the picture’s simple pleasures. Kubrick and co-writer Terry Southern indulge in a series of outlandish gags that would feel welcome in the works of Monty Python or the Zucker brothers. The opening credits montage is a balletic display of one plane refuelling another, scored so romantically it seems like some kind of giant sky-high sex scene. Though the final sequence – a pie fight in the cavernous War Room – was famously cut, it’s replaced with an even odder closing joke: Dr. Strangelove becoming so aroused by the prospect of repopulating the planet he regains the ability to walk. Then there’s all the hilarious stuff in between those two bits. (What, you want me to list everything here? Watch the thing yourself!) We also mustn’t ignore the magic of a good, silly name: alongside Merkin Muffley and Dr Strangelove is Buck Turgidson (played by a manic George C. Scott), Colonel Bat Guano, and Lieutenant Lothar Zogg, to mention just a few. All of that amounts to a damn funny feature, but doesn’t entirely explain why Dr. Strangelove holds up in 2014.

Satire doesn’t just decimate its target by making it seem ridiculous; it’s most powerful weapon might be the way in which it’s able to normalise it; to make it bland and banal. In 1964, a time of civil unrest and constant, impending dread, Kubrick dared to joke about it all, presenting the end-of-days as the result of bureaucratic roadblocks, conversational misunderstandings, and inactive diplomats. The picture’s ingenious (largely improvised) centrepiece sees Sellers’ Muffley break the bad news to tipsy Soviet premier Dimitri over the phone, informing him that one of their generals has gone “just a little… funny” and ordered a nuclear strike on Russia, as awkwardly and tentatively as someone would while revealing they’ve accidentally scratched a friend’s car.

Dr Strangelove

A movie making light of what was, at the time, a new and terrifying potential reality, might have felt pretty jarring. Fifty years later, ‘jarring’ is not a word we’d use to describe it. Neither is ‘shocking’. We’ve lived through enough doomsday scenarios to practically be deadened by them. We’re used to constant, impending doom. Maybe it would be wrong to say we’re fine with it. Still, we probably wouldn’t be surprised if nukes rained down on us tomorrow, with Slim Pickens‘ Major Kong astride one humongous H-bomb. Because of its uncanny insight and frighteningly prescient satirical edge, Dr. Strangelove is a document of its time and also timeless. It held onto its relevancy by being bitter, cynical, and thinking absolutely the worst of people. Sometimes the funniest, most uncomfortably truthful films do just that.

5/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s archive of reviews.

Dr. Strangelove is available on DVD.

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