It can be difficult for films whose theme is a contemporary political or social issue to remain relevant and watchable. They become dated and ridiculous to future generations of viewers. However, that is not the case for Doctor Strangelove, which can still be enjoyed as a comedy or as a suspense film, and which deals with the concerns of the Cold War period in such a creative way that it does not lose appeal. The picture captures the tension of the era so that it can be clearly understood by a new generation; the skilful and bizarre humour, and Stanley Kubrick’s distinctive technique, make it as watchable as ever.
In 1964, the year the film was released, nuclear combat and the threat of “The Bomb” was a common subject of serious discussion. Soviet/U.S. conflicts and nuclear capabilities made the complete destruction of the planet a genuine possibility. Kubrick took the nuclear threat seriously, read extensively on the subject, and devised a dramatic thriller based on a possible scenario in which nuclear warheads are detonated through a series of high-level errors.
The essential story tells of the commander of an American military base who becomes mentally unstable and finds a way to bypass the usual channels and order a fleet of military jets to drop nuclear missiles, unprovoked, on Soviet targets, and to block efforts to recall the planes. What follows is a tense situation in which U.S. officials attempt to prevent the attack and the inevitable retaliation, which becomes more critical when it is revealed that the Soviet Union has in place a device which will cause a massive nuclear explosion in response to any direct attack, an explosion which will destroy all animal life on earth.
Doctor Strangelove is Kubrick’s only comedy, and even then, it arrived as something of an accident. The film was originally meant to be a drama, loosely based on a suspense novel called Red Alert. While working on the first draft of the script with a co-writer, some amusing aspects of the situation began to occur to both of them. Kubrick made the surprising decision to turn the story into a satirical comedy; the result is the darkly funny film we now know as Doctor Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
While the new script is frankly and broadly humorous, it kept the basic outline of the original story, and the ominous sense of looming threat is not lost, even in the funniest moments. In fact, it is sometimes the contrast between the dire circumstances and the buffoonery and petty squabbling of the characters that makes the danger so striking. The disclaimer from the U.S. Air Force, which precedes the actual film, is an interesting contrast to the comedic nature of the movie.
As fans of the film will remember, sexual concerns are used ironically throughout the story, as characters are either motivated or distracted by their own sexual issues when making life or death decisions. The common accusation that war derives from unconscious sexual rivalry or machismo is openly exploited to the point of farce. Most significant is the scene in which a military general, with the suggestive name of Turgidson, is notified of the nuclear danger while in the middle of a tryst with his secretary; the famous scene of a pilot falling to earth, whooping with excitement, straddling a huge, phallic nuclear missile; and the insane commander who gave the orders to drop nuclear weapons, whose paranoia turns out to have derived from a traumatic experience with impotence.
The cast was brilliantly chosen. Much of Peter Sellers’ work in Doctor Strangelove, as three distinct characters, was ad-lib and it is his eccentric portrayals – especially of the weird and sinister title character – that are most memorable. George C. Scott is perfect as the thick-headed, jingoistic General Turgidson. American actor Sterling Hayden reportedly came out of retirement to appear in the film and does a wonderful turn as the dangerously mad Commander Ripper.
The role of Major Kong, the pilot who succeeds in dropping the deadly missile, was cast late in the process, as no British actors could replicate the Texas accent Kubrick wanted, or bring out the character he envisioned. Kubrick solved this problem by flying Western star and former cowboy Slim Pickens in from Texas and advising him to simply be himself. The result was a kind of folksy weirdness that has never been replicated, certainly not in a film about global annihilation.
This is a movie whose popularity and impact disqualifies it as an indie, but it is too distinctive to be considered a standard Hollywood classic. It has made its mark: images, events, and lines of script from Doctor Strangelove are still used in reference to war and politics. Kubrick fans who have not seen Doctor Strangelove in many years will enjoy a fresh viewing, and anyone who is still unfamiliar with the film would do well to seek out this unusual bit of movie history.