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Who is Dr. Strangelove?

06/12/2004. Contributed by Nan Hickman

Buy Dr Strangelove in the USA - or Buy Dr Strangelove in the UK

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Stanley Kubrick's film, Dr.Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love the Bomb, begins with a rolling fog of rumors. A foreign country is plotting weapons of mass destruction, a Doomsday machine, against the United States. Then it segues to beautiful, romantic music and two B-52s having, refueling midair. Is this a good dream or a bad dream?

On election day, November 2nd, Dr.Strangelove was re-released on DVD to celebrate its fortieth anniversary. In these days of preemptive war and mysterious foreign dangers, it's just the trip we need. The film is rated the #3 top American comedy of all time by the American Film Institute and is influential to filmmakers from Spielberg to Tarantino, and even to comic book writers.

People still argue about what kind of film Strangelove is. The film is billed as a "suspense comedy". Kubrick started to make a serious drama about the dangers in a nuclear age, but then believed that the ideas that mankind could destroy itself was so mind-blowing, that it could only be dealt with in a comedy. Strangelove is built on a a wild, dangerous premise that just could've happened, and the tone of it? Think deadpan Twilight Zone with a dry humor like John Stewart. Outrageous in real time.

"Peace is our Profession" In a nutshell, the movie is about a nuclear apocalypse triggered by accident. America and Russia are in the middle of their cold war. It's the high style 60's, and the film is in that luscious black and white reserved for Life magazine photographers. Men in suits were smoothly running the world and smoke and drank coolly during meetings. Our enemies were the Ruskies, a step below our technical prowess. Jets cruised the horizon, providing a routine nuclear shield of protection to a threat that we were above allowing to happen. All very sophisticated.

"The Purity of our Essence..." Meanwhile at a little US air base, Sterling Hayden as General Jack D.Ripper with a nuclear go-code, is fully twisting off. He is privy to a danger that no one else understands, and he jumps out of the chain of command to start a war. Ripper believes that communists "sap and impurify our bodily fluids." Women are in the scheme too, to take his essence -- so he remains celibate. So he triggers unrecallable squads that will nuke the evil Ruskies to protect our essence. Of course, Russia will retaliate in kind, and the world will be destroyed.

It's left to Peter Sellers in three parts (he was a special effect before CGI) to try to save our world. You've got to watch the film if only for Sellers' performance. Peter Seller's a genius. As a terribly polite British exchange officer, Mandrake, he's locked in an office with the crazy Ripper. It's a slow horror for the protocol man to realize the general is a madman, and the world is going to be set on fire. Yet, he has to try to gingerly talk to him without setting him off and try to get the only return code for the bombers. When Ripper puts his arm around Mandrake and calmly explains his theories of the world, it's funny and horrifying at the same time. "Have you ever seen a communist drink a glass of water?" he asks.

My favorite Sellers performance is as the grey manager-type President Merkin Muffley. When I watched Strangelove for the first time, it was half-way through his straight man performance before I realized it was Peter Sellers. Inspector Clouseau? But who else could deliver such a nuanced performance? His late night telephone call to a drunken Russian Premier to talk about the embarrassing mess of bombers en route to Russia, is greatness. It was mostly improvised by Sellers -- and it's like a guilty husband calling an inflammatory wife. He navigates dangerous waters, interrupting the unstable, playboy Dimitri Kissoff from his party, but Muffley doesn't avoid bickering at the end about who is more sorry about the situation. "No, I am more sorry than you are..."

"I won't say we won't get our hair mussed.." The president's military advisor is George C. Scott's General Buck Turgidson. Turgidson is turgid, hale, aggressively optimistic like an NFL coach in a press conference. If you need someone to kick some ass, he's your popup man. Turgidson breaks the news to the president that a US general started a nuclear showdown. But he breaks the news in slow measures, following protocol without great attachment, except to his career. Turgidson's supremely confident that this apocalypse can be handled with a winning body count.

Scott really vies for the funniest man award in this film. Patton? Yes, Scott's Turgidson is funny without being a clown. He's a guy's guy, the original military bulldog who loves his team America. Within minutes, he goes from holding a drink in one hand, and his mistress in another to saving America in a war room meeting. In the middle of the war room meeting, he takes a call from his mistress at the table, like a boy passing notes in class. He is sheepish and endearing to her, finishing with "and say your prayers." He handles all contingencies.

If the bombers can't be recalled, the Russians will have to shoot them down. Some critics label Strangelove as anti-war, but Kubrick's Strangelove is anti-stupidity and anti-arrogance. To save the world, troops are sent in to attack their own general Ripper and to shoot down our errant planes. The military men are presented as decent, ordinary men just doing a job, even if the commands don't make sense. When out of the blue, the US airmen receive Ripper's orders to bomb Russia, it's surprising. James Earl Jones makes his film debut in a role as a airman who questions the orders and wonders if it's a test. And yet they all serve.

"We didn't come this far to dump it in the drink" The bomber's leader, Major T.J. King Kong, played masterfully as a buoyant, cowboy Texan, by Slim Pickens, regrets the commands and when the enormity of it sinks in, he figures the president must have information they don't, and they must do the deed. And dag nab it, they will do it. One of the iconic scenes of Strangelove is Pickens riding the cylinder of the nuclear rocket to explosion, joyously whooping and uniting with his fate like it was something he was made to do. Cowboy zen.

Strangelove's comedy deals with ordinary men dealing with outrageous situations. Seller's characters of Mandrake and Muffley have to save the world, not by a big hero moment, but lots of little moments with small minded or crazy people. His heroes have to handle people who can't operate outside their frame of the world, their theories and obsessions - when the world has shifted dangerously. It's the crazy, "purity" man holding the only return codes or a Russian leader more cranky about his feelings than the world ending, or a soldier who must be persuaded to shoot a coke machine at risk of incurring the wrath of the coca-cola corporation. It's maddening that even when you're making a call to save the world, it still requires fifty-five cents to connect.

"It could be easily accomplished..." As his third part, Sellers plays Dr.Strangelove, in his most over-the-top comedic part, as a brilliant, spastic Nazi weapons scientist who understands the Russian Doomsday device. Here is the icon of so many later comic books: a mad genius, but damaged somehow, in a wheelchair. Underneath his grimacing smile, are crazy forces, pure id, he can hardly contain. Out of cool logic, he slips like Tourette's and spasms "mein fuhrer"!

He understands the terrible situation, on a certain level, and when it gets unsalvageable, Dr. Strangelove points the way: underground sex lairs for the selected seeds of a new race. Ah, now the point emerges.. 10 women to each man. What a way to arrange sexual popularity with that "master race" fetish. He is so overcome with joy at apocalypse that he rises from his wheelchair and walks toward his fantasy of embracing his dictator.

Weird ...nuclear war triggered by one general...communists are poisoning the water..women are stealing men's adolescent repopulation fantasy of 10 women to every man. When Kubrick and Terry Southern wrote the screenplay, they wanted to write the most outrageous, unlikely theories possible for their characters. But 40 years later, we try to piece together the 9/11 terrorists' swirling motivations, and a few things are clear.

Many of the terrorists were indoctrinated that the west was impure, and had to be stopped, and we know that they were told there'd be 72 willing virgins waiting on the other side for them. We know at least some of them held odd ideas about women. One requested that no women attend his funeral, because their presence would be irreverent and impure. Also, Strangelove's fictional nuclear premise was oddly a possible one. Years later, the real Chrome Dome system of the 60's was declassified, and we learned nuclear jets really did cruise the air just waiting on go codes.

But Kubrick's film is not about event prophecy, it's a comedy about how people can be so sure of their controls in the world. The film deals with human nature and the mechanics we create, both in protocol and in programs in our machines. In the end, one man's actions in an automated, military structure wasn't enough to trigger apocalypse. A small group of men cut off from communications was. Machines aren't evil, soldiers aren't evil, and cloying social protocol isn't evil. Procotol and military might are just tools: to save the world or to be used by crazy, obsessed people. We shouldn't look to the existence of these tools as signs of wisdom.

Kubrick's men plan in the extreme, and yet they locked down their options, ironically for their own protection, to deal with a future problem they could not predict. It was a world view outside their own frame that took them by surprise. Clinging to their fetish world views doomed them. They suspected secret plots in predictable patterns against one another, but in their planned cold war, they didn't count on the wildness and oddities in the world. Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove is something wild to wrap your mind around, a mind trip you've got to take: a suspense comedy, Expect the unexpected. Life is fluid.

Nan Hickman

(c) Nan Hickman 2004

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