Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is one of my favorite films, and actually feels terrifyingly apropos as to what’s happening in the world today. Call it what you will: a dark comedy, a political satire, a macabre Cold War masterpiece. Any of those apply, but there are a couple of things that make this film essential viewing. It is incredibly funny and it is incredibly thoughtful. While the film’s director Stanley Kubrick had already made a strong name for himself in Hollywood by directing the Oscar nominated Spartacus, as well as critically acclaimed films like Paths of Glory and Lolita, it was Dr. Strangelove that took Kubrick to the next level. He would follow it up with 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange and those three films in succession would help to solidify Kubrick as one of the greatest and most innovative film makers in Hollywood.
Why it’s essential
Dr. Strangelove is one of the greatest pieces of satire of all time, and calls into question the idea of peace through strength. It is one of the funniest movies ever made, and you don’t have to just take my word for it, as AFI has it at #3 on it’s list of 100 years, 100 laughs trailing only Tootsie and Some Like it Hot. This is one of those movies that makes you laugh in moments that you know you shouldn’t be laughing at, like the iconic moment where Colonel Kong (Slim Pickens) waves his hat and yells, “Yahoo!” as he rides the nuclear bomb (called “Hi There!”) down to his death, and the likely destruction of all mankind. This movie is so funny that there’s even a scene where one of the actors has to stifle a laugh. Peter Sellers, one of the great comedic actors of the 20th Century plays 3 roles, the sophisticated yet awkward Lt. Mandrake, who first discovers that General Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has gone insane and ordered his bomber wing to attack their targets inside the Soviet Union. Sellers also plays Merkin Muffley, the President of the United States, and he plays him as a paper tiger weakling who is talks tough early on, but as the situation spirals out of control we see that this man is in way over his head. (Sound familiar?) Finally Sellers also plays the title role, a crippled Nazi scientist who is now in the employ of the United States military and is an advisor to the president. Let that sentence sink in for a moment.
One of the things that made Sellers so great was that he was not only the great physical comedian that many people are familiar with from him starring as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau from The Pink Panther series, but he was also brilliant at creating more subtle and more cerebral comedy. Kubrick was famous for demanding that his actors stay on script. Sellers was one of the few actors that he let riff, and there are a couple of scenes in Dr. Strangelove where Sellers brings the house down, both like here with his physical comedy, and here with his more cerebral comedy.
Another thing that’s brilliant about this film is the surprising comedic performances from two actors not necessarily known for their comedic chops. George C. Scott was about as serious an actor that ever lived. He made a career out of playing tough men in tough situations and responding in tough ways. Other than the animated The Rescuers Down Under in which he played the villain McLeach, I can’t think of another comedic role that he played, but comedy clearly came very naturally to him. In Dr. Strangelove he plays General Buck Turgidson, a staunch anti-communist, sexist brute who is as fanatical about the military as he is about national security. His performance in this film is boisterous and filled with extreme facial expressions and over the top pantomime. When you compare this role to, say to Bert Gordon, the quietly intense pool shark in The Hustler which he played just two years earlier, you can see the incredible range that he had. However there were a lot more Gordons than there were Turgidsons over the course of George C. Scott’s career, but his performance in Dr. Strangelove is right up there with Sellers in terms of how funny it is, and it’s really too bad that he didn’t do more comedy throughout the rest of his career.
The other actor that I’m referring to is Sterling Hayden, who most people will remember as the crooked cop who punches Michael Corleone in The Godfather. He also starred in one of Kubrick’s very early films, The Killing, as an ex-con trying to pull a heist on a horse racing track. In Dr. Strangelove he did exactly the opposite of what Scott did in that Hayden played his character absolutely straight. There were no pratfalls, no garish facial expressions, and ironically he was the character who went insane. He was flat emotionally and tonally, and that was exactly the right way to play that character. It was his dialogue and the straight manner in which he delivered his insane lines about our precious fluids and how communist infiltration was threatening our essence, and he played this straight insanity opposite Sellers’ Mandrake who was manically trying to get Ripper to divulge the secret code that could call of the attack. The juxtaposition and the irony of these performances is a full-on tutorial on compelling story telling. We have the calm, measured, calculating character who has lost his mind and is unleashing Armageddon against the frantic, frenetic, nervous sane character who is trying to stop him. That tension does what not every comedy is able to do and that’s create drama.
Ultimately, that is what makes Dr. Strangelove such a great film and what has allowed it to stand the test of time. It’s a comedy that is loaded with tension and drama. One of the techniques to creating great drama is giving your characters obstacles to overcome, and Kubrick and co-writers Terry Southern and Peter George did was create obstacles for their characters at every turn. There are far too many obstacles in this film to do any of them justice by going through the list, but the obstacles in this film do a ton to create not only drama, but a lot of the comedy as well. In fact, I would say that the drama and the comedy go hand in hand in this film precisely because they’re co-created by the obstacles that have been organically put into the script.
Overall, this is a superb film. It is a comedy that is loaded with drama. It takes perhaps the most serious topic off the 20th Century and used it as a back drop to create one of the 20th Century’s funniest films. It has actors that were best known for their dramatic roles and for bringing gravitas to the screen in the films they’ve been in, and yet gave among their greatest performances in this bitingly satirical dark comedy. Dr. Strangelove is a film fan’s film and should be essential viewing to any one who is a fan of cinema.