Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (commonly known as Dr. Strangelove) is a black comedy film directed by Stanley Kubrick, starring Peter Sellers and George C. Scott, and featuring Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn and Slim Pickens. Loosely based by screenwriter Terry Southern on Peter George's Cold War thriller novel Red Alert (aka Two Hours to Doom), Dr. Strangelove satirizes the Cold War and the doctrine of mutual assured destruction.
The story concerns a mentally unstable US Air Force general who orders a first strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, and follows the President of the United States, his advisors, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a Royal Air Force (RAF) officer as they try to recall the bombers to prevent a nuclear apocalypse, as well as the crew of one B-52 as they attempt to deliver their payload.
In 1989, the United States Library of Congress deemed the film "culturally significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. Additionally, it was listed as #3 on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs.
Ripper orders the nuclear armed B-52s of the 843rd Bomb Wing past their failsafe points – where they normally hold awaiting possible orders to proceed – and into Soviet airspace. He also tells the personnel of Burpelson Air Force Base that the US and the USSR have entered into a "shooting war." Although a nuclear attack should require Presidential authority to be initiated, Ripper uses "Plan R", an emergency war plan enabling a senior officer to launch a retaliation strike against the Soviets if the normal chain of command, including the President, has been killed during a sneak attack. According to the movie plot, Plan R was intended to discourage the Soviets from launching a decapitation strike against the President in Washington to disrupt U.S. command and control and stop an American nuclear counterattack.
Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), a RAF exchange officer serving as General Ripper's executive officer, realizes that there has been no attack on the U.S. when he turns on a radio and hears pop music instead of Civil Defense alerts. When Mandrake reveals this to Ripper, and Ripper refuses to recall the wing, Mandrake announces that he will issue the recall on his own authority, but Ripper refuses to disclose the three-letter code necessary for recalling the bombers and locks Mandrake in his office.
In the "War Room" at The Pentagon, Air Force General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) briefs President Merkin Muffley (also played by Sellers). Turgidson tries to convince Muffley to take advantage of the situation to eliminate the Soviets as a threat by launching a full-scale attack. Turgidson believes that the United States is in a superior strategic position, and a first strike against the Soviet Union would destroy 90% of their missiles before they could retaliate, resulting in a victory for the U.S. with "acceptable" American casualties of "no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops... depending on the breaks." He is rebuked when Muffley instead admits the Soviet Ambassador (Peter Bull) to the War Room, contacts Soviet Premier Dmitri Kissoff on the hotline, and insists on giving the Soviets all the information necessary to shoot down the American planes before they can carry out their strikes.
Over the phone, a drunken Kissoff reveals to the Soviet Ambassador that their country has installed an active Doomsday device which will automatically destroy all life on Earth if a nuclear attack were to hit the Soviet Union. The Doomsday Device is operated by a network of computers and has been conceived as the ultimate deterrent: as a safeguard, it cannot be deactivated, or it will set itself off, because its hardware and programs have been configured in such a way that an attempt at its deactivation would be recognized as sabotage.
The President now calls upon Dr. Strangelove (a.k.a. Merkwürdigliebe), a former Nazi and strategy expert (Sellers in his third role). The wheelchair-bound Strangelove is a type of "mad scientist", whose eccentricities include a severe case of alien hand syndrome — his right hand, clad in an ominous black leather glove, occasionally attempts to strangle Strangelove or make the Nazi salute.
Strangelove explains the principles behind the Doomsday Device, which he says is "simple to understand... credible and convincing." He also points out that a Doomsday Device kept secret has no value as a deterrent; the Soviet Ambassador admits that his government had installed it a few days before they were going to announce it publicly to the world, because Kissoff "likes surprises".
U.S. Army troops sent by the President arrive at Burpelson to arrest General Ripper. Because Ripper has warned his men that the enemy might attack disguised as American soldiers, the base's security forces, and Ripper himself, open fire on them. The Army forces win the battle and gain access to the base, and Ripper commits suicide. Colonel "Bat" Guano (Keenan Wynn) shoots his way into Ripper's office, but suspects that Mandrake, whose uniform he does not recognize, is leading a mutiny of "deviated preverts" [sic] and proceeds to arrest him. Mandrake convinces Guano that he has to call the President to tell him the recall code, which he has deduced from Ripper's desk blotter doodles to be based on the initials for the phrases peace on earth and purity of essence. Since office phone connections had been knocked out by the fighting at the base, Mandrake is forced to use a pay phone to try to contact the President. Not having the correct change to place a long-distance call to the Pentagon, Mandrake persuades Guano to shoot up a Coca-Cola vending machine to get the change out of it, and eventually is able to forward the likely code combinations to Strategic Air Command.
The correct recall code, OPE, is issued to the planes, and those that have not been shot down return to base – except for one. Its radio and fuel tanks were damaged by a Soviet anti-aircraft missile, with the result that the plane is neither able to receive the recall code nor to reach its primary or secondary target – where, at the urging of the U.S. President, the Soviets have concentrated all available defenses. On the crew's own initiative, the plane proceeds instead to a target of opportunity, finding it undefended.
As they start their bomb run, the damaged B-52's bomb bay doors jam, and Major T.J."King" Kong (Slim Pickens), aircraft commander, is looking after the problem himself. In forcing them open and releasing one of the nuclear bombs, Kong while sitting on the released bomb, falls out. He rides the bomb to the ground like a rodeo cowboy, whooping and hollering as he plummets to the ground while straddling the bomb.
The bomb explodes, triggering the Doomsday Machine. According to the Soviet ambassador, life on Earth's surface will be extinct in ten months. Dr. Strangelove recommends to the President that a group of about 200,000 people be relocated into a deep mine shaft, where the nuclear fallout cannot reach them, so that the U.S. can be repopulated afterwards. Because of space limitations, Strangelove suggests a gender ratio of "ten females to each male", with the women selected for their sexual characteristics, and the men selected on the basis of their physical strength, intellectual capabilities, and importance in business and government. General Turgidson rants that the Soviets will likely create an even better bunker than the U.S., and argues that America "must not allow a mine shaft gap." Meanwhile, the Soviet Ambassador retreats to a corner of the War Room and starts taking pictures with a spy camera disguised as a pocket watch.
In the concluding scenes, a visibly excited Dr. Strangelove bolts out of his wheelchair, shouting "Mein Führer, I can walk!" Abruptly, the film ends with a barrage of nuclear explosions, accompanied by Vera Lynn's famous World War II song "We'll Meet Again".
Ultimately, Peter Sellers played three of the four roles initially written for him. At the start of production, it was expected that he would also play the role of Air Force Major T. J. "King" Kong, the B-52 Stratofortress aircraft commander, but from the beginning, Sellers was reluctant to do so. He felt his workload was too heavy, and he was concerned that he would not be able to reproduce the Texan accent required for the character of Kong. Kubrick pleaded with him, and asked screenwriter Terry Southern (who had been raised in Texas) to record a tape with Kong's lines spoken in the correct accent. Using Southern's tape, Sellers managed to get the accent right, and started shooting the scenes in the airplane. However, Sellers sprained an ankle and could not play the role, as technical constraints would have confined him to the cramped space of the cockpit set.
Sellers is said to have improvised much of his dialogue during filming, with Kubrick incorporating the ad-libs into the written screenplay as shooting progressed, so that the improvised lines became part of the canonical screenplay, a technique known as retroscripting. Group Captain Lionel Mandrake According to film critic Alexander Walker, the author of biographies of both Sellers and Kubrick, the role of Lionel Mandrake was the easiest of the three for Sellers to play, as he was aided by his experience of mimicking his superiors while engaged in national service in the RAF during World War II. There is also a heavy element of Sellers' friend and occasional co-star Terry-Thomas.President Merkin Muffley For his performance as President Merkin Muffley, Sellers flattened his natural English accent to sound like an American Midwesterner. Sellers drew inspiration for the role from Adlai Stevenson, a former Governor of Illinois, who had been the unsuccessful Democratic nominee in the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections.
In early takes, Sellers faked cold symptoms in order to exaggerate the character's apparent weakness. This caused frequent laughter among the film crew, ruining several takes. This comic portrayal was ultimately deemed to be inappropriate by Kubrick, who felt that Muffley should be shown as a serious character. In subsequent takes, Sellers played the role straight, though the president's cold is still evident in a couple of scenes.Dr. Strangelove The title character, Dr. Strangelove, serves as President Muffley's scientific advisor in the War Room, presumably making use of prior expertise as a Nazi physicist: upon becoming an American citizen, he translated his German surname "Merkwürdigliebe" to the English equivalent. Twice in the film, he accidentally addresses the President as "Mein Führer."
The character is an amalgamation of RAND Corporation strategist Herman Kahn, mathematician and Manhattan Project principal John von Neumann, German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, and Edward Teller, the "father of the hydrogen bomb". After the fact, the character was also compared to the later US Secretary of State and controversial Nobel Peace Prize laureate Henry Kissinger, however, it is unlikely that he served as a basis for Dr. Strangelove as, at the time the film was made, Kissinger was only a Harvard professor who wrote some books on nuclear war strategy, being relatively unknown to the public. Sellers' accent was influenced by that of Austrian-American photographer Weegee, who was hired by Kubrick as a special effects consultant.
Strangelove's appearance echoes the movie villains of the Fritz Lang era in 1920s Germany, in which sinister characters were often portrayed as having some disability. Sellers improvised Dr. Strangelove's lapse into the Nazi salute, borrowing one of Kubrick's black leather gloves for the uncontrollable hand that makes the gesture. Kubrick wore the gloves on the film set in order to avoid being burned when handling hot lights, and Sellers found them to be especially menacing.
Fellow actor James Earl Jones recalls, "He was Major Kong on and off the set—he didn't change a thing—his temperament, his language, his behavior." According to some sources, the British film crew, unaware that that was the way he really behaved, thought Pickens was a method actor, and his mannerisms were his way of "finding" his performance for the character. Pickens was not told that the movie was a comedy and was only given the scenes he was in and not the entire script, in order to get him to play it "straight".
Kubrick biographer John Baxter further explains in the documentary Inside the Making of Dr. Strangelove:
As it turns out, Slim Pickens had never left the United States. He had to hurry and get his first passport. He arrived on the set, and somebody said, "Gosh, he's arrived in costume!," not realizing that that's how he always dressed... with the cowboy hat and the fringed jacket and the cowboy boots—and that he wasn't putting on the character—that's the way he talked.
Pickens, who had previously played only minor supporting and character roles, stated that his appearance as Maj. Kong greatly improved his career. He would later comment, "After Dr. Strangelove the roles, the dressing rooms and the checks all started getting bigger."
During the filming, Stanley Kubrick and George C. Scott had differences of opinions regarding certain scenes. However, Kubrick got Scott to conform based largely upon his ability to routinely beat Scott at chess, which they played frequently on the set, and was no easy task as Scott was a keen chess player. Scott later said that while he and Kubrick may not have always seen eye-to-eye, he respected Kubrick immensely based on his skill at chess.
The character is said to be loosely based on Air Force General Curtis LeMay.
Kubrick started with nothing but a vague idea to make a thriller about a nuclear accident, building on the widespread Cold War fear for survival. While doing in-depth research for the planned film, Kubrick gradually became aware of the subtle and unstable "balance of terror" existing between nuclear powers and its intrinsically paradoxical character. At Kubrick's request, Alistair Buchan (the head of the Institute for Strategic Studies), recommended the thriller novel Red Alert (1958) by Peter George. Kubrick was impressed with the book, which had also been praised by game theorist and future Nobel Prize in Economics winner Thomas Schelling in an article written for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and reprinted in The Observer, and immediately bought the film rights.
Kubrick, in collaboration with George, started work on writing a screenplay based on the book. While writing the screenplay, they benefited from some brief consultations with Schelling and, later, Herman Kahn. In following the tone of the book, Stanley Kubrick originally intended to film the story as a serious drama. However, as he later explained during interviews, the comedy inherent in the idea of mutual assured destruction became apparent as he was writing the first draft of the film's script. Kubrick stated:
My idea of doing it as a nightmare comedy came in the early weeks of working on the screenplay. I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question.
After deciding to turn the film into a black comedy, Kubrick brought in Terry Southern as a co-writer. The choice was influenced by reading Southern's comic novel The Magic Christian (1959), which Kubrick had received as a gift from Peter Sellers. Sellers is also sometimes considered an uncredited co-writer, as he changed many lines by way of improvisation.
For the War Room, Ken Adam first designed a two level set which Kubrick initially liked, only to decide later that it was not what he wanted. Adam next began work on the design that was used in the film, an expressionist set that was compared with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Fritz Lang's Metropolis. It was an enormous concrete room (130 feet long and wide, with a high ceiling) suggesting a bomb shelter, with a triangular shape (based on Kubrick's idea that this particular shape would prove the most resistant against an explosion). One side of the room was covered with gigantic strategic maps reflecting in a shiny black floor inspired by the dance scenes in old Fred Astaire films. In the middle of the room there was a large circular table lit from above by a circle of lamps, suggesting a poker table. Kubrick insisted that the table be covered with green baize (although this could not be seen in the black and white film) to reinforce the actors' impression that they are playing 'a game of poker for the fate of the world.' Kubrick asked Adam to build the set ceiling in concrete to force the director of photography to use only the on-set lights from the circle of lamps. Moreover, each lamp in the circle of lights was carefully placed and tested until Kubrick was happy with the result.
Lacking cooperation from The Pentagon in the making of the film, the set designers reconstructed the cockpit to the best of their ability by comparing the cockpit of a B-29 Superfortress and a single photograph of the cockpit of a B-52, and relating this to the geometry of the B-52's fuselage. The B-52 was state-of-the-art in the 1960s, and its cockpit was off-limits to the film crew. When some United States Air Force personnel were invited to view the reconstructed B-52 cockpit, they said that "it was absolutely correct, even to the little black box which was the CRM." It was so accurate that Kubrick was concerned whether Ken Adam's production design team had done all of their research legally, fearing a possible investigation by the FBI.
In several shots of the B-52 flying over the polar ice en route to Russia, the shadow of the actual camera plane, a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, is visible on the snow below. The B-52 was a model composited into the arctic footage which was sped up to create a sense of jet speed. Home movie footage included in Inside the Making of Dr. Strangelove on the 2001 Special Edition DVD release of the film show clips of the Fortress with a cursive "Dr. Strangelove" painted over the rear entry hatch on the right side of the fuselage.
The polar ice footage was later tinted and used in the "light show" segment of Kubrick's 2001.
During the filming of Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick learned that Fail-Safe, a film with a similar theme, was being produced. Although Fail-Safe was to be an ultra-realistic thriller, Kubrick feared that its overall plot resemblances would damage Strangelove's box office potential, especially if it were to be released first. Indeed, the novel Fail-Safe (on which the film of the same name is based) is so similar to Red Alert that Peter George sued on charges of plagiarism and settled out of court. What worried Kubrick the most about Fail-Safe was that it boasted an acclaimed director, Sidney Lumet, and first-rate dramatic actors, Henry Fonda as the American President and Walter Matthau as the bold ex-Nazi advisor to the Pentagon, Professor Groeteschele. Kubrick decided that it would be in his film's best interests for a legal wrench to be thrown into the gears of the Fail-Safe production. Director Sidney Lumet recalls in the documentary, Inside the Making of Dr. Strangelove:
We started casting. Fonda was already set... which of course meant a big commitment in terms of money. I was set, Walter [Bernstein, the screenwriter] was set... And suddenly, this lawsuit arrived, filed by Stanley Kubrick and Columbia Pictures.
Kubrick tried to halt production on Fail-Safe by arguing that its own 1960 source novel of the same name had been plagiarized from Peter George's Red Alert, to which Kubrick himself owned the creative rights. Also, he pointed out the unmistakable similarities in intentions between the characters Groeteschele and Strangelove. The plan ended up working exactly as Kubrick intended; Fail-Safe opened a full eight months behind Dr. Strangelove to critical acclaim, but mediocre box office results.
Also released in 1964 was Paramount Pictures' Seven Days in May. The plot involves a coup attempt by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to prevent the President of the United States from signing a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviets, who, they believe, cannot be trusted.
The end of the film shows Dr. Strangelove exclaiming "Mein Führer, I can walk!" before cutting to footage of nuclear explosions, with Vera Lynn singing "We'll Meet Again". But it was originally intended that the film would end with everyone in the War Room involved in a pie fight, and this scene was filmed.
Accounts vary as to why the pie fight was cut. In a 1969 interview, Kubrick said: "I decided it was farce and not consistent with the satiric tone of the rest of the film." Alexander Walker observed that "the cream pies were flying around so thickly that people lost definition, and you couldn't really say whom you were looking at." Nile Southern, son of screenwriter Terry Southern, suggests that the fight was intended to be less jovial. "Since they were laughing, it was unusable, because instead of having that totally black, which would have been amazing, like, this blizzard, which in a sense is metaphorical for all of the missiles that are coming, as well, you just have these guys having a good old time. So, as Kubrick later said, 'it was a disaster of Homeric proportions.'"
Peter Sellers, in a biographic documentary, was credited with suggesting the Vera Lynn music for the ending.
Additionally, one line by Slim Pickens – "a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff" – was dubbed to change "Dallas" to "Vegas"; Dallas being the city where Kennedy was killed. The original reference to Dallas survives in some dubbed foreign versions of the film, such as the French release.
The pie-fight scene included General Turgidson exclaiming, "Gentlemen! Our gallant young president has been struck down in his prime!" after Muffley takes a pie in the face, and editor Anthony Harvey states that "[the scene] would have stayed, except that Columbia Pictures were horrified, and thought it would offend the president's family."
The character of Dr. Strangelove is laced with innuendo, even aside from his suggestive name. He is the character responsible for creating fantasies of a polygamous post-apocalyptic society with a ratio of "ten females to each male", suggesting Nazi efforts like the Lebensborn project.
General Jack D. Ripper is named after Jack the Ripper, the infamous serial killer who murdered prostitutes in London in the late 1880s. General Ripper's primary concern about Communism is his assertion that water fluoridation is "a Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids," of which he was made aware when his "loss of essence" during sexual intercourse greatly fatigued him. He continues to explain that women "seek the life essence" and then states, "I do not avoid women but... I do deny them my essence". Here, "essence" is used as a synonym or euphemism for "semen". Ripper's sexual problems are further mirrored in the difficulties of the B-52's crew in finally dropping the bomb; after all the effort of evading Russian attacks and bringing the plane to its target, and as the bombardier goes through the complex ritual "foreplay" of preparing and arming the bomb for use, all is rendered impotent at the crucial moment when the bomb doors fail to open.
Many characters' names involve sexual wordplay. Group Captain Lionel Mandrake's last name refers to the Mandrake plant, which has mythical fertility properties. The Soviet Ambassador Alexei de Sadesky is named for the Marquis de Sade, and Premier Dmitri Kisov's last name is pronounced "Kissoff"; a pun on "kiss off". Major "King" Kong rides a phallic-looking H-bomb, which explodes as he approaches the "target of opportunity", when they are unable to reach the primary target, Laputa (in Spanish: la puta means "the whore"). President Merkin Muffley's first and last name each crudely imply that he is a "pussy" by nature, since a merkin is a female pubic wig used mainly by prostitutes in the 18th century, and muff (pubic hair) refers to the area where the wig is applied. The name of General Buck Turgidson is derived from turgid, a biological term meaning full of fluid to the point of hardness, as in an erection, applied to "buck" as an explicit symbol of virility. While not overtly sexual, Colonel "Bat" Guano's name literally refers to the feces of bats. The term bat-shit is also a slang word for insanity.
There is only one female character in the film: General Turgidson's secretary, played by Tracy Reed. She appears in a small bedroom with twin beds and a sun lamp, wearing a bikini swimsuit. The General, when he appears from the bathroom, also wears bathing trunks. Although she tells a caller that she and the General are dealing with paperwork, the clear implication is that they have a sexual relationship. In fact, in a later phone call, Turgidson tells her that he does not love her only for her sexual favors, and that he intends to make her his wife. Reed also features as the Playboy centerfold that Major Kong is looking at when he first appears. This photograph includes the pun of her buttocks concealed by a copy of Foreign Affairs; thus Tracy Reed was billed as "Miss Foreign Affairs".
The portrayals of Ripper and Turgidson are usually compared to the fiery personality of Air Force general Curtis LeMay and his direct subordinates in the Strategic Air Command who openly lobbied for war with the Soviet Union.
Roger Ebert has Dr. Strangelove in his list of Great Movies, saying it is 'arguably the best political satire of the century.' It is also rated as the fifth greatest film – the highest rated comedy – in Sight & Sound’s directors’ poll
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Kubrick himself won two awards for best director, from the New York Film Critics Circle and the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists, and was nominated for one by the Directors Guild of America.