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Non-Review Review: Dr. Strangelove (Or: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)

What I’m about to say is grounds for excommunication from the church of film geekdom, but I am not a huge Stanley Kubrick fan. I admire and appreciate his work from a technical level and there are a few of his films I would credit as genuine classics – and yet there are others that I am markedly indifferent to. Cinematic purists will balk when I suggest The Shining – that most commercially Hollywood production – is my favourite of Kubrick’s film. Dr. Strangelove (Or: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) is widely regarded as a classic of Cold War cinema, but I must concede that I can’t help but feel a little disconnected from it. Of course quite a large portion of the film (particularly the broader comedy) is still hilarious, but the film refers to a world that I never really knew – I was born in the twilight of the Soviet Union, disconnected from this heated level of nuclear paranoia.    

There's nothing strange about the love for this film...

There’s no doubting that Kubrick’s Cold War black comedy is iconic. Hell, even people who have never seen the film can likely point to it as the source of quotes like “Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here! It’s the War Room!” or to Peter Sellers’ portrayal of the mangled Nazi scientist. The movie’s portrayal of the White House’s War Room is perhaps the defining image of the institution and everyone is familiar with the image of an airforce pilot straddling a nuclear bomb. Hell, even the “doomsday device” that the movie postulated for the Soviet Union became a grim reality itself twenty years later.    

Of course, I’m familiar with the Cold War and its history – as well as the ideological conflict’s height in the early sixties. The film is undoubtedly a wonderfully successful attempt to capture the zeitgeist in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis (and, indeed, the film was so timely that the assassination of John F. Kennedy delayed its release – it was felt “too soon” and the movie itself had be altered to avoid causing offense in the wake of the President’s death). The timeliness of the film can best be judged by the fact that it found itself released alongside Failsafe, a movie playing the same idea basically straight (and remade live for television a few years back).    

In many ways, the film feels like a response to the staid nineteen fifties. From Kubrick’s decision to film in black-and-white when colour was already the dominant movie-making form, to the sheer volume of repressed sexual imagery filtering through each frame (from the opening clips of military machinery “docking and undocking” to General Ripper’s cigar to General Turgidson’s antics with his secretary to the pilot straddling the bomb), there’s a conscious feeling of a system buckling and straining under the pressure that comes from such repression. It’s hard not to get the feeling that Kubrick suggests that buttoned-down social attitudes led to the venting of collective frustration through these increasingly dangerous military toys.    

Ripper a new one!

Of course, perhaps the finest aspect of the film (not withstanding Kubrick’s fine technical direction) are the performances themselves. Peter Sellers has a career that is pretty much made up of highlights, but there’s a serious argument to be made that his work here is his finest. Reportedly the studios credited the success of Kubrick’s earlier film Lolita to the fact that Sellers appeared in multiple roles – so they greenlit this film on the condition that Sellers play even more roles. He was originally intended to play four roles, including Kong, but was ultimately only able to play three (including, somewhat strangely, two straight men). As a testament to Sellers’ ability, he was allowed to adlib (and with brilliant results – that phone call, for example: “It’s a friendly call! Of course it’s a friendly call!”). He was allowed to ad-lib by Stanley Kubrick, whose name is practically cinematic shorthand for “obsessive compulsive” or “perfectionist”.   

That isn’t to undersell the other performances – most notably George C. Scott, who was undermined by Kubrick. Apparently Scott wanted to portray Turgidson as a somewhat restrained character, whereas Kubrick imagined him as more of a large ham. Kubrick convinced Scott to rehearse each scene in an over-the-top fashion before filming the “proper” serious version. Of course, none of those “proper” takes made it to screen – which alledgedly left Scott feeling betrayed by his director, but did give a great performance. Of course, he probably was a bit less ticked off than actor Slim Pickens, who – due to his politics – apparently had to be convinced by Kubrick that he was starring in a serious film. Personally, as well as the results turned out, I’m not convinced that these anecdotes – as entertaining as they are – point to a particularly fruitful actor-director relationship, but that is perhaps a discussion best left to film students and historians.    

That said, as much as I enjoyed the film – and I did enjoy it – it didn’t take my breath away. Perhaps it’s down to the old argument that comedies are particularly quick to find themselves outmoded (particularly the iconic ones, which are rapidly stripped down for spare parts and we’ve all seen countless times recycled in modern films before we’ve had a chance to view the original), or perhaps it’s because my knowledge of the Cold War is an academic one rathert than one borne of living through those dark days. I don’t know. I understand why it was so big and important, but it just doesn’t strike the necessary chord with me – it’s a film I appreciate more than I enjoy, if that makes sense.    

Still, you’ll have to look pretty darn hard to find a better Cold War comedy than this. It’s a classic for a reason and – though its timeliness has been somewhat worn down by the fall of the Iron Curtain – the film itself mostly still stands. It’s a well put together film with a talented cast. What more can you ask for? 

7 Responses

  1. One of my favorite comedies. So disappointed it didn’t make it to the end of the comedy tournament on Anomalous Material.

  2. George C. Scott may have hated Kubrick for this, but his performance here is incredible. One of my favorite aspects of the whole thing.

  3. “Cinematic purists will balk when I suggest The Shining – that most commercially Hollywood production – is my favourite of Kubrick’s film [sic]”

    Uhh what?

    How is The Shining a “most commercially Hollywood production”? Out of Kubrick’s “Big Three”, it seems the most distinctly Kubrickian. Granted, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Doctor Strangelove are both recognizably Kubrick films, and great ones, but 2001 has a colourful, pleasant aesthetic and optimistic themes that clash with the rest of Kubrick’s work, and Strangelove is an oddity among Kubrick’s work, both for the fact that it is unambiguously a pure comedy, and for how simplistic and heavy-handed its message is. The Shining has all the elements people associate with Kubrick, particularly as contrasted with
    “commercial Hollywood”: impressive attention to detail, a Lovecraft-esque sense of overwhelming hopelessness bordering on nihilism, a main cast consciously designed to be thoroughly unsympathetic, and a plethora of questions left open-ended.

    I think, actually, The Shining probably gets less praise than the other two (though still more than the vast majority of directors ever get) precisely because it is SO in line with what people expect from Kubrick. A movie that’s as all bleak all the time as Kubrick is often associated with being can be hard to stomach watching, even one as exceptionally well-put-together as The Shining. Perhaps it might be held in even higher regard had it been at least a little bit more commercially Hollywood.

    • The Shining is one of the few Kubrick films I’ve found to be popular with people who don’t like Kubrick’s other works. It’s an accessible horror film. It’s also a Kubrick film, of course, but it’s the one that everybody in my family has seen and has strong positive opinions about.

      • I can’t speak to your personal experience, but I don’t see how Doctor Strangelove is any less “accessible” than The Shining… 2001, sure, but Strangelove is pretty straightforward and not very subtle.

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