‘Dr. Strangelove’ – a screwball satire of mutually assured destruction

Stanley Kubrick’s First Strike

The funniest film ever made about nuclear holocaust, Stanley Kubrick’s screwball satire of Cold War posturing and mutually assured destruction didn’t begin as a comedy. The source novel for Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was Peter George’s “Red Alert,” a grave contemplation of the Cold War gone hot with a rogue nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Such a possibility seemed all too plausible in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis.

The story remains the same: A paranoid head case of a general launches an anti-Soviet first strike with misguided patriotic zeal, a timid American president tries to work out a solution with an inebriated Soviet premier, and the president’s warmongering staff tries to turn disaster into opportunity with a modest proposal to just finish the job. Kubrick simply transformed a serious military thriller into a surreal farce of ideological hysteria and military arrogance. “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops. Depending on the breaks.”

Directing in a coolly precise style that director Barry Sonnenfeld once described as “absurdist realism,” Kubrick lets the absurdity slowly seep into the film. George C. Scott’s growling understatements as Gen. “Buck” Turgidson (“I don’t think it’s quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up, sir”) and Sterling Hayden’s deadpan intensity as Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper (whose rants about fluoridation being a commie conspiracy to “sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids” are rooted in impotence) erupt into slapstick scuffles of international diplomacy. “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here!” admonishes President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers in milquetoast mode). “This is the war room!”

No stranger to multiple roles, Sellers takes on three characters: Muffley, British officer Lionel Mandrake (Ripper’s unflappable but noticeably alarmed executive officer) and the calculating weapons scientist Dr. Strangelove, played as a demented combination of Werner von Braun, Henry Kissinger and Dr. Mabuse in a perverted, purring German accent. His eyes flash as he contemplates Armageddon and his arm reflexively salutes “mein Führer” as talk of worldwide destruction brings him to a kind of orgasm.

The conflation of war and sex is there from the opening credits, where bombers refuel in scenes of mechanical copulation. In Dr. Strangelove, it seems all too plausible that it’s not politics but arrogance, machismo and an extreme act of sexual overcompensation that brings about the end of the world.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

One thought on “‘Dr. Strangelove’ – a screwball satire of mutually assured destruction”

  1. I don’t know. While the film obviously makes strong statements about society and human nature beyond the political realm, I was left with the impression that the main point was the absurdity of politics.

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