With Vladimir Putin rattling the Russian sabers last week, it seemed time to watch again the classic Cold War movie Dr. Strangelove; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Made in 1964, Dr. Strangelove depicts the possibility of the world’s superpowers going to war because of the belligerence of one United States general.
The movie opens with a comforting statement from the United States Air Force that the events depicted in the movie could not possibly happen in real life. Yet the rules and regulations used by Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper seem entirely reasonable and likely in the context of the film. Usually described as a black comedy, the script contains remarkably few laugh-out-loud lines. (“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here—this is the War Room,” is one of the few.) The humor consists rather in situational comedy and irony bordering on parody: an Air Force pilot replaces his regulation helmet with a cowboy hat after receiving the order to bomb targets in the Soviet Union; a military officer with the code that can call off the attack attempts to reach the President and his advisors from a pay phone but does not have enough spare change to place the call.
Dr. Strangelove combines the extemporaneous comedy of Peter Sellers with the micromanaging direction of Stanley Kubrick. Sellers is one of the very few actors who has had a major role in more than one Kubrick film. This improbable pairing shows the enormous respect the two professionals held for one another. The cast also includes Sterling Hayden as General Ripper, George C. Scott as General Turgidson (a gung-ho, gum-chomping general who must explain to the President and his advisors what is happening and why—the gravely voice of Scott’s future portrayal of General Patton can be heard from time to time), Slim Pickens as the Air Force pilot, and James Earl Jones as a member of his crew. Sellers is given three roles: the title character, the American President, and a RAF officer assigned to General Ripper’s staff.
The title character, Dr. Strangelove, is meant to portray German scientists like Werner Von Braun, who were brought to the United States after World War II to assist the military and the space program. As portrayed by Sellers, he is uncannily reminiscent of a then-unknown Harvard Professor of Government named Henry Kissinger. Of his three characters, Sellers spends the least time on the screen as Strangelove. His portrayal of President Merkin Muffley—said to be based on unsuccessful presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson—makes the character a single voice of calm and reason surrounded by insanity, yet Sellers’ comedic genius shines in his telephone conversations (during which only his words are heard) with the Soviet Premier. Group Captain Lionel Mandrake is also, for Sellers, an understated character, played against the madness of General Ripper. Yet his efforts to wheedle the call-back code from the general, along with his scene in the telephone booth, are among the highlights of the movie.
Kubrick based the movie on a serious novel and only realized along the way that the movie would play better as a comedy than as a serious war film. The foolishness of a Mutually Assured Destruction policy, followed by both the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1960s, is skillfully portrayed in the film. This movie may have help lead to the turn toward détente that both governments attempted in the 1970s. Peter Sellers was the first actor to be nominated for an Academy Award for a film in which he portrayed more than one character. The movie was nominated for Best Picture (and remains the longest-titled movie to be so honored) along with Zorba the Greek, Becket, and Mary Poppins, but they all lost to My Fair Lady.
Much has changed in the world since 1964, but Putin’s boasts last week about Russian weaponry remind us that much has also stayed the same. It may be only the grace of God that has spared the world thus far from the incredible damage humanity is capable of causing, whether through a deliberate act of hate or through mere carelessness and stupidity. For this divine protection we should be thankful every day. J.