I first saw Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb as a young teenager. And, to be honest, I didn’t quite get it. I knew it was a comedy and it had Peter Sellers, and I really liked the Pink Panther movies back in those days. And what I saw didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me in many ways. Oh, I liked it well enough, I suppose, but I didn’t find it all that funny.
I saw it later as an adult, with more knowledge on the Cold War and political satire and the like, and I loved it a whole lot more.
Oh, by the by, I won’t be typing the film’s full name again.
OK, so, I think I can be somewhat forgiven for not getting this one the first time. Consider this one came from director Stanley Kubrick. I love Kubrick’s work, but I can’t for the life of me think of another comedy he might have directed. His work is often weird and off-putting, something designed to create emotional distance between the characters and the audience. That doesn’t really translate well to “comedy.” Then factor in how this one ends, with nuclear armageddon while “We’ll Meet Again” plays in the background. Plus, you know, the plan to save the human race comes from a former Nazi. And it came out only a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. That’s gotta be hilarious, right?
And yet, it’s a genuinely funny film. Sellers plays three different characters: British RAF officer Lionel Mandrake, the closest the film has to a “straight man” character; President Merkin Muffley, an ineffectual Commander-in-Chief who has to tell people to stop fighting in the war room; and Dr. Strangelove, the former Nazi title character who has the film’s famous final line. You know the one: “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!”
And yet, this film is filled with famous lines and scenarios. The best remembered is probably Muffley’s phone call to a drunken Soviet premier. Muffley, who was based on two time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, seems about as commanding as a wet paper towel. He sits rather firmly in the middle of the way Sellers plays his three characters. Mandrake is fairly normal, dealing more with the insane madman who started World War III because he was convinced the communists had done something to the water supply. Why not? Commies only drink vodka, figures General Jack D. Ripper. And on the other end, over the top and mugging like crazy with Dr. Strangelove, we see a man who has to fight his own arm to keep from doing the Nazi salute and a habit of shouting almost everything.
Is there a more iconic character in this film than Dr. Strangelove? Well, here’s a version from the Tick animated series:
But as it was, Sellers for a period was intended to play a fourth character: Major Kong, the commander of the one American aircraft that gets through to drop a bomb. Sellers may have the most iconic lines, but Kong, as played by Western character actor Slim Pickens, has the iconic image of riding the bomb to the ground, whooping it up as he falls, and then the explosion that starts what would be the end of the human race unless that comes when the two nations finish the job as they huddle in their caves and mine shafts.
Apparently, Pickens showed up on set dressed in a cowboy hat, boots, and a fringe jacket, and various cast members (including a young James Earl Jones who sadly doesn’t talk much) assumed he came in character. That wasn’t true at all. That was how he normally dressed, and he also claimed he didn’t know the film was a comedy while he was making it. He came onboard when Sellers proved unable to do a convincing Texas accent and John Wayne turned down the part. I’ve seen enough of Pickens’ work to believe he didn’t know it was a comedy. He basically always was the sort of comic relief character in the Westerns he made, a guy with a thick Southern accent who may have seemed a bit dumb. I wouldn’t call Major Kong here dumb, not any more than anyone else on his plane, always pushing its way deep into Soviet territory while “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” plays in the background, but he doesn’t seem to mind being front and center to a bomb blast that will trigger the death of everything on the surface thanks to the Soviets (and possibly the Americans…I can believe it that Muffley wouldn’t order one built but that someone would build one anyway) and their doomsday device.
By the by, if you go to the Yonkers Alamo Drafthouse, you can pose for a photo with their recreation of Pickens’ bomb ride.
And through it all, there’s paranoia and suspicion of everything the other side is doing by people in uniform with any kind of rank. General Ripper may be the worst, but George C. Scott’s horndog General Buck Turgidson frets too much that the Soviets will see the “big board,” and his final speech is all over-the-top insanity in its own right. That actually happened in part thanks to Kubrick’s tricking Scott. Kubrick wanted an over-the-top reading, something broad that would have gone well with the planned pie fight that was originally going to end the film, but Scott wanted to play it straight. Kubrick convinced Scott to do a crazy read for a rehearsal, and then he used that take in the final cut.
Considering what Kubrick did to so many of the actors who worked for him, Scott got off lucky.
Perhaps this is how the human race will end some day, not through an evil plan, but through stupidity and dumb luck, all of it bad. Somehow, that seems a lot more likely than anything else I’ve ever seen in a movie coming true when it comes to nuclear weapons.
NEXT UP: We’re skipping ahead to 1982 with what may be the most quintessential Steven Spielberg film he has so far made: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.