Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Dr Strangelove (1964)

Gentlemen you can't fight in here, this is the war room!

Kubrick’s darkly satirical take on the threat of nuclear war in the 60s and some of the anti-Russian sentiments of the time is an absolute delight.  Released two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film must have touched a raw nerve, and I could imagine some people being less than enthusiastic about some of the characters involved.

Brigadier General Jack Ripper (an excellent Sterling Hayden) puts his air base on condition red and sends signals to all the B-52 bombers stationed around Russia to proceed to their targets and carry out a nuclear strike. This is not an official order, and as soon as US President Merkin Muffley is alerted he calls all the top military minds to the War Room in the Pentagon. He then tries to avoid World War 3 by diplomacy; but one plane is not recalled...

At the heart of all the madness is a great cast. Peter Sellers is again fantastic as Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake (an RAF officer desperately trying to talk sense into Jack Ripper), President Merkin Muffley (desperately trying to calm down the Russian Premier over the phone) AND the bizarre Dr. Strangelove who seems to be a German expat but whose right arm has a mind of its own and keeps giving Nazi salutes. Where I said yesterday in Lolita that it was Sellers that stole the show, I feel that this time it is two of his supporting actors that are the highlights. Sterling Hayden (better know to me as McCluskey from The Godfather) is absolutely brilliant as the deranged Jack Ripper. Though Ruskie-hating seems to be endemic in the US military, Jack takes it one step further imagining that the Commies are after his bodily fluids! Clearly this is because humans require water to replenish their bodily fluids, whereas all the Russians drink is Vodka; and the conspiracy runs as far as putting fluoride in the water which saps his essence! He manages to play the role with all the gravitas of a commanding officer and a has a great screen presence.

George C. Scott is just fantastic and hilarious as Gen. 'Buck' Turgidson, the military head who reports the bad news of the imminent nuclear strike to the president. As well as being gung-ho about war with Russia, he is also like a schoolboy trying to hold on to his beliefs; attempting to plant a secret camera on the Russian Ambassador and worried that once the Ambassador is allowed unprecedented access to the war room that he will see the “Big Board” which tracks all of the bombers. Like Hayden he plays the role straight down the line, not even a hint of irony in his performance. It is much of Turgison’s script that provides the LOLs in the film. I must also mention Slim Pickens (no really, that’s his name) as Major “King” Kong, the pilot of the B-52 bomber. It is he who rides the nuclear bomb as it falls towards its target, and has become the iconic image from this film. Among Slim’s crew is a very young James Earl Jones; he doesn’t get much screen time, but is still effortlessly cool.


Another aspect of the film is the idea of the constant races between the US and Russia, the one-upmanship that both nations strive for, and the fear that there will be a gap in their knowledge with respect to the other. Both the space race and the arms race are mentioned, but when the Russian ambassador mentions that they have developed a Doomsday weapon the US president is horrified; until Dr Strangelove announces that they also have such a weapon as they feared a Doomsday gap! Equally, as the risk of nuclear fallout is discussed, the possibility of furnishing a deep mine shaft so that people may survive a holocaust is mentioned, a conversation that leads Gen. Turgidson to blurt out “We must not allow a mine shaft gap!”

A wonderful film full of great performances, and wonderful clashing images. The photography was all very gloomy, but I’m not sure if this was intentional or whether the transfer to DVD just wasn’t that great. Highly recommended, and at a snappy run time of 90 minutes, a thoroughly brilliant film to fill a short gap in anyone’s schedule.