This infra-black comedy by Stanley Kubrick is widely considered to be one of the best film comedies of all time, if not one of the best films of all time. I’d seen parts of it in the past and agreed that it was indeed good. However – it was in this viewing that I discovered that it was good enough to overcome childhood trauma.
I will explain in a bit. Hang in there.
This razor-sharp satire of the Cold War kicks off when an Air Force General, Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), implements “Wing Attack Plan R” – an immediate air assault on the Soviet Union. Part of the order involves a total shutdown of the base and the confiscation of all personal radios, a task he leaves up to his executive officer Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers), a visiting RAF officer. Mandrake happens to turn on one such radio and is surprised to hear not a breaking news bulletin, but a routine music broadcast. Alarmed, he rushes to Ripper’s office – only to discover that Ripper has had a psychotic break and has called for the attack in response to some half-baked conspiracy theories about fluoridation in water.
But Ripper’s plan is underway, and dozens of Air Force bombers are now speeding toward their various targets. Word very quickly reaches the Pentagon, where General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) breaks it to President Merkin Muffley (also Peter Sellers) that “Plan R” was only intended to be a last-ditch retaliatory attack, granting senior officers the power of command only if all other superior officers had been killed in earlier missile strikes. And, as such, part of the plan involves the bombers screening out all further communication unless it carried a three-letter code, one known only to the officer issuing the order. So President Muffley can’t override Ripper’s order. Muffley immediately orders the Army to storm the base and arrest Ripper, when they will force him to share the code. But just in case, after a brief consultation with Soviet ambassador Alexei de Sadeski (Peter Bull), Muffley also calls the Soviet Premier to break the news and offers him a list of the targets – authorizing the USSR to shoot down the bombers if the Pentagon is unable to sort things out in time.
But Sadeski brings up another complication – the USSR has just finished building a “doomsday device” which will automatically detonate if even just one U.S. missile reaches its target. The resulting nuclear fallout would contaminate the entire Earth for 93 years. Muffley and Turgidson are dubious – they haven’t heard anything about it – but Muffley’s science officer, the enigmatic Dr. Strangelove (also Peter Sellers), confirms that such a thing is indeed possible; in fact, he had been working on a similar plan for the United States. Muffley re-iterates to the Soviet Premier that the USSR can go ahead and shoot down any of the U.S. Bombers, since four of them are starting to get kinda close to their targets. The Soviets manage to shoot down three – the fourth is only damaged.
However – during the chaos, Mandrake has managed to figure out Ripper’s three-letter code and alerts the Pentagon. And it works! All bombers start returning to their base – except for the damaged plane, which suffered a radio short. So Major T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) is still heading towards a Siberian ICBM site, prepared to complete his mission.
…So, everything about this film is ridiculous in the best possible way, and some of the best parts were nearly accidental. Sellers’ triple-casting was actually a studio idea – he’d played multiple roles in Kubrick’s Lolita, and the executives at Columbia Pictures felt this was a major part of that film’s success. I admit it’s an odd conclusion, but somehow the suits were on to something; Kubrick had already told Sellers he could ad-lib some lines, and three roles just gave him three chances to ad-lib.
Incredibly, Sellers was supposed to play four roles – along with Strangelove, Mandrake and Muffley, he was also supposed to play Major Kong, pilot of the rogue bomber. But Sellers injured his ankle before they were to shoot all the scenes with Kong and had to drop out. The part was written as a sort of “John Wayne type”, so Kubrick first offered the role to Wayne, and then to Bonanza star Dan Blocker – both of whom said no (Blocker’s agent said he thought the script was “too pinko“). Slim Pickens was hired on such short notice that they had to pause while Pickens secured his U.S. Passport (filming was taking place in England, and Pickens had never left the US).
Kubrick also stacked the deck a bit for Pickens – he only gave Pickens the script to Kong’s scenes, and never told him that the film was a comedy, so Pickens played everything absolutely straight – even the moment when Kong trades his pilot’s helmet for a cowboy hat was 100% serious. James Earl Jones, who made his film debut as Kong’s bombadier, recalled later that Pickens turned up on set with a cowboy hat and fringed jacket, prompting one stagehand to remark that “he’s arrived in costume!” unaware that this was how Pickens dressed all the time. Kubrick also played a similar trick on George C. Scott – asking him to do some larger-than-life takes of each scene “for practice”, as a warm-up before the more restrained takes Scott preferred. But – to Scott’s chagrin, Kubrick used the “warmup” takes in the film. Scott was angry enough to swear never to work with Kubrick again – but honestly, Kubrick was right. Turgidson’s bluster and bravado absolutely makes his scenes.
And that’s just the casting. Everything else about this film just works – the ridiculous trigger for Ripper’s breakdown, the inane standoff Mandrake has with a skeptical Army colonel, the one-sided conversation Muffley has with a clearly inebriated Soviet Premier, Turgidson’s drive to outdo the Soviets at every possible turn, Kong’s monomaniacal commitment to his mission. Even the music is spot-on – the recurring use of the Battle Hymn Of The Republic scoring Kong’s scenes, or the whole film ending with the sentimental Vera Lynn hit “We’ll Meet Again”, set to footage of nuclear explosions.
And that’s what I meant by the childhood trauma. Back when I reviewed Animal Farm, I mentioned that one characteristic of “Generation X” was a childhood spent fully aware of the looming threat of nuclear war. I first learned about the nuclear threat by accident at the age of nine – too young to understand the politics involved. The only bit I understood was that there were these really big bombs somewhere that could blow up everyone in the whole world, and they could go off any minute. I was still young enough to be slightly scared of the dark, and for a full year, instead of imagining that the monster under the bed was a big scaley beast, I thought a mushroom cloud was lurking there. Getting older only made things worse, especially after the broadcast of some made-for-TV specials in the 1980s about “what dropping the Bomb would be like”. For a good ten years, from the mid-1980s up until the late 1990s, I had unbelievably vivid recurring nightmares about nuclear war.
Those kinds of “what-ifs” actually started in the 1960s, and I’ve been wondering how I would handle revisiting images that scared me so when I was nine. But the rest of Strangelove was so funny, the satire so pointed and the performances so perfect, that I found myself laughing more than cringing, my childhood trauma averted.