By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 16, 2016)
Now then, Dmitri, you know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the Bomb…The *Bomb*, Dmitri… The *hydrogen* bomb!…Well now, what happened is… ahm…one of our base commanders, he had a sort of…well, he went a little funny in the head… you know…just a little…funny. And, ah…he went and did a silly thing…Well, I’ll tell you what he did. He ordered his planes…to attack your country…
–from Dr. Strangelove (1964)
That’s POTUS Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), making “the call” to the Russian premier from the War Room, regarding an unfortunate chain of events that may very well signal the end of civilization as we know it. It’s a nightmare scenario, precipitated by a perfect storm of political paranoia, bureaucratic bungling and ideological demagoguery that enables the actions of a lone nutcase to trigger global thermonuclear war. Sound familiar?
“Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet (knock on wood) to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic 1964 masterpiece about the tendency for people in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why Kubrick and company bothered to make it all up.
In case you skipped the quote at the top of this piece, it’s the movie about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…”funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity (and oblivion) ensues.
You rarely see a cast like this: Peter Sellers (playing three characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull (who can be seen breaking character as the Russian ambassador and cracking up as Strangelove’s prosthetic arm seems to take on a mind of its own).
There are so many great lines, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks.
Vodka. That’s what they drink, isn’t it? Never water? On no account will a Commie ever drink water, and not without good reason. Water is the source of all life. Seven-tenths of this earth’s surface is water. Why, do you realize that 70 percent of you is water? And as human beings, you need fresh, pure water to replenish our precious bodily fluids. Are you beginning to understand? –Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), from Dr. Strangelove
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (its full title) did not necessarily spring from a, you know, “funny” place. Indeed, Red Alert, ex-RAF officer Peter George’s 1958 source novel, was anything but; and did not even include the character of Dr. Strangelove, the ex-Nazi scientist who emerges from the shadows of the war room just in time to contextualize all that inspired madness of the film’s third act. “He” was the invention of Kubrick and screenwriter Terry Southern.
In a 1994 Grand Street article called “Notes from the War Room”, Southern recounts Kubrick’s epiphany:
[Kubrick] told me he was going to make a film about “our failure to understand the dangers on nuclear war.” He said that he had thought of the story as a “straightforward melodrama” until this morning when he “woke up and realized that nuclear war was too outrageous, too fantastic to be treated in any conventional manner.” He said he could only see it now as “some kind of hideous joke.”
Kubrick had approached Southern as a collaborator on the basis of having read his social satire The Magic Christian (which was itself adapted for the screen in 1969). You have to keep in mind that while Kubrick’s film was in production, the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was still fresh in the minds of a nervous public.
This was the height of the Cold War; few people found nuclear annihilation to be, you, know, “funny”…least of all studio suits. When Sellers backed out of the role of Major Kong (to Kubrick’s chagrin), it was first offered to Bonanza star Dan Blocker. Southern recalls (from the same article):
[Kubrick] made arrangements for a script to be delivered to Blocker that afternoon, but a cabled response from Blocker’s agent arrived in quick order: “Thanks a lot, but the material is too pinko for Dan. Or anyone else we know, for that matter. Regards, Leibman, CMA.”
As I recall, this was the first hint that this sort of political interpretation of our work in progress might exist. Stanley seemed genuinely surprised and disappointed.
But it worked out in the end. Could you imagine anyone but Slim Pickens as Maj. Kong?
Survival kit contents check. In them you’ll find: one forty-five caliber automatic; two boxes of ammunition; four days’ concentrated emergency rations; one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills; one miniature combination Russian phrase book and Bible; one hundred dollars in rubles; one hundred dollars in gold; nine packs of chewing gum; one issue of prophylactics; three lipsticks; three pair of nylon stockings. Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff. –Major Kong prepping his B-52 crew
It was in the interest of possible “political interpretation” that a critical revision had to be made to that memorable monolog in post-production. In an eerie bit of kismet, Kubrick had scheduled the first test screening of Dr. Strangelove for November 22, 1963…the day of JFK’s assassination; in view of that zeitgeist-shattering event, the film’s originally slated December premiere was postponed until late January of 1964.
But that wasn’t the spookiest part. Originally, the last line of the bit was: “Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff.” Pickens had to be recruited to re-loop the line as we now know it. If you listen carefully during the scene, you can pick up on the edit.
However it did manage to fall together is really moot; the final product stands the test of time as a satire that will never lose relevancy (one could say that about any Kubrick film, as each ultimately points to the absurdity of all these self-important hominids, scurrying about blissfully oblivious to their insignificance within a vast, randomly cruel cosmos).
Hell, Mr. President…I could do a 2,000 word dissertation on the Freudian subtext alone; from the opening montage of aircraft engaging in (decidedly coital) airborne re-fueling maneuvers, to General Ripper firing the .50 caliber machine gun from his crotch, not to mention his cigar and his monolog about why he denies women his “essence”, to the character’s names (Dr. Strangelove, President Muffley, Buck Turgidson, Mr. Staines), and of course all of that phallic weaponry, and montage of nuclear explosions at the end.
But I won’t.
“Oh…and uh, shug? Don’t forget to say your prayers!”
Fans of the film will be glad to hear that Dr. Strangelove has been given the Criterion treatment, with the release of their Blu-ray edition. The restored 4k transfer is gorgeous; the best print I’ve seen of the film on home video (this is the third digital version I’ve owned…it’s a sickness, I know).
They’ve really piled on the extras; there’s a plethora of archival interviews, as well as featurettes produced exclusively for this edition, like audio essays by film scholars and interviews with Kubrick collaborators and archivists. So fans can immerse themselves in the Strangelovian universe…if that doesn’t seem redundant.
Oh, when November rolls around…don’t forget to say your prayers.
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Dear Mr. Hartley:
Attn your better-late-than-never department.
Mein Direktor, I can’t walk!
Turns out that Peter Sellers broke his leg, which is why he didn’t do Major Kong.
And thanks for the tip: Now I’ll have to slo-mo the scene where Peter Bull reacts to Sellers’ Sieg Heil arm.
(Speaking of Peter Bull: in the absence of Alec Guinness, stately, plump Peter Bull could have been a good Smiley.)
Yours for better film geekdom,