On this date in 1964, the fabulously satirical and hilarious “Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stopped Worrying and Love the Bomb” opened in theaters across the United States.
Stanley Kubrick directed the film and it starred Peter Sellers who played three distinct roles. It was adapted from Peter George’s novel “Red Alert”. Originally supposed to be a serious drama, Kubrick decided to change it to a political satire and added the character of Dr. Strangelove who wasn’t in the book by the former RAF officer.
There are several sexual innuendos that escaped audiences in 1964. Now the double entendres are hilarious but perhaps the meaning of several of those went right by the target audience during the pre-Woodstock America. It also happens to be one of my favorites, if offbeat military films of all time.
Peter Sellers plays three roles as mentioned above. He plays the wimpy President Merkin Muffley, the RAF liaison officer Group Captain Lionel Mandrake and of course the maniacal scientist Dr. Strangelove. Strangelove is based on several real characters including the former Nazi rocket scientist Dr. Wernher von Braun, H-bomb designer Edward Teller and some say, Henry Kissinger, although he was a little known Harvard professor at that time.
Strangelove steals every scene in which he’s in as he struggles with a right arm that has a mind of its own where it constantly tries to give the Nazi salute or choke him when he talks. Sellers was originally going to play a fourth role, that of Air Force Major Kong. But he struggled with a Texas twang and the director brought in Slim Pickens who, although had never done comedy before, was outstanding.
“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.”
The film centers around a very real fear in the 1960s, could a madman in the military on either side trigger a nuclear holocaust? In Kubrick’s film, we have that madman. Fantastically portrayed by Sterling Hayden as General Jack D. Ripper who becomes obsessed with the idea that the Communists were infiltrating our way of life…by fluoridation.
“I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids…
That’s the way your hard-core Commie works. I first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love… Yes, a profound sense of fatigue, a feeling of emptiness followed. Luckily I — I was able to interpret these feelings correctly. Loss of essence. I can assure you it has not recurred, Mandrake. Women, er, women sense my power, and they seek the life essence. I do not avoid women, Mandrake…but I do deny them my essence.”
Again, in the 1960s, fluoridation was a hot-button topic and banned in many cities and towns. Ripper fondles his cigar in an almost sexual way while his conversations with Mandrake are the stuff of comedy legend.
George C. Scott in a comedic role shines as the over-the-top General Buck Turgidson whose facial expressions and ranting about the Soviets are simply outstanding. Scott’s distrust of the Soviet ambassador and his description of how a talented pilot like Major Kong can maneuver the big B-52 into Russia to start a nuclear war was classic. I read somewhere that Scott was worried that his portrayal was too far over-the-top. He shouldn’t have been. It was one of the highlights of the film. As the hard-nosed, tough-talking Turgidson,“I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say that no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops—depending on the breaks.” He was superb in a funny, facial contorting way that Jim Carrey turned into a Hollywood career.
Sellers, as the wimpy President, who seems remarkably like former presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, reluctantly calls the Soviet premier when he learns Ripper’s B-52s can’t be called back. “Ah Dimitri, it seems we have a little problem… he did a silly thing…”
When the Russians tell the President that a nuclear strike will set off a Doomsday machine, the maniacal Dr. Strangelove says life will go on, in deep mine shafts where women, “chosen for their sexual attributes” will outnumber men 10-1. With Turgidson talking to the President about a “mine shaft gap” after Muffley consults with Premier Kissoff, the film shows how silly some of the real banterings between East and West was.
Keenan Wynn is also excellent as Colonel Bat Guano, the Paratrooper officer who leads the attack on Ripper’s Air Force base to stop the psychotic general. When Mandrake can’t call Washington to warn them, as the phone lines are down. He attempts to use a payphone but has no change. He exhorts Guano to shoot open a coke machine. Guano who just destroyed an air force base, says, “That’s private property…OK, I’m gonna get your money for you. But if you don’t get the President of the United States on that phone, you know what’s gonna happen to you?…You’re gonna have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company.”
The satire is brilliant as Kubrick spins the ridiculousness of a mutually assured destruction deterrent when the first bomb is ridden to the ground by Major Kong, whoopin’ and hollerin’ like a bronco rider at the rodeo goes off and the world is about to be destroyed. What’s the point in a deterrent when there is nothing left to deter?
The film did inspire changes in the way the Air Force handled its nuclear weapons. By the 1970s, the Air Force began employing coded switches that would override any unauthorized launch of nuclear arms, as the fictitious General Ripper did in the film.
Kubrick’s film, as brilliant and funny today as it was 54 years ago in 1964 is a must-see addition to anyone’s military or comedy collection. It was perhaps one of the best political satires of our country.
This article was written by Steve Balestrieri