An Appreciation – Dr. Strangelove
“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!”
What a strange world it must have been to live in during the years following WWII. It was a time of constant fear, doubt, and anxiety. With the fall of Nazi Germany, other countries emerged as world superpowers, with the U.S. coming under constant threat of attack. Communism was on everyone’s mind, the Red Scare made people question everyone around them, the U.S. would become embroiled with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and perhaps the biggest danger would be the arms race with Russia and the development of the hydrogen bomb. With the single push of a button, both the U.S. and Russia had the capability to annihilate one another with massive devastation. Citizens were encouraged to build bomb shelters in their back yards, and school kids ran drills during class in case an attack took place. It was a time in which many people dealt with the idea that the world was one step away from ending. This would be the perfect issue for Stanley Kubrick to tackle, hilariously, in his black comedy Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964).
It’s funny to think that Stanley Kubrick would have the nerve to not only make a film dealing with the threat of nuclear attack, but to make it a comedy as well. The country was well in the midst of the conflict that this film skewers, so to say that it was controversial for its time would be a statement of the obvious. But it was not intended to be a comedy at first. Kubrick, along with writers Terry Southern and Peter George, first sat down to adapt George’s book Red Alert, with the intention of making it a tense, political thriller. But, as they wrote out their story, they came to the realization that many of the lines of dialogue, and actions taken by the characters, were turning out to be very funny, so they decided to flip the tone and make it a satire. This was a bold move, to find humor around an issue that was deadly serious. Seeing it today, though, it’s hard to imagine the film being made without it being funny. Think about it like this: with the world on the brink of disaster, the slightest misunderstanding or lack of communication could lead to terrible results. We have to laugh at the absurdity of it all when one man could push the button simply because he had his feelings hurt by someone else.
Take the scene involving President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) talking on the phone to Russian Premier Kissoff. A terrible thing has happened: Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), with no authoritative consent, orders a fleet of U.S. Bombers carrying hydrogen missiles to attack key locations within Russian borders. Ripper has gone crazy; he’s paranoid that the Russians may have poisoned the U.S. water supply and thus threatened the purity of our “precious bodily fluids.” Communications to the planes have been disabled, and Ripper is the only person with access to the recall code, but he has barricaded himself in his office with troops defending his base with armed force. When President Muffley attempts to notify the Russian leader about the eminent attack, what was supposed to be a very serious conversation turns into one of unbridled hilarity. Muffley contacted Kissoff in the middle of a party, with Kissoff drunk and playing loud music, and their conversation dissolves to two men whining at each other. Kissoff becomes insulted that Muffley never calls him, and that the only time he does is when something bad happens. Muffley in turn defends himself, saying he calls him all the time to say hello. This scene, which resembles something along the lines of a couple quarreling, is a perfect example of how the movie blurs the line between what’s supposed to be a serious issue and what’s being shown as a comedy of miscommunication.
While the film is over the top with its absurd dialogue and odd situations, it’s still at the same time completely believable with its humor. Perhaps this is because all of the actors involved are so willing to play their roles with total conviction and seriousness. These are actors who attempt to go all the way with their performances; the slightest hesitation or bit of self-awareness would only bring it down toward mannered showboating. I would point toward George C. Scott’s performance as General ‘Buck’ Turgidson as an illustration of an over the top performance done perfectly. In my honest opinion, Scott steals the film with his portrayal of the twitchy, gum-chewing general. He is a part of President Muffley’s advisory staff, and although the war room is filled with a number of other people, we tend to feel that Turgidson is the only person there. The War Room is really just a stage for Scott to unleash every bit of his character, and we follow him easily. Look at his face at just about every moment that he is on screen: the way he chews his gum incessantly, the way his eyebrows move up and down, how he leans back and forth in his chair, and the way his mouth contorts and stretches as he talks, almost like facial gymnastics.
Scott is so hilariously into his character here that no matter what he does, it comes off as believable. At one point while Turgidson is talking, he slips and falls on the ground, but Scott never breaks character and continues talking as if it were scripted. When Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky (Peter Bull) is brought in to help advise on what to do to stop the planes, Turgidson stands against it because he doesn’t want a Russian to know their secrets or to “see the big board!” Watch as Turgidson listens to Sadesky describe a Russian “Doomsday Machine” that would be triggered when the H-bombs land, and instead of being fearful, wishes the U.S. had one as well. When asked whether or not a plane would be able to make it to its target, Turgidson becomes so proud at the capability of the American military that he forgets about what would happen if they were to complete their mission. It’s an amazing, underrated comedic performance by Scott, overshadowed by one other person in the film.