Svengoolie was a rerun again this week, so we borrowed Dr. Strangelove, a movie I hadn’t seen all the way through before. I first saw bits and pieces of it as a kid, back in the days when the ending was a possibility. Doomsday machine? Yeah.
At (fictional) Burpelson Air Force Base, Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) calls his second-in-command, Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) to let him know he’s received orders. “We’re in a shooting war. I want you to transmit plan R to the wing.” He further orders that the base be sealed and all private radios be confiscated.
He’s lying. When Mandrake realizes the Soviets have not attacked and life carries on outside pretty much as usual, he asks Ripper for the codes to recall the planes from attacking Russia. Ripper refuses, locks the two of them in the office, and tells him he plans to force the politicians into “total commitment.
“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.”
Upon reading a similar note, the assembled dignitaries in the Pentagon’s presidential “War Room” say, “We’re still trying to decide what he means by the last line.”
Aboard one of the B-52s that continually patrol the limits of US airspace with their nuclear payloads, the crew receives the go-code. After it’s confirmed, Maj. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) opens the safe, retrieves his cowboy hat and the attack plans, and passes the packets to each person. The background music is the Civil War tune, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”
In the “War Room” at the Pentagon, Air Force General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott) briefs President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) on what’s just happened. The befuddled president finally understands the planes can’t be called back without the recall code, which only General Ripper has. The Soviet ambassador, Alexi de Sadesky (Peter Bull), explains the Doomsday machine, which will automatically trigger if the Soviet Union is attacked or if the bomb is tampered with. If it goes off, it will “destroy all human and animal life on earth,” and “an evil cloud of radioactivity … will encircle the earth for 93 years!”
The president asks the resident scientific expert if such a device is possible. Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers), a former Nazi, who now uses a wheelchair, rolls out. In so many words, he says, yes, it could happen.
The President calls Soviet Premier Dimitri Kissov, who is quite drunk.
The black-and-white film opens with a statement scrolling across the screen, assuring the viewer that, according to the Air Force, their safeguards would prevent the events of this film from happening. It also says no real people are depicted in the movie. I don’t know. I gotta wonder about Bat Guano. He reminds me of an old boss—but that’s neither here nor there.
A voice-over speaks of rumors about the “ultimate weapon” being built by the Russians in a desolate place. The opening credits roll over shots of in-air jet refueling while 1930s-style romantic music plays in the background.
How’s that for setting the mood?
The black humor is delivered in understated scenes for much of the movie. The leaders quarrel and envision the post-apocalyptic world with ten beautiful women for each man. On the phone to the Russian premier (who never appears or is heard), President Muffley says things like, “How do you think I feel, Dimitri?” In the same call, he continues, “I’m very sorry… *All right*, you’re sorrier than I am, but I am as sorry as well… I am as sorry as you are, Dmitri! Don’t say that you’re more sorry than I am, because I’m capable of being just as sorry as you are… So we’re both sorry, all right?… All right.”
There are great lines:
Turgidson and Sadesky get into a fight when the ambassador starts taking clandestine photographs of the war room.
President Muffley reminds them to show some resect: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.”
In contrast to the men in the war room, frittering away their time, the men in the B-52 are determined to do their duty. They are convinced the Russians have already attacked the United States and wiped significant parts of it out.
Locked in a room with the increasingly unstable General Ripper, Captain Mandrake asks for the recall codes. “Don’t want to start a nuclear war unless we really have to, now, do we, Jack?”
There is also the character of Dr. Stranglelove himself, an ex-Nazi scientist who slips and calls the president “Mein Führer!” With an apparent will of its own, his right arm springs out occasionally as if it has just heard, “Sieg heil!” No one around him reacts as if this is anything out of the ordinary.
The movie is based on a 1958 novel titled Red Alert by Peter George. While most of the basic plot elements of the book and the film are the same, the ending is different, and the book does not contain the character of Dr. Strangelove. The book is also a serious work, while the movie is a farce and full of black humor.
I loved this movie. I will admit that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I really enjoyed it. And with a despot in Russia threatening to release nukes if others don’t dance to his tune, it’s a reminder of the sheer insanity of the weapons and the arms race themselves.
From the New Yorker (yeah, you may hit a paywall)
Almost Everything in “Dr. Strangelove” Was True | The New Yorker
Title: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Stanley Kubrick…(screenplay) &
Terry Southern…(screenplay) &
Peter George…(based on the book: Red Alert by)
Cast (in credits order)
Peter Sellers…Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake / President Merkin Muffley / Dr. Strangelove
George C. Scott…Gen. “Buck” Turgidson
Sterling Hayden…Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper
Keenan Wynn…Col. “Bat” Guano
Slim Pickens…Maj. “King” Kong
Peter Bull…Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky
James Earl Jones…Lt. Lothar Zogg
Length: 1 hour, 34 minutes