#34: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)


Here's my second, more conscientious attempt at reviewing what must have been an incredibly contentious film upon its original release. In fact, the premiere of Stanley Kubrick's satirical treatment of the Cold War and nuclear warfare had to be postponed due to the assassination of John F Kennedy: America was tense and there's a thin line between dangerously topical humour and simple bad taste. 
I'll skip a convoluted explanation of the plot: suffice it to say an American general has taken the Cold War into his own hands and sent his bombers, and their nuclear payload, into Soviet airspace towards significant military targets. The outlook is not great. The President calls his generals and advisers to the War Room to defuse what is increasingly becoming a countdown to armageddon. 
I'll be up front, honest, and admit that I didn't notice Peter Sellers' three different characters until right at the end (when my brother pointed it out to me). I wondered why his name was so prominent in the opening titles. Suddenly, having grasped the truth, I realised the extent of his brilliance in this film. I'd argue Sellers embodies most if not all of the thematic aspects of Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, and so I'm going to discuss each of his roles and its effect, to give you a feel for what the movie attempts.

President Merkin Muffley
For those of you who don't know, a merkin is a pubic hair wig, so I think we can safely assume that this particular President is not meant to be taken seriously. He cuts a weak, cringing and awkward figure, not the man you want on the phone to the Soviet Premier on the eve of a nuclear apocalypse. Indeed, he resembles a cowering lover on the phone to a volatile and unfaithful mistress, and it's a testament to scriptwriters Kubrick, Peter George and Terry Southern that we need not even see the man on the other end of the line (although this is perhaps meant to say more about American stereotypes of Russians). This particular character is therefore a satirical testament to the strength and dependability of the American government during the Cold War.

Group Captain Mandrake
Poor RAF Group Captain Mandrake finds himself locked in the crazed Brigadier General Ripper's office under heavy gunfire, having realised he is the only one with the opportunity to cajole the secret codes out of the General to recall the bombers. With his clipped English accent, Mandrake pleads, reasons and attempts chit-chat about prison-camp torture with Ripper in a desperate bid to prevent destruction on a global scale. Compared to the others, Mandrake is respectable and rational, and so represents the powerlessness of the outsider; he is neither American nor Soviet, yet nevertheless he and his countrymen will be caught up in the apocalypse.

Dr. Strangelove
An ex-Nazi scientist, Dr. Strangelove is certainly the oddest of Sellers' characters. His right hand has a mind of its own, occasionally producing a Nazi salute when not held down firmly by an apparently conflicted Strangelove, who accidentally calls the President 'Mein F├╝hrer'. He gives some significantly questionable advice, encouraging the Americans' fears to the point where they discuss the inevitable mine-shaft gap following the nuclear apocalypse, and then the conversation turns to the ever unsettling topic of eugenics. Having a not-quite-covert Nazi in the War Room can only indicate one fact - that humans do not learn from their mistakes. Mutually Assured Destruction will fail to prevent open nuclear warfare, and even the apocalypse will fail to change the world, really: humans will always hate and fear the Other.

Dr. Strangelove is a must watch, and not just because the humour is genuinely laugh out loud funny. Kubrick's film says something important about the nature of humanity, although to be true to Kubrick, perhaps we should just say manity.

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