Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
I grew up in the late fifties, early sixties. As such, I was part of the cold war generation that learned in school to ‘duck and cover’, that is hide under the quarter inch plywood desk that was supposed to protect us from the devastation of a hydrogen bomb. The Cuban missile crisis was fresh, even in the mind of a child. It was this political climate that generated the H-Bomb movie genre. On the serious side was Fail Safe; the satirical response was Doctor Strangelove or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. While Strangelove is clearly centered on the concerns of the time it was produced the black humor still holds today, perhaps considering the anxiety over terrorism so prevalent today, even more so. The whole of our defense system then, and probably now, is based on rational men following a chain of command and making informed, rational decisions. The major problem with this scenario is men are all too prone to irrational and unpredictable behavior. Such is the case when General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) feels that in order to preserve the purity of our precious bodily fluids against the ‘commie’ threat of fluoridation, he has to take matters into his own hands and turn a routine mission into a preemptive strike against the Soviet Union. Orders are given to Major ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens) to take his bomber and nuke ‘them Rooskies’. The orders cannot be revoked, cannot be altered and will surely bring the world to the brink and beyond. The only man in Ripper’s command that see something wrong is an English exchange officer, Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers). As he tries to get Ripper to somehow call the attack off Sellers in two other roles, President Merkin Mufley and his advisor Dr. Strangelove, work in the war room of the Untied states to bring down the bombers. The film is among the darkest comedy ever presented on film. While the subject matter is far too horrible to consider you will find yourself laughing not just in spite of it but because the reality is too impossible to consider. When this film was made much of the public reaction was shook and disbelief. It would be as if such a film was made about the events of September 11th, how could you make light of such a thing. Actually, this movie needed to be made then and needs to be watched today. Since events are so terrible one of the only ways to get moving on with our lives is to find a dark humor. It is often better to laugh than to cry.
The cast of this film remains one of the best ever assembled. Sellers moves between three vastly different roles with grace and ease, from the ineffectual President to the obsessed doctor and the dedicate, sane Captain, Sellers makes us forget that its him in each role and accept the characters for the bizarre people the are. As we watch the ex-Nazi Strangelove reverts back the ‘glory days’ of the Reich we see that America is willing to embrace old enemies to fight new ones. The great George C. Scott is the hormonally charged General Buck Turdison. Reluctant to leave his scantly dressed assistant to face even a crisis of this proportion he represents the view of the hawks of that time. America will always emerge victorious even if we have to destroy the whole world to do so. Hayden as Ripper represents a different aspect of such a hawkish viewpoint. Willing to act against the chain of command he is bound by an internal sense of duty to the American people to force the issue that the politicians and other military leaders are afraid to venture. Pickens as Major Kong is priceless. A good old boy who seems more at home on some rural ranch instead of command one of the most powerful machines of destruction ever conceived. The chemistry between not only the major actors but the smaller roles as well creates an ensemble the likes of which audiences have rarely seen.
Stanley Kubrick was the type of director that was never afraid to explore a new genre and once he has done a film in it, rarely if ever returned to it. He was a man of great dedication to his craft, a genius the likes of which we shall never see again in film. His attention to the smallest details permits the viewer to gain a grater appreciation of this film with every viewing. I have personally seen this film dozens of times and always am amazed at something new. Although born in New York City, Kubrick spent most of his life in England, permitting an objective viewpoint of the foibles of America culture and how the world at large views it. Black Comedies is among the most difficult genres to master. The subject matter is inherently not funny yet the director must draw the audience into a sense of humor. Kubrick does this with great élan. No American institution is safe from his barbs. In one scene Mandrake needs change to call the President to avoid world war yet a Colonel stops him from taking it from a soda machine because of the sanctity of the Coca Cola Company. The world may end but the profits of the American corporation are sacrosanct. Kubrick uses the camera with precision. There is such control over focus, lighting and framing that this film is a course in direction.
The DVD may not be up to contemporary standards; it’s in mono and full screen. If you let this deter you form getting this disc you are doing a grave disservice to yourself and your collection. The black and white video is crisp and free of defect. It is also amazing full of detail. The mono audio harkens back to the era depicted in the film. It reminded me of the films I enjoyed in the neighborhood theaters. Get this film and look at it not only through the viewpoint afforded by history but in light of recent events. The source of fears may have changed but not the fear itself. We need films like this now more than ever.