Unfortunately, I’ve never had the opportunity to screen Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy opus Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) for a class of UCLA undergraduates. From time to time, in my FTV106A course, I screen the trailer for the film and the laughter I hope it will inspire is nearly always absent. I’ve always been a bit confused by this. Is the film, as was worried at the time of its release, simply not funny because it deals with nuclear holocaust or is it not funny because my students are so temporally removed from the Cuban missile crisis that it lacks any resonance? My money has always gone on the latter option, as I would assume that the irony and arsenic tone of Kubrick’s film would more than gel with a movie audience raised on Fight Club (1999), Office Space (1999), and Hot Fuzz (2007). The trick in making Dr. Strangelove work for contemporary audiences is simply a matter of supplying a sufficient historical and cultural context.
Kubrick, fresh off of another controversial project—-an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1962), came to Dr. Strangelove through his usual method: research. A director often driven by obsession, Kubrick was fond of taking on enormous topics for films—-the Holocaust, the future, the life of Napoleon, Vietnam—-and spending years reading up on every aspect of the chosen focus. Strangelove was no different. Drawn to the nuclear standoff that was developing between the United States and the Soviet Union in the midst of the Cold War, Kubrick found his way to Peter George’s thriller Red Alert. Kubrick bought the film rights and began adapting the novel, which was a suspenseful drama in its original form, before realizing that there was a comical paradox to the nuclear situation. Essentially, if both sides of the Butter Battle embrace the idea of “mutual assured destruction,” there can be no winner. The only outcome of nuclear holocaust is Armageddon, so why bother endorsing it as a chosen means of defensive offense? Quickly, Kubrick began to alter George’s novel with the help of co-writer Terry Southern (who would later work on Easy Rider), spinning the tense thriller into a grotesque comedy.
The film begins as General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden)’s sanity begins to crumble. Convinced that there is a Communist conspiracy to infect the “purity of his essence,” Ripper decides to order a squad of American B-52 atomic bombers to attack Russia. When British Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) discovers Ripper’s madness, he is able to get word to the American President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again). Muffley and his main military advisor, General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) work on re-directing the bombers but their plan runs into a few hiccups. First, the Americans discover that they need a “recall code” in order to reach the planes and cancel the mission. When that potential solution begins to fray, Muffley informs the Russians of the targets the bombers will be hitting with the hope that they can be disabled before unleashing their atomic payloads. The second hiccup comes in the form of a bombshell: if any Russian target is attacked, an automated “Doomsday Machine” will ensure the destruction of the world. Thanks to a team of bombardiers led by Major T.J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens), that bombshell might very well detonate.
Judging from this plot synopsis, it’s easy to see how nuclear disaster and comedy are not quite compatible. Yet, it is Kubrick’s tone, the performance of his actors, and the screenplay’s excellent one-liners (“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!”) that makes the film successful. With regard to tone, Kubrick blends documentary realist visuals with a mocking soundtrack (Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again” plays during a mushroom cloud montage, “Try a Little Tenderness” plays over a sexualized jet refueling, and a variation of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” plays over the B-52 sequences). He never allows us to get fully engrossed into the bleakness of the source material; his aim as a satirist is to push us from being passive to active thinkers. The performances aid in this alienation a great deal. Hayden and Pickens play their characters straight (there is a rumor that Kubrick never told Pickens that Dr. Strangelove was a comedy) and even Peter Sellers’s Muffley is pretty dialed back. Where Kubrick allows the actors to take off their gloves are with the characters of Turgidson and Strangelove. George C. Scott has always stolen the Dr. Strangelove show, in my opinion. He gives Michael Keaton a run for his money when it comes to using eyebrow acting for comedic effect and watching his barrel-chested frame getting worked up by a military operation to the point of slipping on the floor is stunning. Sellers is good, but he tends to let Scott do the heavy lifting (he’s much goofier in Lolita), disappearing behind dark glasses or Friar Tuck male pattern baldness and, for once, that actually works in the film’s favor.
Dr. Strangelove, if memory serves, wasn’t particularly well received at the time of its initial release. Like so many of Kubrick’s films, it seemed to have become beloved in the decades after. I can imagine why. If fear of nuclear holocaust is gripping America, who in their right mind is going to want to laugh about it? That would be like making a comedy about our current political paradox of paying Wall Street executives millions of dollars while balancing budgets on the backs of the working and middle-classes. It cuts too close to the bone; it goes from funny to depressingly true. The paradox of Dr. Strangelove is that it is temporal distance that makes it funny. Yet, like a bottle of aged wine, that wine can reach a point of diminishing returns. I love the film, it is still my favorite comedy, but it is a smart film, wired into a specific moment of United States history. To understand the humor, you have to understand the absurdity of mutual assured destruction and in an age defined more by terrorism and class struggle, talking about the nuclear holocaust would be comparable to bringing up the Civil War in the midst of World War I.