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Release Year: 1964
Genre: Comedy, War
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Peter Sellers
What do all these things have in common?
They're hilarious. To director Stanley Kubrick, at least.
To a visionary guy like Kubrick, these were the perfect ingredients for a nightmare comedy called Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Exploding onto screens in 1964, Dr. Strangelove perfectly captured the mega-tense atmosphere that led the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to stockpile enough nuclear weapons to fry every human on the planet—and it managed to leave the audiences rolling in the aisles in the process. (Which was a little gross considering all the gum on the floor, but anyway...)
The inspiration for Strangelove came from a dead serious novel called Red Alert. This thriller laid out a nightmare scenario in which one American general goes nuts and decides to unilaterally start a nuclear WWIII. Kubrick kept this and a lot of the other key plot points from the book. But after first trying to make a movie that was just as serious, he eventually couldn't get over how absurd the whole arms race was.
And so one of film history's most blistering satires was born.
Kubrick enlisted some of the top actors of the day to bring his comic nightmare to the waking world. Top of the list is comedian extraordinaire Peter Sellers, who plays not one but three roles in the film. There's also the highly acclaimed George C. Scott, who Kubrick tricked into giving the comic performance of a lifetime. And last but not least, there's Slim Pickens (yes that's really his name), the ex-rodeo star turned actor, whose performance is probably made more hilarious by the fact that nobody told him he was acting in a comedy.
An instant classic, Strangelove was a commercial success and piled up plenty of rave reviews including three Oscar nominations along the way. Of course, like every movie worth watching, the film also had some haters out there. For example, a 2014 article in the New Yorker quotes Susan Sontag as saying "Dr. Strangelove is nihilism for the masses, a philistine nihilism" (source). Translation: she thought the movie was way too bleak and offered no real solutions to Cold War problems. Others thought that the film implied that all military brass and politicians were complete idiots. Still others thought the film was pure Soviet propaganda.
Contrary to what you'd expect, one Strategic Air Command instructor said that every Cold Warrior he ever met was a huge fan of the film—the situations and locations were very accurate despite being exaggerated for dramatic and comic effect (source).
Maybe Kubrick didn't offer any solutions to the Cold War dilemma, but he was able sum up the madness of the Commie hysteria and apocalyptic fears of the atomic era. The way we figure, pointing out problems is the first step to finding solutions.
And isn't it just more fun if we can laugh about it along the way?
When somebody as universally respected as the late legendary Roger Ebert calls Dr. Strangelove "arguably the best political satire of the century," it's time to sit up and take note. Like all satires, Strangelove skewers the absurd things its creators see going on in the world around them. Strangelove shows us how, in a world armed to the teeth with nuclear warheads, one general's paranoia can blow us all to smithereens. How human error can undo all the sophisticated technology the military can provide.
Because Strangelove totally captures (in its dark satiric way) the paranoia of the Cold War era, it becomes a pitch-perfect document of the time period. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were mortal enemies in the fifties and sixties, and both countries were stockpiling tons of nuclear weapons in an attempt to be "safe" from the other. What makes Strangelove so important and innovative is that while capturing this tense standoff and its unthinkable possibilities, it also dares to question the whole thing. It was popular entertainment that wasn't afraid to ask, "Um, guys...is anybody actually safer in a world filled with weapons that could...like...obliterate it?"
All right, so Strangelove is a brilliant satire on the Cold War, yadda, yadda yadda, but what makes it important today? The Cold War is over, so who really cares? Well, like any good satire this movie points out patterns in human behavior that happen over and over again.
Make no mistake, many countries in the world are still rushing to build and stockpile nuclear weapons. Guess who's number 1 and 2 on the list of nuke owners? Russia and the U.S. Historic enemies India and Pakistan are both nuclear states. A rogue nation like North Korea has nukes, and who knows how close terrorist groups are to getting their hands on one? There are way fewer nukes in the world than there were 20 years ago, but we've got definitely got enough for a doomsday scenario like the one in Strangelove, many times over. A student of Strangelove in any time period might ask at what point are the methods we're using to protect ourselves actually putting us at risk?
War. What is it good for? Kubrick's answer? "Absolutely nothin'!" Good God y'all.
The scene where Gen. Turgidson randomly trips, falls, and springs back to his feet was a total accident that Kubrick decided to keep in the movie. (Source)
James Earl Jones and others on set originally thought that Slim Pickens arrived in costume, but later learned that Pickens always dressed and talked like a cowboy. (Source)
General Ripper's paranoid theories on the fluoridation of water were inspired by the real life conspiracy theories of the John Birch Society, an extreme right-wing group that was influential at the time in ultraconservative circles. There are plenty of people who don't think fluoridation is a great idea, but they don't think the Russians are behind it. (Source)
Sterling Hayden, who plays the Communist-hating Gen. Ripper, was actually once a member of the American Communist Party. He ended up "naming names" at his hearing with the House Un-American activities committee, but he never forgave himself for doing it. (Source)
Strangelove's release was delayed because of the Kennedy assassination. The line of dialogue where Kong says that a guy could have a wild weekend in Vegas with the survival kit originally read "Dallas" but for obvious reasons, this was changed. Too soon. (Source)
TMI from TCM
The Turner Classic Movies site tells you all you need to know about Strangelove and more.
All Things Kubrick
This fan-site has everything you ever did and didn't want to know about the amazing director.
It was Inevitable
Someone just hadto do a Lego version.
Read the totally serious thriller that spawned the totally hilarious film.
The same year Strangelove was released, another film, Fail Safe,told the story of an accidental first-strike nuclear attack by the U.S. against the Soviets. This movie was deadly serious, though. It scared the crap out of everyone who saw it.
So Sayeth the New Yorker
Click here for a great review of the film on its 50th anniversary.
It's All True
More from The New Yorker, telling us that all the craziest stuff in the film was reality in U.S. and Soviet policy.
Thumbs Way Up
Roger Ebert gushes over Dr. Strangelove.
Like a Rolling Stone
Rolling Stone does a great interview/bio article on Stanley Kubrick.
Screenwriter Terry Southern dishes about working with Kubrick on Strangelove.
Filmsite describes the sexual innuendo of all the character's names.
We dare you to watch the original trailer for Strangeloveand not want to see this movie.
From Hot to Cold
A great documentary that gives us the lowdown on how war turned cold.
Check out this creepy cartoon from the 50's, which tells us the joys of nuclear fallout.
Duck and Cover!
Who knew that you could survive under your desk if the bomb dropped while you were in school? They just don't make desks like they used to, we guess.
Fun With Propaganda
An announcer guy tells you everything you need to know about why the U.S.S.R. is evil.
Are You a Commie or a Citizen?
Click here to find out.
Now That's a Director
Here's Kubrick looking very director-ly.
Kong rides the bomb like a bucking bronco.
What's So Funny?
Dr. Strangelove is personally amused by nuclear warfare.
Serious Times in the War Room
They didn't get that table from IKEA.
I Want to Be a B-52 for Halloween
Gen. Buck Turgidson has fun showing the President how a B-52 does its stuff.