In yet another hilarious performance, Peter Sellers is Group Captain Mandrake, the stuffy British officer who probably wishes he'd been assigned to any American officer but Gen. Jack D. Ripper when he signed up for the officer exchange program.
Dealing with psycho Ripper may not be much fun for Mandrake, but it's a lot of fun for us to watch the uptight Brit try to manage his commanding officer's total lunacy. The contrast between Mandrake's British reserve and Ripper's rough American-isms is funny over and over again.
Mandrake's even reserved when he talks about the Japanese captors who tortured him in WWII:
RIPPER: No, I mean when they tortured you, did you talk?
MANDRAKE: Ah, oh no, I ah...I don't think they wanted me to talk, really. I don't think they wanted me to say anything. It was just their way of having... a bit of fun, the swines. Strange thing is they make such bloody good cameras.
Even though Mandrake is a well-behaved sort of chap, it doesn't stop him from standing up to Ripper—or at least trying. From the minute Mandrake discovers that Ripper has issued "Plan R" for no good reason, the Group Captain tells Ripper that he's going to go over his head and call the powers-that-be.
MANDRAKE: (Salutes) General Ripper, sir, as an officer in Her Majesty's Air Force, it is my clear duty, under the present circumstances, to issue the recall code, upon my own authority, and bring back the wing. If you'll excuse me sir. (He checks the exits and sees they're all locked.) I'm afraid sir, I must ask you for the key and the recall code. Have you got them handy sir?
That said, Mandrake gives in to Ripper pretty quickly when the General locks him in the office and threatens him with a gun. Even then, he's polite:
MANDRAKE: Do I take it, sir, that you are threatening a brother officer with a gun?
After that, it's not long before Mandrake is helping Ripper feed bullets into a gun as Ripper fires on American troops invading the base. Mandrake's excuse of having "a gammy leg" doesn't fly with the bloodthirsty Ripper.
As the extent of Ripper's craziness dawns on him (you can see Sellers freaking out silently when he hears about the bodily fluids theory), Mandrake tries to talk sense into the General:
MANDRAKE: Would you look at me now? Do I look all rancid and clotted? You look at me, Jack, eh? Look, eh? And I drink a lot of water, you know. I'm what you might call a water man, Jack. That's what I am. And I can swear to you, my boy, swear to you, that there's nothing wrong with my bodily fluids. Not a thing, Jackie.
So is Mandrake kind of a wuss? Could he have done more to avert the attack? Maybe. After Ripper shoots himself, however, Mandrake totally finds his spine. First, he has the wit to figure out the recall code based on Ripper's psycho scribblings, which sorta justifies all that awkward conversation. After that, he totally stands up to Col. "Bat" Guano, the American soldier who tries to arrest him, thinking he's a "deviated prevert." Check out this tirade from Mandrake as he convinces Guano to let him call the President with the recall code:
MANDRAKE: I don't want to talk to him, Colonel, I've got to talk to him. And I can assure you, if you don't put that gun away and stop this stupid nonsense, the court of inquiry on this'll give you such a pranging, you'll be lucky if you end up wearing the uniform of a bloody toilet attendant!
We have no idea what a "pranging" is but we're pretty sure it's bad. Whatever it is, Guano is convinced and allows Mandrake to successfully deliver the code. So, in the end, Mandrake grows a spine and turns into a hero. Sure, the world still ends up being obliterated, but we still give Mandrake an A for effort.
Mandrake's well-meaning but bumbling character, hampered by his politeness and wish to please, provides some of the best absurdist humor in the film. Trying to call off a nuclear war but not having the correct change for the pay phone?