Cinophile: Dr. Strangelove

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[column size=one_half position=first ] Feeling overwhelmed by the world? Do you believe we’re always a breath away from a man-made apocalypse? Dr. Strangelove is the tonic. It won’t solve anything, but at least you’ll feel better knowing there wasn’t much you can do anyway…

You’ve probably heard of Dr. Strangelove. But have you ever seen it? It has been fifty years since the film first hit box office gold. Yes, Stanley Kubrick’s film has gone on to be an immortal classic. The name survives the ages and is a staple of film schools across the world. Still, watching something that is more than forty or fifty years old can be a challenge, so many movie fans tend to avoid it.

Can’t blame you – most of those movies do not age well. But Dr. Strangelove deserves to be watched, because today it makes more sense than ever.

At the height of the cold war, a deranged American general decides that the Communist threat is not being taken seriously enough, so he initiates an unstoppable protocol that will result in the nuclear bombing of Russia. The U.S. powers-that-be convene to find a solution, but there is disagreement over trying to stop the unstoppable plan or instead planning for what to do after the bombs drop.

The story sound serious, but this is a borderline slapstick comedy with absurd jokes and brilliantly over-the-top characters. Beneath this layer of jokes and insanity hides the dark theme: the end of the world by our own hand.

Dr. Strangelove may be about Cold War paranoia and fears of nuclear bombs. But seen today it makes a much bigger point: the whole system is crazy. Half a century ago the film was lambasted for its ridiculous premise, its glib undertone and just generally being a negative worrywart for suggesting the world is always on the tipping point of disaster.

Today we know at least two things they didn’t in 1964. Firstly, it was possible for an officer to start a nuclear war. And the information age tells us the world seems to be teetering over the precipice all the time. When watching Dr. Strangelove in today’s context, it shows it was onto the truth a long time before the rest of us.

Does that mean Kubrick was a visionary? Well, he definitely was, but his other movies prove this. Dr. Strangelove was a rare combination of talent, resulting into being both of its time (it was a big hit) and way ahead too.

This is why, if you haven’t yet, watch this movie. And if you haven’t done so in a while, fire up a copy of it again. When taken through the prism of today’s 24-hour news cycle, it’s almost comforting. The movie’s full title is Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb – that last bit says it all.

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Dr. Strangelove was originally based on Red Alert, a novel about how absurdly easily a nuclear war could be triggered. It’s a serious drama, but while developing the script Stanley Kubrick saw the absurdity of the situation and starting reworking it as a ‘nightmare comedy’. He recruited cult novelist Terry Southern to help create the dark satire.
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Comedian Peter Sellers portrayed three roles in the movie. He was due to act in four, something the studio demanded believing it would guarantee the film’s success. But Sellers sprained his ankle and the role of Air Force Major T. J. “King” Kong, who famously ‘rides’ a falling nuke like a rodeo cowboy, went to Slim Pickens. Sellers was paid $1 million for the roles – more than half the film’s budget.
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The film was supposed to end on a huge pie fight between everyone in the war room. But the huge scene, which was tricky and had to be shot in one take, was cut. Ultimately the scene was seen as too silly and didn’t gel with the rest of the film
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While Kubrick and Sellers are often credited for the genius of Dr. Strangelove, it was counter-culture author Terry Southern's contributions that led to the dark but accurate comedy about the situations. Southern's deep distrust for the military-industrial complex fueled his ideas - and the characters in the film. Social and military figures would go on to lambaste the film's ridiculousness, but today we know it was actually - and quite accidentally - actually quite accurate about both the situation and the personalities involved. How nuclear war didn't break out is something of a miracle.
While Kubrick and Sellers are often credited for the genius of Dr. Strangelove, it was counter-culture author Terry Southern’s contributions that led to the dark but accurate comedy about the situations. The author was recruited by Kubrick after the director read one of Southern’s novels, given to him by Peter Sellers. Southern’s deep distrust for the military-industrial complex fueled his ideas – and the characters in the film. Social and military figures would go on to lambaste the film’s ridiculousness, but today we know it was actually – and quite accidentally – rather accurate about both the situation and the personalities involved. How nuclear war didn’t break out is something of a miracle.

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

 

 

Last Updated: August 25, 2014

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it's something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway - even video nasties need love...

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