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1 Year, 100 Movies #39 Dr. Strangelove (1964)

by Trey Hock on February 22, 2011

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

I’m on a tear. I’ve got a little catching up to do, but it’s not hard to get excited about the recent string of films. Who wouldn’t want to make time for “King Kong,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” or “The Sound of Music?” Film #39 is no different.

Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” is like an inappropriate joke, which is perceptive and scathing, and also so funny and true that one doesn’t know whether to laugh or hide in a small windowless room. Kubrick’s ability to tackle issues of nuclear annihilation, the communist scare, even the mix of boyish appeal and deadly power that surrounds big bombs, his willingness to tackle all of these things in a darkly comic way makes “Dr. Strangelove” a marvel of filmmaking.

Released in 1964, while the Cold War was still rolling on with continued momentum, “Dr. Strangelove” engages the seemingly insane policies of the time in the only way that made any sense at all. It accepted them and illustrated the absurd logic that results when arms policies based on fear are allowed to grow unchecked.

The story begins when General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden), calling on Wing Attack Plan R, orders his side of aircraft to attack their targets in the USSR. He then places his military base under lockdown and orders a communication freeze with anyone outside of the base.

When Major “King” Kong (Slim Pickens), flying his route near the border of Soviet Russia, receives his orders he prepares himself and his men for what they must do.

Once the orders are confirmed, Kong trades in his flight helmet for a cowboy hat. The latter does seem a more appropriate choice for delivering a 40-megaton payload.

The way the shot of the control panel is intercut with the reaction shots of Kong and his crew is frenetic and still fresh today. You’ve have seen this style of editing, and this type of shot composition in every Wes Anderson film. This is one of places it comes from.

With the planes and their nuclear payload on their way, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), a visiting officer from the British Air Force, discovers that the order to attack may have been made in error. When Mandrake confronts Ripper and demands the recall codes, the true nature of Ripper’s intent unfolds. (Sound starts at 7 seconds.)

Sterling Hayden’s stone-faced recitation of his assertions of the communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids is great. If there were even the slightest whiff of irony or self-awareness from the character of Ripper then this conspiracy theory would fall flat, but Hayden is able to deliver each of Ripper’s lines with a stoic sincerity that makes the dark humor of the moment ring.

Add to that, Peter Sellers as the muffled and flustered Mandrake, one of three roles played by Sellers, and this moment could not be more stark and hilarious.

I just want to take a moment to talk about Peter Sellers. Sellers plays Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and Dr. Strangelove, but instead of feeling gimmicky, it gives each role an additional poignancy. In the same way that the roles of Hamlet’s ghost and the Player King in Hamlet were often played by the same actor, this tripling of roles allows for interesting parallels that otherwise may not arise. And Sellers almost supernatural ability to become his characters makes the three characters as distinct from one another as if separate actors had played them.

The President and his generals convene in the Pentagon war room to discuss what can be done about the developing tense situation. General Turgidson (George C. Scott) suggests that an all out attack on the Soviet Union may be their best option. (Sound starts at 4 seconds.)

In this scene you can see some of the brilliance of George C. Scott’s ability. His character of Turgidson offers numbers of possible casualties, which could count in the millions, with a dismissive smile, but is shocked and dismayed at the idea of Russian Ambassador Sadesky (Peter Bull) viewing the “Big Board.”

Turgidson’s skepticism increases once the Ambassador arrives. While the President tries to get the Russian Premier on the phone, Turgidson gets into a tussle with the Ambassador.

Irony is rarely spread so thick and deliciously.

President Muffley’s soft-spoken and almost wholly ineffectual approach to the situation continues as he talks with Premier Kissoff on the phone.

Again Peter Sellers shows his absolute brilliance and he tries to out polite and out apologize the Russian Premier. The gravity of the situation is made that much more hilarious by the overly polite and formal tone. Every time I watch this scene, I can rarely stop laughing, when the President refers to Ripper’s order to attack Russia with nuclear weapons as “a silly thing.” The understatement again underlines the absurdity of the situation, both in the real world of 1964 and the fictional world of “Dr. Stranglove.”

The final conflict arises when the Ambassador tells President Muffley of the Soviet Doomsday device. A device that will be triggered automatically when a U.S. nuclear strike occurs and which will kill all life on the planet.

Enter Dr. Strangelove.

The eccentric Strangelove discusses the simple beauty of the doomsday device with apparent glee, and only suffers an outburst when he questions why the doomsday device wasn’t made public. Even then it seems more a disappointment in the Soviets’ inability to follow process, than any concern for the destruction of life on Earth.

This string of absurd logic and implausible situations continues until the inevitable conclusion, which involves Maj. Kong riding the hydrogen bomb into its target.

The brilliance of “Strangelove” comes from its premise, which explores the ridiculous and mad behavior of the Cold War politicians and military leaders, and conducts this exploration from a platform of madness.

Perhaps one of the funniest and darkest comedies ever made, “Strangelove” has continued power today, because of its parallels to the bizarre policies and increasingly loony rhetoric that so often surrounds the War on Terror. As long as there are military and political policies that are based on our collective fears of a foreign “other,” “Dr Strangelove” will still have place on any list of great films.

Next up #38 “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948)

For links to #40-49, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #40 The Sound of Music (1965)

For links to #50-59, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #50 The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)

For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Greg February 23, 2011 at 9:05 am

I’d have this firmly in the top 5


2 Reed February 23, 2011 at 9:28 am

This movie is in my Top 5 all time. I can’t think of a more enjoyable movie. All of the acting performances are superb, and I don’t think we’ve ever seen a film with a more clever approach. The way everyone plays it absurd, but totally straight (at least from the character’s point of view) is what sells it – as you say about Ripper.

I think that if more people would see this film, they’d take a different view of politics and war. It is an allegory that could be applied in almost any circumstance. Here’s just one case in point:


3 Trey Hock February 23, 2011 at 6:06 pm

As an outspoken Kubrick fan myself, I totally agree with both of you. I think that Dr. Strangelove is a masterpiece of political satire.


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