Film review – Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Dr Strangelove (Peter Sellers)
Dr Strangelove (Peter Sellers)

Almost fifty years after it’s original 1964 release, Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy masterpiece is still as terrifying, insightful and hilarious as ever. In one regard, Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb functions as a time capsule in the way it so brilliantly encapsulates the very real Cold War fears of nuclear attack from the Soviet Union and the more paranoid fears of Communist infiltration in America. However, while some of the players have changed, the threat of nuclear warfare is still a disturbing reality and something that can only really be faced via large servings of comedy. And the overall point of Dr Strangelove still remains: if something were to go wrong with the nuclear bomb, it would likely be due to human error. Furthermore, that error would very possibly be made by an over zealous nut in a position of power.

One of the defining aspects of the USA and USSR nuclear arms race was the mutual assured destruction (MAD) doctrine. The basic idea behind MAD was that if both sides built up enough weapons, then everybody would be too afraid to ever launch the first strike since the guaranteed retaliation would be too devesting. It’s a theoretically sound concept providing that both sides keep up with each other and no renegade element intervenes in the increasingly deadly standoff. In Dr Strangelove the MAD doctrine is represented by the American Plan R retaliation orders and the Russian Doomsday machine. Both are designed to set a counter nuclear attack in motion, be impossible to stop and therefore function as the ultimate deterrent. Enter Brigadier General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden), the renegade element.

Dr Strangelove: Brigadier General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden)
Brigadier General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden)

Classic Hollywood cowboy and tough guy actor, Sterling Hayden is perfect as Ripper, playing the role completely straight. Scenes where he justifies launching a nuclear attack, criticises the government for not being equipped to cope with war and rants about ‘the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids’ could have come straight from the microphones of any number of contemporary talk back radio stations. A counterpoint to Hayden’s straight down the line performance is George C. Scott as General ‘Buck’ Turgidson. Scott, another tough guy actor, plays his role in the larger than life manner that Kubrick often demanded from performers such as Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Jack Nicholson in The Shining (1980). What results is Scott coming across as part high school bully, part hyperactive little boy and part fanatical patriot. He blusters through every scene set in the Pentagon War Room, only falling quiet during the occasional moment when hit by a frightening realisation or when feeling admonished.

After Ripper’s office at the air force base and the War Room, the final main setting for Dr Strangelove is on board one of the America B-52 planes that has been sent to drop its deadly payload on Russia. Kubrick shoots many of these scenes in a similar fashion to how he would later film the scenes aboard the Discovery One in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Initially, there’s a sense of mundane boredom and routine to the lives of the crew. Even when they spring into action the focus is on the processes and protocols that they follow. Similar to 2001 the idea is to show how automated the characters are and how their lives are dictated by technology. What makes the B-52 scenes in Dr Strangelove so entertaining is that in this almost sterile world of technology and military procedure, is the heavily Texan accented captain Major ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens) who puts on a cowboy hat as soon as the attack orders are confirmed. There’s something so sweet and naive about the way Pickens plays the part, which he does sincerely, and this further adds to the film’s maddening charm.

Dr Strangelove: Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky (Peter Bull) and President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers)
Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky (Peter Bull) and President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers)

Then there is Peter Sellers, who plays Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, the American president Merkin Muffley and the sinister German scientist Dr. Strangelove. Sellers, who had also appeared in Kubrick’s previous film Lolita (1962), is phenomenal in all three parts making Dr Strangelove possibly the only Kubrick film that arguably feels like it belongs more to its leading actor rather than its uncompromising auteur director. With the possible exception of Being There (Hal Ashby, 1979), Dr Strangelove is Sellers greatest performance(s). He’s delightfully proper as Mandrake, endearingly wet as Muffley and completely deranged as Strangelove. The final Strangelove scene, which is largely improvised, is so ridiculous, so over-the-top and so outrageous that if you look closely you can see actor Peter Bull, who plays Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky, desperately trying not to laugh in the background.

Dr Strangelove is one of Stanley Kubrick’s many masterpieces, one of the greatest films about the Cold War and one of the greatest comedies ever made. Isolating particular standout moments is near impossible, although President Muffley’s awkward phone conversation with his unseen Russian counterpart never fails to amuse. The early use of ironic music is also a delight, with a lush orchestral version of ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ playing over the opening titles depicting the sexualised imagery of a plane refuelling and Vera Lynn’s World War II hit ‘We’ll Meet Again’ playing over the film’s final images. Dr Strangelove was adapted from a serious novel titled Fail-Safe, which was more faithfully translated onto the screen by Sidney Lumet, also in 1964. While Lumet’s Fail-Safe is an excellent film, making Dr Strangelove as a comedy was a stroke of genius for Kubrick, who realised that the themes would carry even more weight if the film was funny. Major Kong riding a nuclear bomb like a rodeo horse is still one of the most hilarious and chilling images ever committed to film.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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  1. Thanks again for another fine review. In 1964, I was 17, had just started driving a car, and with friends, was going to a lot of movies. Among many, there was a quartet of films we saw that year (at a cool little suburban Boston art house single screen that’s gone) that cluster in the brain around politics and the Cold War: The Best Man, Seven Days in May, Fail-Safe, and Dr. Strangelove. It was a good year for movies. Dr. Strangelove has proven to be the most enduring for the reasons you cite.

    ***Spoilers Below****

    Kubrick captured certain Amerian peculiarities with brilliance. Just calling the U.S. base in the U.K. “Burpelson” was side-splitting–if there wasn’t a base with that name, there should have been. And then there’s Keenan Wynn telling Mandrake that if he breaks open the vending machine to get some change to make a pay call to alert the Pentagon and the President, he’ll have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company. The hand-held, newsreel-like footage of the army trying to sack the air base was so casually real, I remember blinking to be sure he hadn’t stolen some actual war footage. Merkin Muffley looks like he was modeled after Adlai Stevenson, a somewhat intellectual Democratic presidential candidate defeated by Eisenhower. This film was for Sellers what Kind Hearts and Coronets was for Alec Guinness.

    Fail-Safe covered the same themes with what the French review (in French, alas) calls an almost documentary-like quality. It was made on an utter shoe-string at a small studio in NYC. It suffered from having been released after Strangelove and didn’t make much money. I’d read the book and really wanted to see it, so I went anyway. It’s taut and well done. The end is devastating, a testimonial to Lumet. Here’s the French review link from the “L’Oeil sur L’Ecran” (Eye on the Screen) page on the Le Monde web site. The French title, interestingly, is Point-Limite which my dictionary says means boundary point, but which has a sensibility here of something closer to “Point of No Return.” I know just enough French to be dangerous, and I’ll no doubt hear from the Academie Francaise by Friday…

  2. You observe, “There’s something so sweet and naive about the way Pickens plays the part, which he does sincerely, and this further adds to the film’s maddening charm.” That’s an interesting comment. Kong says to the crew under his command something along the lines of, ‘when all this is over, you should be in line for some special citations and commendations.’ And he is sincere, totally sincere–even in the face of the fact that if they succeed in their mission, there won’t be any airbase–or civilization–to which to return, let alone military honors. That sincerity actually gets under my skin in a way, in contrast to the pompous ignorance of some of the other characters.

    A puzzle: The Internet Movie Data Base indicates that Strangelove is from a screenplay by Peter George, Terry Southern, and Kubrick based on George’s book titled Red Alert. Fail-Safe is from a screenplay by Walter Bernstein based on a novel of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. (I have a copy of it somewhere.) Still, the IMDb adds Peter George (who died young at 42) as an uncredited writer for Fail-Safe. Wikipedia indicates that George filed a plagiarism law suit and reached an undisclosed settlement.

    The CBS television network here, as a kind of experimental production, did a live black and white broadcast of Fail-Safe starring George Clooney, Richard Dreyfuss, Harvey Keitel and others. A DVD of the broadcast is out there somewhere.

  3. I see where the Astor Theater in St. Kilda is running screenings of a digital restoration of this film from now through December 4, 2011.

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