While Paths of Glory
is Kubrick's first great film and Lolita
is Kubrick's first controversial film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
becomes Kubrick's first controversial yet brilliant film. A real masterpiece.
The film might be a dark satire but it also provides great commentary on both the Cold War and McCarthyis and it's amazing how relevant the film is to this day. Armed with a powerful cast of Peter Sellers in three roles, George C. Scott (even if it wasn't the performance he wanted to give), Sterling Hayden (returning from The Killing
), and Slim Pickens, Kubrick masterfully develops how the end of the world can easily come to be: A mad general sees a terrifying conspiracy from the enemy and utilizes a loophole in policy to initiate a devastating attack on said enemy. Anything that could go wrong, does go wrong and yet the day was nearly saved if it were not for the sheer determination, act of duty, and total commitment of the B-52ers to perform their mission. In the end, this is the very thing that Gen. Jack D. Ripper had hoped for even if he said this of the president and the joint chiefs.
From the very beginning of this film, one can tell that this would be an unique production. The opening credits breaks away from the traditional block letters in favor of a font that looks handwritten (I'm blanking on the font's name but it's fairly popular these days). The film wastes no time by jumping into the action with Gen. Ripper issuing his unauthorized order to utilize Plan R to all aircraft within striking distance of Russia. We're quickly introduced to one aircraft that is piloted by Maj. Kong, who quickly switches his helmet for a stetson, which further sets the tone of the film.
What really drives this film other than Kubrick's great directing is the amazing performances by Peter Sellers as Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and the eponymous Dr. Strangelove. Sellers was also set to perform Maj. Kong despite his own hesitations to properly deliver a Southern accent, but ultimately dropped the performance when he sprained his ankle and couldn't get in the cockpit. Nonetheless, Sellers masterfully performs each of these characters to give each of them distinctive personalities. Each of these characters define and carry the film from beginning to end (in fact, if Sellers had performed Kong, he would have been in nearly every scene of the film).
An interesting aspect in this film that I don't think is completely explored is the trust to follow orders without question, not just to the total destruction, but also firing upon fellow Americans out of fear and/or misdirection of the enemy. The President sends in troops to storm Gen. Ripper's base in order to get to Gen. Ripper by any means. Ripper's men have standing orders to fire on anyone
who comes within a certain distance of the base and barely question who is attacking them, simply assuming it's a big Communist ruse because of the communication blackout.
Due to the limitations of technology of the time, Kubrick is forced to be creative on several occasions which only gives the film a more dramatic effect. When the B-52 plane is chased by a Russian missile, much of drama comes following the crews reactions and a simple view of the RADAR. Additionally, whenever there's an exterior shot of the plane or a view from the cockpit, the viewer sees the background moving faster than perhaps it should but this gives a farcical dramatic effect to these scenes. Lastly, I'm amused that Kubrick skillfully uses a shaky camera during the combat scenes on the airbase, decades before the effect became common practice, much to many's dismay.
Of course, who can forget the final minutes of the film? The B-52 plane rushes towards its target with a mile countdown from the navigator, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" is playing in the background, the crew calmly and dryly recites tactical information, sparks are flying as Maj. Kong tries to fix bomb release mechanism...and then the "Hi There!" bomb is falling from the plane and Maj. Kong embraces the moment by straddling the bomb as if he was at a rodeo. BOOM! Dr. Strangelove and his diagnostic apraxia provides a few more moments of comedy before closing out to multiple nuclear detonations while being serenaded by Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again."
Next up: 2001: A Space Odyssey