Directors Day - No 2: Stanley Kubrick

Dr. Strangelove

Number two on The DreamCage Favourite Directors list is Stanley Kubrick. Steve Taylor-Bryant looks back at Doctor Strangelove...

Perhaps the title should actually be Dr. Strangelove or: How I Embraced The Irony and Learned To Love A Classic, because I didn’t get Strangelove on first viewing. The 1964 comedy was viewed in my household when I was fifteen years old. I liked Peter Sellers from Pink Panther films but just missed the entire point in Strangelove and therefore it was rubbish, the worst film ever, where’s my copy of Wayne’s World.

Then, as I finished my History exams and developed what would become a lifelong obsession, the love of American politics, I started to see a few things I recognised but couldn’t place why. As my life twisted and turned and took me everywhere and anywhere, I still kept reading voraciously everything I could find on U.S. politics, The Cold War and pretty much anything that was non-fiction and was considered, at that time, modern history. There were titles I don’t remember any more about the forming of the C.I.A, Nixon, Kennedy, Reagan, not so much about Ford and Carter, Vietnam and the odd relevant work of fiction which happened to include Two Hours To Doom by Peter George (My American friends, I believe that it was called Red Alert or something over there).

This is the first and possibly the most ironic fact, as I was loving a book that had inspired a film I thought was rubbish! Peter George’s 1958 Nuclear holocaust suspense thriller was the book behind Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick was originally going to make a serious adaptation but just kept seeing humour in the novel and so a comedic version was penned.

The basic premise for those who have not seen the film (and I really suggest you do!) is that a quite mad General, Jack D. Ripper (yes I laughed too), with an aversion to anything fluid except whole grain alcohol and rainwater, decides that the Russians and their vodka drinking communist ways must be stopped, so he launches an all out nuclear attack on the nation. News gets around that Ripper may have lost it and so various military personnel and the President of the United States of America, Merkin Muffley, convene a meeting in the Pentagon War Room.

During the meeting an attack is launched on the base where General Ripper was hiding out, with an Englishman as his captive, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake. The Russian Ambassador, Alexei de Sadesky, is invited into the war room as the Russian Premier will need to be contacted. Most of the planes involved on the attack that Ripper started are either destroyed or eventually recalled after Ripper takes his own life, but one plane, Alabama Angel, has no communications left. The planes had a system that should the communication systems become compromised a self destruct system will kick in. Well in another example of irony the self destruct had been damaged so self destructed, leaving the crew without anyway for them to be contacted by the panicky folk back in the War Room. The American President and his staff try in vain to contact the pilots before they drop their bomb and then conversation moves to how humanity can survive in mineshafts for a hundred years due to the devastation that is about to happen on the planets surface.

Peter Sellers plays three characters in Dr. Strangelove and shows what a vast array of talent he possessed as he took on the mantle of President, Group Captain and ex-Nazi scientist, the titular Strangelove, a man in a wheelchair whose right arm just cannot stop doing a Nazi salute. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) was played almost straight. There is irony all over these characters. There is a President that doesn’t have the authority he thinks he has, and discovers that fail-safes he put in place neither fail to stop attacks or are safe. An RAF Group Captain that discovers that the cancellation code needed to stop global destruction is Peace on Earth and then doesn’t have the money to call the War Room, and the future of mankind being planned by a Nazi scientist when the Americans themselves are the ones that bring about Armegeddon? Well if you can’t see the irony in that fact I feel sorry for you.

Watching the film as an older man also allows me to pick up on things that I wouldn’t have noticed when I was young, whether I liked the film or not. James Earl Jones plays Lieutenant Lothar Zogg (now there’s a science fiction name if ever I heard one) and he is one of the crew responsible with making sure their nuclear payload hits its target. Yes, Darth Vadar is in the sky with the power to destroy a planet. Alderaan,I now know how you feel.

One of Ripper’s main concerns about the Russians was they are always drunk on vodka so, when the President finally gets through to his Russian compatriate, Dimitri, the irony that he is drunk and partying is also not lost on me. What happens next was one of the greatest one sided conversations in film history as Sellers has to placate Dimitri who is apparently upset that the President didn’t just call to say hello, whilst trying to explain about the problem in hand. The Russian Premier mentions another fail-safe that the Russians have in place and it is left to Ambassador Sadesky to explain the irony that an automated destruction plan, the Doomsday Device, cannot be switched off otherwise it will blow up. A protection system that is going to blow up either way? Classic.

Alongside the satire and irony are some magnificent performances. I have waxed lyrical about Sellers enough and, whilst all three of his characters steal their respective scenes, there are a couple of other actors involved that really need pointing out. The performance of Sterling Hayden as Ripper was played so deadpan straight you could have been forgiven for thinking he was in a serious film, not a comedy, and all his actions are displayed in that manner. His dialogue is superb. Being in a scene with Sellers, I would imagine, is not an easy thing to take part in and, whilst Sellers’ RAF man is overplayed and obviously comedic, Hayden performs as if he’s not part of the joke. The delivery of his views on women taking his essence through bodily fluids during the physical act of love is hilarious and yet spoken as if the man really believes it. Considering the character of Ripper was genuinely insane it was probably the most normal and calm performance in the entire film.

George C. Scott played General ‘Buck’ Turgidson, and whilst I have always loved Scott mainly for his voice in the likes of Patton and The Changeling, there is something extra in Strangelove that Scott brings to the table and that was his physical performance. There was the obvious calm in The War Room from Sellers’ President and obvious humour in the Nazi saluting of Sellers' Strangelove but, considering this is 1964 and he wasn’t born yet, there are an awful lot of Jim Carrey style face movements and gestures in Scott. As the paranoia kicks in and Scott is asked if the plane has a chance of making its target, the whole physical gyration and manic voice as he lets slip the yes through emotion is what we love Carrey for at his best.

Follow Steve on Twitter @STBwrites

Image - IMDb.

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