The funniest film ever made about nuclear holocaust, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Stanley Kubrick’s screwball satire of cold war posturing and mutually assured destruction, didn’t begin as a comedy. The source novel, Peter George’s Red Alert, was a grave contemplation of the cold war gone hot with a rogue nuclear attack on Russia. Such possibilities seemed all too plausible in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis.
The story remains the same: A paranoid headcase of a General launches a first strike with misguided patriotic zeal and a milquetoast American president tries to work out a solution with an inebriated Russian premiere while his warmongering staff tries to turn disaster into opportunity with a modest proposal: just finish the job. Kubrick simply transformed a serious military thriller into a surreal farce of ideological hysteria and military arrogance. “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Depending on the breaks.”
Directing in a coolly precise style that director Barry Sonnenfeld once described as “absurdist realism,” Kubrick lets the absurdity slowly seep into the film. George C. Scott’s growling understatements as General Buck Turgidson (“I don’t think it’s quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up, sir”) and Sterling Hayden’s deadpan intensity as General Jack D. Ripper (whose rants about fluoridation as a commie conspiracy to “sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids” are rooted in impotence) erupt into the slapstick scuffles of international diplomacy. “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here!” admonishes President Mervyn Muffley (Peter Sellers in milquetoast mode). “This is the War Room!”
No stranger to multiple roles, Sellers takes on three characters: Muffley, British officer Lionel Mandrake (Ripper’s unflappable but noticeably alarmed executive officer), and the calculating weapons scientist Dr. Strangelove, played as a demented combination of Werner Von Braun, Henry Kissinger and Dr. Mabuse in a perverted purring German accent. His eyes flash as he contemplates Armageddon and arm reflexively salutes “Mein Fuhrer” as talk of worldwide destruction brings him to a kind of orgasm.
The conflagration of war and sex is there from the opening credits, where bombers refuel in scenes of mechanical copulation. In Dr. Strangelove, it seems all too plausible that it’s not politics but arrogance, machismo and an extreme act of sexual overcompensation that brings about the end of the world as we know it.