The pitch black comedy Dr. Strangelove (Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) is one of those films you frequently see on lists of “Movies you must see before you die” . I’ve known of this film for years, but would you believe I only saw it for the first time several days ago? It’s true! Allow me to explain: twice a year Barnes & Noble has a 50% off sale for their Criterion film collection. And twice a year I look through the list to find one or two films (sometimes three) to pick up (I don’t have a choice anymore since Criterion pulled their collection from Hulu and I can’t afford the streaming service they started). For this sale, I added Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (bringing me closer to collecting all of his jidaigeki films) and, of course, Dr. Strangelove. I wasn’t going to pick it originally, as my thoughts going in were to pick up Kurosawa’s work only (I nearly bought Kagemusha instead). But then I saw Dr. Strangelove and I decided it would be good to keep collecting films besides Kurosawa. So I brought it home, put the disc in and started watching.
My first thought? Well this is…..different. I knew going in that Dr. Strangelove is a black comedy (that is, it makes fun of very serious subject matter, in this case nuclear war) but that still didn’t quite prepare me for everything I heard.
The plot is as follows: General Jack D. Ripper (Jack the Ripper, get it?) goes rogue and orders the 843rd Bomb Wing of the Strategic Air Command to attack using “Wing Attack Plan R” a plan that is to be used by a general when a prior nuclear strike has taken out his superiors. But in reality, no such strike has taken place and General Ripper is using this plan to conduct a pre-emptive strike on the Soviet Union, betting that once the Pentagon finds out, they will have no choice but to proceed with an all-out attack to prevent the Soviets from retaliating.
Instead, the members of the War Room (including the President) meet with the Soviet Ambassador to figure out a way to either recall the planes or shoot them down to prevent them from firing on their targets. To make a long story short: all of the planes are eventually recalled but one (because that plane’s radio was damaged by a missile so they can’t receive the recall order).
Choosing a closer target because they are low on fuel, a bomb is launched (with the pilot riding it down like a bronco) and the mushroom cloud is viewed from a distance. This triggers a hitherto unknwon “doomsday device” that the Soviet Ambassador has revealed to the War Room. Once triggered, the device detonates a large amount of nuclear bombs in various locations, bombs that have been tainted with a radioactive element that will encircle the Earth with deadly radiation for 93 years. Vague plans are made to move several hundred thousand people into deep mine shafts (where the radiation can’t reach) to ensure the survival of the human race, but before any firm conclusion is reached, there is a series of nuclear bomb explosions, leaving the fate of the world up in the air.
(Personally, I think the implication is that the Earth is destroyed)
One of the standout performances in this film is Peter Sellers (perhaps best known as Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther) who plays no less than three parts in this film, each one with a different accent. His roles are:
- Group Captain Lionel Mandrake: an exchange officer from the RAF (British accent)
- Merkin Muffley, the President of the United States (a role played completely straight I should add) (perfect American accent)
- The titular Dr. Strangelove, a former Nazi and expert on nuclear war (German accent)
Sellers was originally meant to play a fourth role, that of Major Kong, the pilot who ultimately rides a nuclear bomb down to the ground, but with three roles already on his plate, Sellers found himself unable to fully immerse into the Southern-accented role and Slim Pickens (yes that’s really his name) replaced him. Sellers delivers the performance of a lifetime, each character is fully realized and unique, in fact his performance of the President is so different that I had to double-check the credits to reassure myself that it was in fact Sellers playing the role!
Even though he got tricked into it, I love George C. Scott’s performance as the over-the-top General Turgidson. I say he got tricked into it because Scott wasn’t comfortable acting too over-the-top but director Stanley Kubrick got him to do it by telling him the first few takes were “practice takes” that didn’t count. When Scott found out the truth he was furious with Kubrick for a very long time and swore he’d never work with him again (though in later years he admitted this performance was among his favorites).
If you haven’t seen Dr. Strangelove, it is definitely worth the time to grab a copy and give it a look. If you HAVE seen Dr. Strangelove already, let me know what you thought of it in the comments below.
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