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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Dr. Strangelove

Stanley Kubrick created a masterpiece of Cold War satire in 1964 with Dr. Strangelove (Dr.S). The full title includes the line "…or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb." It stars some big-name actors who live up to their reputations. Peter Sellers, especially, plays three important roles as Colonel Mandrake, President Muffley and Dr. Strangelove. George C. Scott plays General Turgidson. Sterling Hayden plays the unbalanced General Ripper. Dr.S is another Atomic Angst movie to fret openly about the imminence of destruction of all life on earth, but it does so in the rare style of satire and dark humor. Gallows humor? Much has been written about this movie already, so this review won't be exhaustive.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The commander of a Strategic Air Command base in Texas issues an attack order to his 34 B-52 bombers who are on routine air-readiness stations aloft. General Jack D. Ripper (Hayden) also orders the base closed with shoot-to-kill orders for anyone approaching. The commies will disguise themselves as American troops. The bombers open their Attack Plan R envelopes and proceed to targets. The rest of the government are aware of the bombers heading for Russia, but they cannot be contacted. Plan R ordered radio silence and allowed only one secret recall code, known only to Ripper. The president (Sellers) and other advisors debate what to do. General Turgidson (Scott) urges for full scale attack with missiles too. Might as well do the job right and prevent retaliation. Meanwhile, Colonel Mandrake (Sellers) is holed up with Ripper, who is clearly a paranoid psychotic. It unfolds that he sees fluoridation as a communist plot to weaken the American male's "bodily fluids." The president orders nearby troops to storm the closed base and get Ripper for the codes. A protracted fire fight ensues. When it is apparent that the bombers will reach their targets before the code is obtained, the president contacts the Russian premier, giving them the data necessary to shoot down the bombers. The SAC base is stormed, but Ripper commits suicide before being captured. Mandrake deduces the secret code from Ripper's desk doodles. He eventually contacts the president and all the planes are recalled -- except one. Major "King" Kong's (Slim Pickens) plane suffered radio damage in a near miss from a soviet missile, so did not get the recall. Suffering other damage too, Kong opts for a target of convenience, an ICBM base. The bomb bay doors are also damaged. He splices the wires while sitting atop one of the bombs. The doors open. He rides it down like a bronco. Back in the Pentagon war room, they find out that the Soviets have a Doomsday Device, which will automatically launch missiles with extra deadly radiation that will wipe out all life on earth -- if anyone bombs Russia with nukes. Realizing that doom is coming, the men in the wareroom listen to Dr. Strangelove's notion that they find 100,000 people to hide deep in mine shafts and wait the 100 years until it's safe to come out. He paints a male fantasy scenario of 10 women (all eager to breed) to each man, who has little else to do down in the mine shafts, so… Turgidson worries that the Russians have their babes in mine shafts already and that there is a "Mine Shaft Gap." The film ends with a montage of many different nuclear test explosions, with Vera Lynn singing her famous song, "We'll Meet Again." The End.

Dr.S shares with others in its doom genre that total global destruction is not averted. It shares this pessimistic view with On The Beach ('59) and The Last War ('61). It has more in common with the latter, in that it plays out in detail just how the nuclear powder keg gets touched off. Unlike The Last War in which errors eventually result in Armageddon, Dr.S makes it the willful act of a single deranged man. Interestingly, Columbia pictures felt they needed to include a scrolling-text disclaimer at the start, saying how the Air Force's safeguards would prevent anything like this from happening. Many classic era sci-fi took the presumption of events in Dr. Strangelove occuring, then spun out the tales of what happened to the scant survivors. 1000 Years From Now ('52), World Without End ('56), Planet of the Apes ('68) to mention just three of them.

Cold War Spotlight
Peter George's original novel was a cautionary tale of how the best laid plans for security in the Cold War could backfire and actually cause the cataclysm they sought to prevent. Kubrick's adaptation added the mythical Doomsday Device as a single focal point for all of the nuclear arms dangers. Just one bomb dropped would launch the end of the world. Mutually Assured Destruction.

Based on the Book -- Dr.S's primary story came from the 1958 novel by Peter George: "Red Alert". George's story is essentially the same as the primary plot in the movie, except for the ending. In the book, the president offers to let the soviets bomb one American city (Atlantic City, NJ) as compensation for the one bomb that the unreachable bomber will drop. It turns out that the lone bomber fails to drop its bomb, so all ends well. Kubrick changed that 180 degrees. George later sued the writers of the story "Fail Safe" (also made into a movie) for plagiarism.

Sex and Violence -- Kubrick's screenplay and directing interweave sex into just about every aspect of the plot. From the opening scene of a B-52 and air tanker "coupled" with lounge music in the background, to the names of characters and many visuals and scenes, Kubrick makes the story almost more about sex than nukes. Examples:
General Jack D. Ripper ( a killer of women) is paranoid about communist plots to weaken his "bodily fluids". We later learn that he means sperm, specifically. When besieged, Ripper wields the huge machine gun in particularly phallic fashion (actually impossible for the real gun).
Colonel Mandrake: The mandrake was a root plant thought to be an aphrodisiac or would enhance fertility. It's even mentioned in the Old Testament in a spat between Rachel and Leah.
President Merkin Muffley: A merkin is a pubic wig. A "muff" is the natural hair in the same role. The president is cast as a sort of feminine-side leader who is too easily side-tracked into quibbles over feelings.
General "Buck" Turgidson: is the hyper-male counterpart to Muffley. Turgid means swollen. Buck is all for getting in there and getting the job done. Very macho. He is shown in a hotel room with his secretary in a bikini. He is also keen on Dr. Strangelove's scenario of 1 man per 10 women secluded in mine shafts. There are more, too numerous to list here.

Subtle Humor -- The excellence of Kubrick's humor lies in its understatement. It also plays on absurdity set against the backdrop of the terrible and serious topic of global nuclear war. Some examples include: when Turgidson and the soviet ambassador are scuffling, the president tells them, "You can't fight in here, this the war room." When Colonel "Bat" Guano (Keenan Wynn) allows Mandrake to call the president on a payphone, he doesn't have enough change for the call. He tells Guano to break into the nearby Coke machine. With armageddon near, he refuses (deadpan), because it's private property. Also, with armageddon looming, the president and the soviet premier continue to get into protracted telephone spats over their feelings. Or, when they all discover that the soviets had a doomsday device, Dr. Strangelove points out that a deterrent is pointless if you don't tell people, the ambassador says sheepishly, "We were going to announce it on Monday?" As with the sexual references, the dark deadpan humor moments are too numerous to list here.

Military Machine -- As an interesting counterfoil to the bumblings and ineptitude of the politicians and the generals, the men aboard the B-52 carry out their roles with machine-like rhythm. Even when their plane is damaged by the soviet missile, they go about their emergency operations with cool dispatch. In Kubrick's hands, they become a human metaphor for the fabled Doomsday Device which will operate automatically -- free from meddling by fallible men.

Ghost Plane -- Admittedly a small thing, but when Kong's B-52 is flying low over the snowy Russian landscape, there is one spot, about 1 hour 35 minutes in, where the shadow can be seen. It is the shadow of a WWII bomber, the B-17. Just plane trivia.

Bottom line? Dr.S is a must-see as a cultural icon alone. Slim Pickens riding the bomb bronco style has been repeated and parodied many times. Aside from its value as an insight into Cold War mentalities (sane and insane), the acting from the stars is not to be missed. Peter Sellers plays all three of his roles amazingly well. Yet, he is almost upstaged by George C. Scott's comedic talent. Also look for an early film appearance of James Earl Jones as the bombardier on the B-52. While Kubrick gave the world a cathartic black humor look at the topic, another 1964 film, Fail Safe would examine a similar scenario, but from a totally serious point of view. The two make a great double-feature.

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