Monday, 3 April 2017

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Fig 1 - Dr. Strangelove Poster
Dr. Strangelove (loosely based on the novel Red Alert by Peter George) is a satirical Cold War comedy written and directed by Stanley Kubrick. The premise centers around the execution of "Plan R" by a delusional American General named Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden). The plan essentially initiates nuclear war with Russia, despite the fact that Ripper has overridden any authority to do so. Subsequently, an urgent inquiry is formed at the Pentagon in an attempt to reverse the situation, bringing together the US military's executive officers along with a few other notable figures including President Muffley (Peter Sellers), 'commie-hating' Lothario, General Turgidson (George C. Scott), and the outlandish German scientist Dr. Strangelove (also played by Sellers). All the while, a British Captain by the name of Mandrake (played once again by Sellers) finds himself barricaded in Ripper's office at the mercy of Russian gunfire whilst trying desperately to lure the reversal code from the mad General.

The film is held together by a plethora of eccentric performances, in no small part by Peter Sellers. His aesthetic as Mandrake is somewhat reminiscent of a career-defining take on Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther franchise (1963-82). Elements of Sellers' appearance even shine through the Lynchian quiff and questionable accent of Dr. Strangelove. However, in scanning over the credits after the film, I was in utter disbelief that Sellers had also played the role of President Muffley, whose disguise of a bald-cap and glasses reminded me of the shock that followed the realisation of Tom Cruise's inclusion in Tropic Thunder (2008). That said (and unlike the case of Tropic Thunder) I am still able to watch Sellers as President Muffley and completely question whether or not it's him. A clear signifier of Oscar-worthy acting if there ever was one. All three of his performances feel completely genuine and comical in their own right, though Sellers ultimately lost the Best Actor award to Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady (1964) at the 37th Academy Awards. In addition, George C. Scott as General Turgidson gives a great performance that allows him to chew the scenery in all the right ways in his undermining of the Russian Ambassador's agenda. His outbursts of 'commie-enduced' rage are only paralleled comically by the facial tics and exaggerated mannerisms that make his character an entertaining watch even during more 'nuanced' lines of dialogue.

Fig 2 - Dr. Strangelove - General Turgidson
The film's cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (also director of photography for The Omen (1976) and Star Wars: Episode IV (1977)) displayed an unprecedented commitment in getting the shots for the backgrounds of the Arctic landscape. A 2013 interview with Taylor's wife Dee divulged that the plane responsible for capturing the scenery was required to land by the American air-force, in the assumption that their straying into a "secret airbase" was an act of communist espionage. The irony of this was surely not lost on Kubrick as the film itself is a comment on America's relationship with Russia during the period. That aside, the film's pièce de résistance, the 'War Room', is by far the most engrossing set-piece. Production designer Sir Ken Adam recalls in a 2013 interview his experience of designing the War Room alongside Kubrick, stating that "It came as a big shock when two or three weeks into filming I realised Stanley wasn't so easy-going after all." Having initially designed the room with a second tier, Kubrick approached Adam stating "What the hell am I supposed to do with 60 people on the upper level? They're standing around with egg on their faces doing nothing - get rid of the upper level." (Adam, 2013) To which, Adam graciously admitted was the right choice. And incidentally, the final design has since achieved a phenomenal status amongst some of the greatest set-pieces of all-time, laying the groundwork for countless parodies and influences in future media.

Overall I think Dr. Strangelove is a pretty fantastic movie. Like a lot of Kubrick's work, I found that the film grew on me the more I thought about it afterwards. I don't think the film is 'riotously' funny, but it absolutely has it's moments. However, the underlying bones of the film, so steeped in satire, allow it's comedy to flow effortlessly through the caricatures it presents. Dr. Strangelove is a lot of fun once you discount the millions of lives at stake, which ultimately reflects the nature of war and man's unbridled stupidity.


Fig. 1 Dr. Strangelove Poster (1964) From: Dr. Strangelove - Directed by: Stanley Kubrick

Fig. 2 Dr. Strangelove Screenshot (1964) From: Dr. Strangelove - Directed by: Stanley Kubrick

Gilbert Taylor Interview (2013):

Sir Ken Adam Interview (2013):


  1. Hi Josh - There is a good making of documentary for Dr Stranglove on Youtube. I'd also recommend watching 'The Life and Death of Peter Sellers' too.

  2. Great doc - Thanks Alan. Amazing to think the B-52 design was based on a single photo.