“ Genre: Comedy / Parental Guidance / Director: Stanley Kubrick / Actors: Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Peter Sellers, James Earl Jones, Peter Bull ... / Blu-ray released 2010-04-26 at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment / Features of the Blu-ray: Subtitled „
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Stanley Kubrick has a monumental reputation, and at least where his 60s films are concerned, it's well deserved. Dr Strangelove (1964) is probably his most accessible film, as it's not as long as 2001 and not as contentious as A Clockwork Orange. Strangelove is a black comedy about nuclear war which gives Peter Sellers his finest screen roles.
A rogue American general, Jack D. Ripper, unleashes a wave of nuclear bombers against the Soviet Union. As the Americans scrabble around trying to find the recall codes, it is revealed that the Russians have developed a doomsday weapon, which will unleash unstoppable, automated nuclear destruction on the world if even one bomb is dropped on Soviet territory.
This plot would make for quite a good thriller, which is what Kubrick originally intended for the film. But somewhere along the way he made the inspired decision to turn it into a 'nightmare comedy' instead. It has a few slapstick moments, and one or two laugh-out-loud lines ('Strange thing is, they make such... bloody good cameras'), but the comedy is perhaps a bit too nasty to have you laughing along constantly. It's a film about how human stupidity is set to destroy the world, which feels like a subject you have to laugh at as the only alternative would be sobbing in pitiful terror.
While 1950s America had generally seen the threat of nuclear war as something the Soviets were likely to bring to America through their inherent evil, incidents like the U2 spy plane being shot down, or the Bay of Pigs fiasco, showed that American foolishness was just as likely to bring about the global conflagration as Soviet aggression was. Increasingly, the idea that everyone would die just because of a stupid mistake began to take hold, with the ideology underpinning each of the superpowers seeming more and more irrelevant. Strangelove is a subversive film for its day, but within a few years the US counterculture had embraced a lot of its thinking.
No side is spared. The US is led by an ineffectual president, with its leading generals being either aggressively macho child-men (General Turgidson) or complete lunatics (General Ripper). But the Russians aren't much better, having a drunk party animal as president who hasn't bothered to tell the other side about his ultimate deterrent (thus rendering it completely useless as a deterrent, of course). The most memorable character is Dr Strangelove, the US president's weapons expert, an escaped Nazi in a wheelchair, based at least in part on Wernher von Braun, the Nazi rocket scientist who swapped sides and was responsible for American's moon rockets. There's also a neat parody of anti-Communist paranoia, as Ripper is obsessed that the Commies are taking over by fluoridation of the water, thereby contaminating our precious bodily fluids (which are somehow related to freedom).
An idea that would later gain huge currency is that the whole arms race is just a substitute for sexual potency. Ripper believes his feelings of sexual ambiguity to be caused by Communism; Turgidson is a boastful sexual braggart who infantilises his trophy girlfriend. Strangelove is dead from the waist down, and the sly, furtive glances the men give as they plan to lock themselves away forever underground with a bevy of sexy girls say it all.
Being directed by Kubrick, the film looks spectacular, but it isn't quite as dominated by the rather sterile shot compositions of some of his later films. He has a stronger story to tell here than in a lot of his movies, and there's a narrative drive to this that is rather lacking later. It's only 95 minutes long, which feels incredibly stripped down by his standards. From the opening shots, in which planes refuelling become a bizarre sexual rite, there's very little in the film that could be called 'natural'. This is the world created by men such as Strangelove and Turgidson, in which people become statistics and the leaders eagerly plan out how they'll live in mineshafts with pliant women after the bombs are dropped.
The photography is beautiful - in fact it's a film of weird beauty, with the famous shot of Major Kong riding the bomb having a curiously touching, lyrical quality to it. The sets are amazing, especially the famous war room in the Pentagon. And the music is typically inspired, especially the use of 'The Animals Came in Two By Two' to accompany the B-52 scenes, and the famous use of 'We'll Meet Again' at the end.
It's the acting that keeps the film really fresh. Peter Sellers is inspired here. He plays three parts. As the American president, Merton Muffley, he is the picture of indecision; his phone calls to the Russian premiere are beautifully embarrassed and hilarious. He also plays Captain Mandrake, the stiff-upper-lip Brit assigned to General Ripper's staff. Mandrake is probably the funniest character in the film, and certainly the most human. The beautifully underplayed desperation with which he tries to persuade the unhinged Ripper to tell him the recall codes is some of the best comic acting I've ever seen. Finally he gets to go completely over the top as Strangelove, fighting his own right arm, which continually tries to give Nazi salutes; twisting and contorting himself in his wheelchair in a state of frenzied excitement; and having far too much fun with that German accent.
He was also due to play Major Kong, who pilots the fateful B-52, but broke his leg and had to pull out. He was replaced by cowboy actor Slim Pickens, who is brilliant but was apparently just like the character in real life. George C Scott is superb as Turgidson - he's not an actor I'd associate with comedy, which is perhaps why he's so good. Sterling Hayden is also very funny as General Ripper. The matter-of-fact way he drops in the line about Commies interfering with our 'precious bodily fluids' gives it a lot more comic impact than if he'd built up to it in a big Strangelove-style rant. James Earl Jones has his first screen role, as one of the bomber crew.
The film looks pretty good on Blu-ray. The contrast is good and it's an impressive, bright, clear image. There was a bit of slightly odd-looking digital effect on it in places, but all in all it looks appropriately clean and crisp. Not as good as Psycho, a black and white film of similar vintage, but I think the Blu-ray for Strangelove is a bit older.
There are lots of extras. The best is a 45-minute 'making of' documentary, with contributions from plenty of surviving cast and crew members, and which has decent anecdotes. There are shorter, less interesting documentaries about Kubrick and Sellers. There's also a 30-minute documentary about the cold war and how Strangelove reflected it. This is a bit clunky, and slightly seems to miss the point that the film is largely ripping the piss out of the cold war rather than commemorating it. It also has a cringeworthy bit where Bob Woodward explains why the famous 'no fighting in the war room' line is funny. Y'know, just in case anyone was stupid enough not to have got the joke for themselves.
There's a long interview with JFK's Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, bits of which appear in the Cold War documentary anyway. And there's also a weird feature where you get little text snippets of information about the Cold War as you watch the film. I didn't watch much of this, and was annoyed that it disabled the fast forward function. The main documentary is worth seeing, but the rest of the extras feel superfluous.
But it's not expensive, and regardless of extras, Strangelove is a great film that everyone should see. Alongside Pete Watkins' The War Game, made at roughly the same time, it is the best anti-nuclear film ever made.