Dr. Strangelove: 40th Anniversary Special Edition
June 22, 2005
Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, Peter Bull, James Earl Jones, Tracy Reed, Jack Creley, Frank Berry, Robert O'Neil, Glenn Beck, Roy Stephens, Shane Rimmer, ,
With the recent events in Iraq and the current state of leadership in the White House, Stanley Kubrick’s savage black comedy about nuclear war, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb (1964), is more relevant than ever. It makes perfect sense then, that the folks at Sony-Columbia have re-released this movie on DVD (this is its third incarnation). However, for folks who bought the excellent special edition released three years ago, is it really worth the upgrade?
Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Hayden) has given the launch codes to send his squadrons of B-52 bombers to Russia in a pre-emptive strike in what he rationalizes as an action to protect the bodily fluids of every American citizen. Quite obviously he has snapped his cap. General “Buck” Turgidson (Scott) is notified of what has happened and meets with President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) in the War Room to figure out how to stop Ripper and his men. It isn’t going to be easy as the bombers, led by Maj. T.J. “King” Kong (Pickens) and his crew, are already en route, ready and prepared to go “toe to toe with the Rooskies,” as he so eloquently puts it. The rest of the film plays out in a tense, yet absurdly funny race against time as the President sends men to relieve Ripper of his command and tries to recall all the bombers in time.
Dr. Strangelove was made during the height of Cold War paranoia when American citizens were taught to hate Russia because they supposedly threatened our way of life. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 brought the world dangerously close to nuclear war and Kubrick’s film was clearly a response to the universal fear of a nuclear accident and destruction.
Kubrick maintains a distance from the events in the film and yet mixes intimate human drama, like Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Sellers again)’s futile attempt to reason with Ripper, with a, at times, pseudo-documentary style (the use of narration at the beginning of the film) like a newsreel. He even employs hand-held camerawork in the attack on Ripper’s air force base and this gives it a realistic, spontaneous, and most importantly, urgent feel. As the film progresses, there is an overwhelming sense of escalating helplessness.
And yet, Kubrick (and co-screenwriter Terry Southern)’s focus on the satirical elements is right on the money. Their treatment of the characters is realistic per se but exaggerated for maximum comedic effect. Everyone plays the film straight because the situations they find themselves in are so outrageous. The characters are deliberate stereotypes who act in particular ways. Specific, colourful names for the characters amplify their baser instincts and heighten the satire: Colonel Bat Guano (Wynn), Major “King” Kong, and Premier Kissoff. Kubrick presents these characters as intentional caricatures in a mechanical fashion. For example, Buck’s cartoonish, often animal gestures reduce him to a character one might associate with a Looney Tunes animated short film.
Other characters, like General Ripper, are shot at low angles that amplify his obvious madness. He often has a huge phallic cigar clenched between his teeth, captured mostly in close-ups to show his dehumanization brought on by feelings of impotency which prompt him to launch the bombers. Major Kong is shown as a western hero, complete with cowboy hat and posse mentality. However, one of the most memorable characters is none other than Dr. Strangelove (Sellers yet again). He works for the President of the U.S. and yet he is also the stereotypical Nazi, a mechanical man confined to a metal wheelchair. All of his movements seem programmed and he uses robotized gestures to prevent him from giving a Nazi salute (which he does eventually). There is something absurdly funny about his bizarre gestures that only heighten the comedy of his scenes.
One of the new extras on this 2-DVD set is “No Fighting in the War Room or: Dr. Strangelove and the Nuclear Threat,” an impressive 30-minute documentary that examines the social and political conditions that inspired and helped shape the film. The Russian threat to the U.S. was a great concern to our leaders at the time and an escalation in the nuclear arms race was inevitable. Legendary Watergate whistleblower, journalist Bob Woodward and former United States Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara provide the necessary context while filmmaker Spike Lee also offers his observations.
“Inside Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” is an excellent, in-depth 46-minute documentary on the making of Kubrick’s masterpiece. Before embarking on the project, Kubrick had read over 50 books on nuclear war before his producing partner at the time, James B. Harris, gave him Red Alert by Peter George to read. It would end up providing the basis for the movie. Originally, Kubrick intended the film to be a straight drama but all night writing sessions with Terry Southern led to a more satiric approach. This is a fascinating look at how Strangelove came to be with lots of information and eye-witness accounts from the cast and crew that are still alive.
“Best Sellers or: Peter Sellers and Dr. Strangelove” is another new addition and examines the comedic genius of this talented actor. Shirley MacLaine, Roger Ebert and Michael Palin gush about Sellers but the real treat here is rare, vintage home movie footage of the young comedian honing his craft.
“The Art of Stanley Kubrick: From Short Films to Strangelove” is a solid profile of Kubrick from his humble beginnings as photographer in New York City to his work on Strangelove. This is a very well done overview of Kubrick’s early career but those hungry for more should really check out the superb feature-length documentary on the Kubrick box set.
Another new extra is “An Interview with Robert McNamara” that runs 24 minutes. He talks at length about the real people and events that informed Kubrick’s film. McNamara comes off as a little dry at this length and was more palatable in the digestible soundbites on the other extras.
There is also “Split Screen Interviews with Peter Sellers and George C. Scott” that were done on the set of Strangelove for promotional purposes. One quickly gets the impression that Scott didn’t suffer fools gladly and wasn’t crazy about doing the interview. Sellers, on the other hand, is a delight as he does the entire interview with an American accent. When prompted, he slips effortlessly into several different British accents, and even a few Scottish ones!
There are standard filmographies for Kubrick and his cast.
Finally, there is a “Theatrical Advertising Gallery,” which showcases the provocative ad campaign for the movie at the time.
Dr. Strangelove is a nightmare comedy about annihilation. For the satire of the film to work, we must be distanced from the seriousness of the subject. In effect, by the film’s end, we have learned to “love the bomb” as the film’s title suggests, by giving into the comic, satirical nature of the movie. Kubrick’s film is eerily relevant now because much of what he was mocking still exists. President George W. Bush is a mixture of the gung-ho, might-make-right of General Ripper and the cowboy antics of Major Kong, with the bumbling incompetence of President Muffley. The new extra material is quite good but not really worth double-dipping unless you are a dedicated fan of this movie. However, for newcomers, this is the version to get.