Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963)

It's the height of the Cold War and the superpowers are engaged in a nuclear stand-off. Just one small error, or one mad general, could see the whole world plunged into the horror of a nuclear war.

So it's lucky that there aren't any mad generals around with a finger on the nuclear button. Well, maybe there is just one. General Jack D. Ripper (played by Sterling Hayden) of the US Air Force. Ripper has become obsessed with communist infiltration and subversion in the United States. Discovering the sinister plot of fluoridation of water supplies, Ripper has decided that this is obviously a corrupt communist scheme directed against America.

Ripper realises that he can't stand by and do nothing any longer, while ordinary Americans are being poisoned. So he has decided to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. He puts his base, Burpelson Air Force Base, into lockdown, orders the removal of all radios as sources of outside information, and tells his men that the United States is under attack by the Russians and that the base's bombers are now being launched in response. Burpelson's B-52 nuclear bombers take off and are given the codes to attack their targets in the USSR, meaning that the world is now hours away from nuclear war.

Sterling Hayden as General Ripper in Dr Strangelove
Sterling Hayden as General Ripper

Meanwhile, the US Government, led by President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), has to decide how to deal with the crisis. The President learns that the bombers can't be recalled without knowing the secret command codes that General Ripper has used. And when American soldiers are sent to Burpelson Air Force Base, they are repulsed by the defenders, who assume they are Russian attackers. The President gets onto the hotline and informs his Soviet counterpart that American bombers are now on their way to bomb his country. But he is very apologetic about it.

The US military chiefs are divided in their approach to the crisis. Should they give the Soviets the attack plans of their own planes and help them to shoot down American bombers before they deliver their warheads? Or should the President heed the advice of his petulant Air Force General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and take this opportunity to make an all-out attack on the Soviet Union? After all, any Soviet retaliatory strikes will only result in twenty million Americans dead. That's not too bad, is it?

And what will be the advice of the President's scientific adviser, Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers, again), a former Nazi scientist now working for the Americans? Can he contrive a way for something to be retrieved from this situation? Maybe they should all prepare themselves for the inevitable nuclear armageddon and start planning for the aftermath.

But maybe it's still not too late to avert disaster anyway. A British RAF officer on exchange to the US and based at Burpelson Air Force Base, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Sellers again, playing his third character in the film), has discovered General Ripper's scheme and is trying to stop him. Can Mandrake persuade Ripper to give him the secret codes, enabling him to recall the bombers before they attack the USSR, and avert a nuclear catastrophe?

Peter Sellers as Lionel Mandrake and Sterling Hayden as General Ripper
Can Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers, left) save the world from General Ripper (Sterling Hayden)?

While the popular image of the early 1960s is now of a carefree, lightweight pop culture of upbeat music and colourful fashions, that image is at odds with some of the political realities of the decade. With rising tensions in the Cold War and the development of ever more destructive nuclear weapons, the threat of a nuclear war loomed large in the popular consciousness.

In fact, by the early 1960s, nuclear war was seen not as simply a terrible possibility or an incipient threat, but as an almost inevitable horror that would have to be faced at some point, perhaps very soon. Superpower rivalries were increasingly in danger of spilling over from the space race, the arms race and from proxy wars, to a direct confrontation, one that would almost certainly mean the use of nuclear weapons. The threat of a nuclear war was intensified by the Cold War turning much hotter, in particular with the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, when it seemed that nuclear confrontation was imminent.

Like much of the rest of the human race at the time, Stanley Kubrick found himself increasingly concerned about the threat of World War III. Kubrick was a former photographer for Look magazine, who had made some documentary shorts in the early 1950s, before making a semi-professional feature, the war film Fear and Desire in 1953. After two crime films, the low budget Killer's Kiss (1955) and the more ambitious The Killing (1956), Kubrick had made the acclaimed World War I drama Paths of Glory in 1957.

He took a brief detour into Hollywood historical spectacle, taking over direction on the Roman era epic Spartacus (1960) from Anthony Mann, before arriving in England to make a film of Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita. The country would become his home for the rest of his life, and he would make all of his subsequent films there, even the 1987 Vietnam War drama Full Metal Jacket.

Slim Pickens in the B-52's bomb bay in Dr Strangelove
Major Kong (Slim Pickens) in the B-52's bomb bay

Deciding that his next film should be about nuclear war, in particular "the theme of a nuclear war being started either by accident or madness", Kubrick read widely on the subject in preparation. During his research, he was recommended the 1958 novel Red Alert by Peter Bryant, a pseudonym for the British author Peter George. The novel had originally been published under the title Two Hours to Doom and George had used a pseudonym, as he was at that time still a serving officer in the Royal Air Force.

Kubrick used Red Alert as the basis for a script originally called "Edge of Doom", which would be a serious treatment of the subject of nuclear war. He recruited Red Alert's author Peter George to work with him on the screenplay.

At this point, Kubrick was still collaborating with his regular producer on his earlier films, James B. Harris, who had produced The Killing, Paths of Glory and Lolita. But Harris left the project to make his directorial debut on another nuclear-themed Cold War film, the underrated thriller The Bedford Incident (1965).

As the two men parted company, the film moved away from the serious treatment that Kubrick and Harris originally had in mind. Instead, Kubrick had become struck by some of the absurdities of the subject and began to see it from a comic point of view. An early draft titled "The Delicate Balance of Terror", even began with an extraterrestrial observing the Earth in the wake of a nuclear holocaust.

Terry Southern, who had written the satirical novels Candy and The Magic Christian, was asked to work on the script. He flew to London to collaborate for two months on the screenplay with Kubrick and Peter George. The film's eventual full title, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, was a parody of the titles of magazine features of the era.

Commenting on his use of the serious novel Red Alert as the basis for a satirical screenplay Kubrick later said:

"The film keeps the suspense frame. But the more I worked on it, the more I was intrigued by the comic aspects ... Comedy can be more realistic than drama because it takes into account the bizarre." 

Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove in front of a map
Peter Sellers comes into view as Dr. Strangelove

Kubrick's star in Dr. Strangelove would be Peter Sellers, who had previously worked with him on Lolita, where he had played an eye-catching supporting role. Columbia Pictures agreed to finance and release Dr. Strangelove on the condition that Sellers would star and be cast in multiple roles.

Playing multiple roles in the same film wasn't a departure for Sellers, as he had previously played three different characters in the 1959 comedy The Mouse That Roared. When his career faltered in the 1970s he would double his efforts, outdoing himself in The Mouse That Roared and Dr. Strangelove by playing six different characters, although none of them especially well, in the Boulting brothers' comedy Soft Beds, Hard Battles (1973). But that film is terrible, Sellers is not very good in it and few people have seen it anyway.

At the time of Dr. Strangelove Sellers was transitioning from being a major British star to an international one, and the film would prove to be an ideal vehicle for his talents. The film sees him playing three very different, but memorable and distinct characters.

Theoretically, the most important of these is his American President, Merkin Muffley. The balding Muffley is mild and softly spoken, a reasonable man in an unreasonable time, a politician who has the misfortune of discovering that Armageddon is going to come about on his watch. Several people have noted his resemblance to Adlai Stevenson, the US Ambassador to the United Nations during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Sellers is exceptional in the excruciatingly awkward scenes where the apologetic Muffley is on the telephone to his drunken Russian counterpart. Not only are these scenes very funny, but you really can believe that the sozzled Soviet premier is on the other end of the line slurring something incoherent in response, making "Dimitri" almost a fourth character in Sellers' line up.

"One of our base commanders ...he went and did a silly thing. Well, I'll tell you what he did, he ordered his planes ... to attack your country. Well let me finish, Dimitri. Let me finish, Dimitri. Well, listen, how do you think I feel about it? Can you imagine how I feel about it, Dimitri? Why do you think I'm calling you? Just to say hello? Of course I like to speak to you. Of course I like to say hello. Not now, but any time, Dimitri. I'm just calling up to tell you something terrible has happened. It's a friendly call."  -  US President Merkin Muffley

The Russian Ambassador listens in as President Muffley calls Moscow in Dr Strangelove
The Russian Ambassador (Peter Bull) listens in as President Muffley calls Moscow

Sellers originally began playing Merkin Muffley as a character with an inhaler and a heavy cold, something the cast and crew apparently found hilarious on set. But after a few days filming, Kubrick had a change of heart and decided that he wanted to make the President a less absurd figure, the only sane man in the War Room.

Sellers' second role is as Lionel Mandrake, the RAF Group Captain on attachment to the US Air Force. Mandrake is like Muffley, a slightly absurd but plausible and sympathetic character. At first he seems almost like a caricature of a British officer. But, as we get to know him, we are allowed to see the anguish and pain hidden behind the stiff upper lip, a result of Mandrake's experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese in World War II.

The frustrating thing about Mandrake is that he comes so very close to succeeding in his attempts to avert all out nuclear war. This includes having to face down a truculent Keenan Wynn as a not-too-bright US Colonel with the immortal name of Bat Guano. Colonel Guano doesn't mind Mandrake trying to avert a nuclear apocalypse, as long as it doesn't involve damaging a Coca Cola machine in the process: "That's private property!"

Incidentally, I've seen Mandrake described in several books and articles as a Captain, which is not an RAF rank. He is a Group Captain, which is significantly more senior, the Air Force equivalent of a Colonel. So Mandrake and Guano are of equal rank. Mandrake would probably be more deferential to him if they weren't, even in the circumstances.

Perhaps Mandrake is intended to personify Britain's particularly awkward position in the Cold War. A character and a country caught between the intense rivalries of two superpowers, and directly and nightmarishly in the firing line in any nuclear war, but unable really to control the course of events, despite its best efforts to do so.

Sterling Hayden as General Ripper and Peter Sellers as Group Captain Lionel Mandrake
General Ripper (Sterling Hayden) with Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers)

The most eye-catching character is Dr. Strangelove himself, a wheelchair-bound, blond haired, ex-Nazi scientist, with tinted glasses and a false arm with a mind of its own. Strangelove is a twisted genius, distinctly reminiscent of a Bond villain. He lacks the sympathetic dimension of the other two characters and is more of a caricature, but he is certainly funny and memorable. The character is a nod to the use of ex-Nazi scientists, like Wernher von Braun, by both the USA and the USSR in the Cold War and the space race. But he also seems to have distinct shades of the nuclear war strategist and theorist Herman Kahn.

According to George Chase in Calling Dr. Strangelove: The Anatomy and Influence of the Kubrick Masterpiece, Herman Kahn recognised the references to mine shafts, megadeaths and doomsday machines from his own book On Thermonuclear War and contacted Kubrick requesting royalties for using his ideas. Kubrick had to explain to him that "It doesn't work like that".

Sellers was in line to play a fourth character, the B-52 bomber pilot Major Kong. He struggled with the accent, but just as he had perfected it, he was forced to bow out after a fall from the bomb bay set. Sources disagree on the details of this, with some claiming that he broke his leg. But it seems more likely that he injured his ankle and, according to Terry Southern, this exacerbated a previous injury.

Kubrick decided to use as his replacement an actor who could actually be the part, with the same attitudes, accent and personality, rather than have to create a character as Sellers was doing. As Terry Southern described it, he was looking for someone who was "a real life cowboy". As a result, Kubrick hired Slim Pickens, a western character actor he had met on the 1961 western One Eyed Jacks, a Marlon Brando film that Kubrick had originally intended to direct.

The film critic Alexander Walker has said that Sellers' roles in the film were not entirely scripted, but were developed on the set through rehearsals with the director, and the new elements incorporated into the film. These included Dr. Strangelove's black glove, which was actually Kubrick's own, a glove the director wore when he was handling the lights in the studio.

Peter Sellers as Dr Strangelove
Dr. Strangelove outlines his plans for the future of the human race

According to the documentary Inside Dr. Strangelove, during the battle scene, Sellers as Mandrake was meant to say to Ripper that he couldn't move because "the thing in my leg has gone". But Sellers accidentally said "string" instead, turning the line into "the string in my leg has gone". Sellers ignored the slip and continued to play the scene regardless. The line was seen as so entertainingly absurd that it was retained.

Sterling Hayden had previously starred in Kubrick's film The Killing and he gives one of his best performances as the absurd but menacing General Ripper, a man whose fragile grip on reality sparks a nuclear war. Hayden's later appearance in the 1973 sci-fi oddity The Final Programme, as a cigar-chomping arms dealer, seems like a callback to his character in this film.

Kubrick had seen George C. Scott in a Central Park production of The Merchant of Venice. His character, Buck Turgidson, was allegedly based on the US Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis Le May. Scott and Kubrick didn't entirely get along, as the actor felt that the director was making him overact. Kubrick would encourage him to give several different versions of a scene at differing levels of intensity, and invariably chose the most exaggerated version for the finished film, to Scott's eventual chagrin.

James Earl Jones had previously worked on stage with George C. Scott and made his film debut in Dr. Strangelove as part of the bomber crew. His debut film was less memorable and auspicious than it might have been, as his big scene was cut. In this scene his character discusses with Major Kong the possibility that the attack on Russia is really a drill, and that the bomber crew are being put through a loyalty test.

The only female character in the film is Turgidson's secretary and lover, Miss Scott. She was played by Tracy Reed, the stepdaughter of the film director Carol Reed. She is also the model seen in the copy of Playboy used in the film.

Tracy Reed as Miss Scott wearing her underwear in Dr Strangelove
General Turgidson's secretary Miss Scott (Tracy Reed) during an important meeting

The obvious thing to say about Dr. Strangelove is that it's a satire about nuclear war and the MAD doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. The less obvious thing to say is that it's about sex. Rather than seeing war as an aberration, the film suggests that it's inextricably linked to the human need and desire to reproduce. Modern superpower rivalries are simply grander, more destructive versions of the types of scraps for mates and territory that our primitive ancestors would have understood. As a result, the film contains a lot of sexual references and imagery.

After its not entirely necessary prologue about the rumours of a Soviet "doomsday machine", the film begins with a huge close up of a priapic refuelling probe on the nose of a US Air Force plane. There then follows a title sequence showing two planes carrying out a refuelling operation. The refuelling scenes are set to romantic music, an instrumental version of "Try a Little Tenderness", turning this sequence into a parody of a romantic scene, with the two planes made to look suspiciously as if they are mating, in a rare piece of 'X' rated aeroplane action.

The film's storyline is triggered by the insanity of Jack D. Ripper, a man who becomes obsessed with the idea that fluoridation is a Communist plot to weaken Americans' "precious bodily fluids", something he first became aware of, as he tells Mandrake, "during the physical act of love". The film's premise, then, suggests a resort to warfare as a response to sexual failure or inadequacy.

When we first see the bomber captain Major Kong (Slim Pickens) he's sat in his plane reading Playboy magazine. And when we first meet Buck Turgidson, he's with his mistress and secretary, who is lounging around in her underwear. When he's called to see the President he reassures her that he'll soon be back to carry on where they left off. "You just start your countdown," he says, comparing her to a missile, "and old Bucky will be back here before you can say 'blast off'!"

George C. Scott on the telephone in Dr Strangelove
George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson

Later on, she phones him in the War Room where he's in conference with the President and assorted Generals ("I told you never to call me here!"). She's eager to have him back in bed, since coitus has obviously been interrupted. Fighting or fornicating, it's one or the other. Her character is either so self-centred that she's oblivious to the importance of Turgidson's job or, perhaps more likely, the thought that Buck is plotting war with the President and all those other Generals is just making her even more aroused.

Later on, when the men discuss what the world might look like after a nuclear war, Dr. Strangelove suggests that some humans could still survive at "the bottom of some of our deeper mine shafts". He explains that a select few, the future of the human race, could survive underground for a hundred years or so, at least until the surface of the Earth is habitable again. Obviously, scientists, politicians and Generals would all be accommodated in this underground world. They would be essential personnel.

But what would they all do underground for the next few decades? Well, Strangelove explains, they would need to repopulate the human race. "Naturally, they would breed prodigiously ... there would be much time, and little to do." But that would mean the men would all be required to breed with multiple females. For the good of the human race, you understand. Ten females to every male. Given the amount of work the men would have to put in, it's obvious that the females would need to be, as Strangelove puts it, "of a highly stimulating nature". And to do this important work, every man would be expected to do his bit.

Turgidson gets very excited by this thought, while Muffley is more guarded, but is obviously turning it over in his mind, and slowly coming around to the idea. Ten women to every man, eh? Hmm ... Maybe a nuclear apocalypse isn't such a bad thing after all, if it means we're all going to be getting a lot more sex.

Slim Pickens as Major Kong reading Playboy magazine in Dr Strangelove
Major Kong, carrying out some research

What seems to most excite Dr. Strangelove, though, is the possibility of thermonuclear war itself, even more than all those stimulating females. So much so that, in his excitement, he repeatedly forgets himself and keeps accidentally addressing the President as "Mein Fuhrer". And eventually the doctor can no longer control his increasingly wayward metal arm and its irresistible desire to Sieg Heil, as his inner Nazi is freed. The thrill of war, and the possibilities opened up by a nuclear Armageddon, seem to tip Strangelove completely over the edge, even seeming to cure his paralysis, at least temporarily.

In these scenes the film implies that nuclear war is the kind of horror that the Nazis might have perpetrated, so it's no wonder that Dr. Strangelove's former loyalties are revived, as he, the President and the Generals retreat into their own Fuhrer bunker and he gets to fantasise about re-populating the world with a new, specially selected, "master race".

There are also various character names with sexual connotations. There is the double double entendre of Merkin Muffley, with his first name referring to a pubic wig and the second slang for female pubic hair. There is also Jack D. Ripper, presumably named after the infamous serial killer of prostitutes, and the Soviet premier is called Kissov.

The bombs seen in the B-52's bomb bay are inscribed with the suggestive messages "Hi there" and "Dear John", Major Kong's riding the bomb to the ground in a strange frenzy is obviously suggestive and the film's ending, a massive nuclear explosion, represents the ultimate climax.

The film's most aggressive characters all have bullish names, like Ripper, Kong and Buck Turgidson. Even 'Bat' Guano sounds sort of like a tough guy name but, of course, also suggests bat droppings. Presumably as in "bat shit crazy". The Soviet Ambassador's name is de Sadesky, suggesting the Marquis de Sade, perhaps implying a sado-masochistic relationship between the two superpowers. The more reasonable characters are given much less aggressive names, particularly Merkin Muffley, whose name is doubly feminised.

Lionel Mandrake's name is usually seen as another sexual reference, because the mandrake plant is associated with fertility. But the mandrake has a richer and more complex folklore than that. The plant's root contains an alkaloid that can cause hallucinations and delirium, linking it to insanity (as with General Ripper). One popular myth suggests that the plant grows in ground where blood has been spilled (well, Mandrake is a military man). The mandrake root was also thought to resemble a human in shape, so a mandrake might suggest a kind of shadow man, someone who is not quite a real person. Is this a suggestion that Mandrake has become slightly less than human, by being turned into a cog in a military machine?

Mandrake's first name is also notable. Lionel means "lion", suggesting a brave person or warrior. A lion is also the traditional heraldic symbol of England. So Lionel Mandrake's name might be taken to mean a brave English warrior, but not quite a real man. Make of that what you will.

The name of the film's title character is also significant. The "strange love" may refer to the doctor's dormant, but not extinguished, Nazism. But it's also a more general reference to the film's themes. After all, what could be stranger than this love of war?

Original film poster for Dr. Strangelove
Original film poster for Dr. Strangelove

The film's sexual themes were carried over onto the posters, with cartoon drawings of the US and Soviet leaders on the hotline. Both have their backs to us, the Russian premier with a woman's arm draped around him, presumably as she's sitting on his lap, while bombers fly overhead. The poster illustrates the film's intermingled themes of power, sex and warfare.

Dr. Strangelove also satirises the military mind and the notion of unthinking devotion to duty. This is particularly evident in the character of Major Kong, who does everything in his power to make sure that he bombs Russia, no matter what. In fact, it's Kong's strict and unthinking dedication to military duty and to his orders to bomb his target that causes World War III, despite all the efforts of his commanders and the President to stop it.

Warfare, military hierarchies and their codes of conduct were recurring themes in Kubrick's films, from Fear and Desire in 1953 to Full Metal Jacket in 1987. So it's not surprising that he chose to use a Cold War story to satirise the military mind and the unquestioning following of orders. Major Kong is as much a villain as General Ripper, because his devotion to his perceived duty to his military commanders, and the drive to complete his mission, override any concerns about the devastating cost to the human race.

Similarly, the US soldiers could have got into the Air Force base and captured General Ripper. But they are stopped by their own side, because they are unquestioningly following their orders from the rogue General. So unquestioning in fact that they don't seem to have considered the improbability of the Soviet Army suddenly appearing outside their base wearing American uniforms and driving American vehicles.

The Soviet "doomsday machine", rumoured to be set to launch an automatic and unstoppable nuclear retaliation if the USSR is ever attacked, is an example of a familiar Kubrick theme of the dangers of out of control technology. Major Kong's pursuing his mission to the end represents a similar danger, of the military means becoming divorced from the political ends and taking on a life of their own. Ultimately, the Generals and the politicians are unable to control the military machine they have created, just as the Soviets are unable to control their doomsday device.

Probably the most famous line in the film's script comes when Buck Turgidson catches the Russian Ambassador, played by Peter Bull, apparently taking photos in the War Room with a secret camera. As the two men get into a tussle, the President tries to break them up.

"Gentlemen, you can't fight in here. This is the War Room!"

Although this is a good line, it's also possible to detect some satirical intent behind it. The script plays on the name of the War Room, but it also underlines the point that this is the last place where anyone would do any actual fighting. While life or death decisions are made here, they are made by people who are usually a very long way away from any combat.

The War Room in Dr Strangelove
The circular table of the War Room, part of Ken Adam's spectacular set at Shepperton Studios 

The music accompanying the scenes of the B-52 bomber in the air is a martial instrumental version of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home". The irony of this is that in a nuclear war Johnny is unlikely to come home again and there won't be a home to come back to anyway. There is also a version of this song about Noah's Ark, with the words "The animals went in two by two ...", which may also be significant given the film's themes.

Despite turning the subject of nuclear war into a comedy, Dr. Strangelove also works as a thriller based on a ticking clock scenario. It continues to tease the audience with the possibility that nuclear war can be averted, almost to the very end, its use of a suspense framework making the film particularly effective.

While the actors and writers can indulge in the absurdity of some of the characters and details of the situation, the film and the audience are continually aware that time is running out to avert a catastrophe, as the US Bombers head inexorably towards their targets in the Soviet Union. This is aided by the fact that the film is made in a realistic style, with Kubrick's customary sense of detachment, meaning that the comic characters and details are often in tension with the frightening and physically convincing background.

Given that the characters in Dr. Strangelove are dealing with nothing less than the fate of the planet and the human race, the film furnishes them with an appropriately spectacular setting. Much of the film's action takes place in the US War Room, a lair as spectacular as that of any Bond villain. Appropriately enough, this extraordinary set was designed by the James Bond series' favourite designer Ken Adam, on the first of his two films for Stanley Kubrick.

The film was made by Kubrick's newly-established British company Hawk Films on a budget estimated at $2 million. Filming took place at Shepperton Studios in London, where the War Room set was created. According to the documentary Inside Dr. Strangelove, the set was 130 feet by 100 feet in size, and 35 feet high, and the central table 22 feet in diameter. The table was covered in green baize, intended to evoke a poker game, with the characters playing for the highest possible stakes, the fate of the world. But, as the film was shot in black and white, the fact that the table is covered in green baize is not that obvious. The triangular shape of the room was at Kubrick's suggestion, as he thought this would be more likely to survive the shockwaves from a nuclear blast.

Another view of the War Room showing its backdrop of illuminated maps. Even Blofeld would be jealous

The exact interior design of a Boeing B-52 bomber was classified information at the time the film was made, so the crew had to create their own and make it look plausible. According to the film's art director, Peter Murton, the interior was based on a cover photo on a book about the US Strategic Air Command. The rest of the interior was extrapolated from that starting point.

The effects work is solid rather than spectacular, with the bomber plane being reasonably obviously a big model filmed against back projected scenery. A second unit crew was sent to the Arctic circle for three weeks to get background footage in Greenland and Iceland for these scenes.

Stanley Kubrick and the film's cinematographer, Gilbert Taylor, captured the footage of the land battle at the Air Force base themselves. The two men dressed in army uniforms, to blend in with the extras, and used handheld Arriflex cameras to film alongside the actors playing soldiers. They used orthochromatic film stock to give the footage the look of a documentary.

Dr. Strangelove was originally intended to end with a cream pie fight in the War Room. According to the film's co-writer Terry Southern, the crew only had one go at filming the pie fight as it would be too expensive to re-shoot it. Columbia Pictures, never all that enthusiastic about the film anyway, were even less enthused about this sequence and wouldn't allow funding to film it all a second time.

When the rushes were screened, the sequence didn't work as well as was hoped. This was mainly because much of the fight was supposed to be between the heads of the rival US armed services, to satirise their internecine squabbling. But Kubrick felt that he hadn't made this clear enough and the actors all looked like they were enjoying themselves too much anyway. Any satire in the scene was lost amid a tempest of tossed pies.

Keenan Wynn as Colonel "Bat" Guano
Keenan Wynn as Colonel "Bat" Guano

Dr. Strangelove was produced in 1963, with preview screenings set for 22nd November of that year. But the news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas on the same day pushed the screenings back and the film wasn't released until January 1964.

A line of dialogue in the film was also changed as a result. Slim Pickens' joke that the Air Force survival kit contained enough for "a good weekend in Dallas" was re-dubbed to become "a good weekend in Vegas".

The film's hand drawn title sequence, designed by Pablo Ferro, states that the film is "Base [sic] on the book Red Alert by Peter George", a minor but sloppy error that jars with popular ideas about Kubrick's supposed perfectionism.

Inevitably, other film makers were thinking about the subject of nuclear war at this time, and so Dr. Strangelove found itself with a high profile competitor in Fail Safe. This film was directed by Sidney Lumet and was based on a similar premise, with Henry Fonda playing a US President who has to deal with a nuclear bomber that has accidentally been ordered to bomb Russia and can't be recalled.

Unlike Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe treated its subject completely seriously. But Kubrick didn't relish the thought of a rival film on the same territory and so filed a lawsuit, claiming that the film's source novel, by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, plagiarised Dr. Strangelove's source novel Red Alert. The intention was to at least delay the release of Fail Safe until after the appearance in cinemas of Dr. Strangelove. As part of the legal settlement, Columbia Pictures agreed to release both films, but Kubrick insisted that Fail Safe appear last.

As it treated the same premise as a subject for comedy, Dr. Strangelove could probably have survived appearing after Fail Safe, but the same wasn't true for the Sidney Lumet film. Appearing months later in October 1964, Fail Safe looked like old news and, worse, a po-faced film based on a premise audiences had already been primed to find funny. As a result, this quite good Cold War thriller never stood much chance at the box office and quickly disappeared.

According to Peter Krämer in his essay 'To prevent the present heat from dissipating': Stanley Kubrick and the Marketing of Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick and James B. Harris had been offered the rights to the novel Fail Safe, as it was known that they were interested in this subject matter. Kubrick turned it down, as he was already using Red Alert, although he took the precaution of alerting the authors of Fail Safe to the rival novel in case he needed to pursue a lawsuit.

Kubrick seems to have regarded the success of the novel Fail Safe as a good omen for his film with its similar subject matter, and seen the publicity potential in the rival film, as long as it appeared after his. He even later wrote to Leo Jaffe, an executive at Columbia, in 1965 and floated the idea of a re-release of both Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove on a double bill.

British press advert for Dr. Strangelove
Part of the original British advertising campaign for Dr. Strangelove

The contemporary critical response to Dr. Strangelove was mixed, with many reviewers praising the film and others lambasting it for implausibility and for its very black humour. Some praised it in a guarded way, recognising its qualities without wholly embracing it.

Some of the reviewers were too disturbed by the film's subject matter to regard it as appropriate material for a comedy. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times said it was "the most shattering sick joke I've ever come across", while in the Los Angeles Times Philip K. Scheuer called it "an evil thing about an evil thing".

Others were more supportive, with Marjorie Adams of the Boston Globe describing it as "a rather bitter, wickedly clever, tremendously amusing spoof". Many of the British reviews were enthusiastic, including the anonymous critic of The Times, who called it "a very intelligent, stimulating and - one must repeat it - funny film".

The US Air Force was quick to denounce the film's premise as impossible. Columbia decided to preface the film with a written declaration that the USAF had stated that their safeguards would prevent the events in the film taking place. This statement was removed from later home release versions.

Dr. Strangelove won the BAFTA awards for Best Film and Best British Film that year, as well as Best Art Direction (black and white) for Ken Adam. The screenplay by Kubrick, Southern and George was nominated, as were Peter Sellers (as Best British Actor) and Sterling Hayden (as Best Foreign Actor). At the Academy Awards, the film was nominated for Best Picture, Screenplay and Director and for Peter Sellers as Best Actor.

Peter Sellers as Lionel Mandrake in Dr. Strangelove
Peter Sellers as Mandrake, with the ironic motto of the Strategic Air Command behind him

The film's British origin was not emphasised at the time of its release and that was probably a wise decision, given its subject matter and attitudes. Contemporary reviewers in the US seem to have regarded it as an American comedy, but Dr. Strangelove's Britishness is worth reasserting.

By this time, Kubrick had been making films in Europe since 1957 and this was his second of eight films to be made in Britain. He was now becoming a British resident, running a British film company and arguably turning into a British film director. Kubrick was making Dr. Strangelove as an expatriate American, looking back at the absurdities and horrors of the United States with the unforgiving eye of the detached outsider.

As a result, the film presents a rogues gallery of "ugly Americans", with Kubrick's American characters mostly a mixture of warmongering blowhards and dimwits. The most sympathetic is probably the President, but he is also weak and ultimately impotent, unable to control the military machine he nominally commands.

Peregrine Worsthorne in the Sunday Telegraph picked up on this at the time, writing that the characters are "beautifully observed studies of everything which non-Americans dislike and fear most about American character".

The most decent and sympathetic character in the film, and the closest thing to an audience identifier, is probably the one who is often overlooked, the only British character, RAF officer Lionel Mandrake. It's surely significant that the film's co-writer Peter George was also an RAF officer at the time that he wrote Red Alert.

Although Mandrake is a military man, he is still eager to do all he can to avert war, unlike most of his American counterparts. His World War II experiences are also alluded to, making it clear that he has actually been in a war and is not just another armchair general. Which is probably why he tries so hard to stop the next one.

Mandrake is also the only character who seems to realise both the desperation of the situation and its absurdity. At one point he even calls out the unlikeliness of Bat Guano's ridiculous name. While the uncomprehending Colonel Guano's main concern is that Mandrake might be some kind of "deviated pervert", Mandrake seems to suspect on some level that they are all taking part in a kind of grotesque tragi-comedy.

Kubrick's decision to end the film with the Vera Lynn song "We'll Meet Again", almost a national anthem in Britain during World War II, seems like it could be aimed directly at a British audience. Perhaps Kubrick wanted to make it clear to them that the next world war really wouldn't be like the last one. Unlike in the song, there would be no tearful homecomings and joyful reunions, and it wouldn't be enough to simply keep calm and carry on.

Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley
"I'm just as sorry as you are, Dimitri." Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley

For Peter Sellers, the film marked the peak of his career as an international star, allowing him to use the kind of careful character work of the best of his earlier films in a film with a bold concept from one of the world's top film makers. The film makes an unrivalled showcase for Sellers, whose performances combine character acting, underplaying, pathos, caricature and physical comedy.

While the historical context of Dr. Strangelove is very specific, the film doesn't feel like a period piece or a historical curio, because it places the Cold War in a much broader context. Not merely in the context of historical great power rivalries, but because it depicts warfare not as an aberration but as an almost primal human instinct.

Despite the sophistication of the weaponry at each side's disposal, the film suggests that humans have not really advanced that much physically or emotionally, and are still engaging in the same basic squabbles over mates and resources as their caveman ancestors. To some of the characters in the War Room, nuclear war, the deaths of tens of millions and the destruction of modern civilisation seem to be amply compensated for by the opportunity to breed like rabbits.

As their preparations for the world after the nuclear apocalypse become more and more fanciful, Buck Turgidson begins to worry that the Soviets might also be planning to retreat to their own rival mine shaft, where they might manage to out-breed the Americans. Then their superior numbers could take over the world when they emerge. "Mr President", he urges, "we must not allow a mine shaft gap!"

And so, it seems, the whole absurd contest is set to start all over again, because the rivalry and hostility is driven by basic human instincts. If it's not rocks and bows and arrows, then it's missiles and mine shafts.

Although its specific Cold War scenario is thankfully in the past, the film retains its relevance because of its broader and deeper themes and it remains as horrifying as it is hilarious. And, with the benefit of distance, it's easier to appreciate the genius of Stanley Kubrick in turning the horror of nuclear war into a nightmarish black comedy.

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

Year: 1963
Genre: Comedy / War
Country: UK
Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast  Peter Sellers (Group Captain Lionel Mandrake / President Merkin Muffley / Dr. Strangelove), George C. Scott (General 'Buck' Turgidson), Sterling Hayden (General Jack D. Ripper), Keenan Wynn (Colonel 'Bat' Guano), Slim Pickens (Major T. J. 'King' Kong), Peter Bull (Ambassador de Sadesky), James Earl Jones (Lieutenant Lothar Zogg), Tracy Reed (Miss Scott), Jack Creley (Mr. Staines), Frank Berry (Lieutenant H.R. Dietrich), Robert O'Neil (Admiral Randolph), Glen Beck (Lieutenant Kivel), Roy Stephens (Frank), Shane Rimmer (Captain 'Ace' Owens), Paul Tamarin (Lieutenant Goldberg), Gordon Tanner (General Faceman), Hal Galili, Laurence Herder and John McCarthy (Burpelson AFB Defense Team Members)

Screenplay Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, Peter George, based on the novel Red Alert by Peter George  Producer Stanley Kubrick  Cinematography Gilbert Taylor  Production designer Ken Adam  Editor Anthony Harvey  Art director Peter Murton  Special effects Wally Veevers

Running time 95 mins (black & white) 

Production company Hawk Films  Distributor Columbia Pictures


  1. Excellent review! I need to revisit the movie. I also need to re-watch Fail Safe, which I liked a lot. The Bedford Incident also came out around the same time (strangely enough, another Columbia movie about the Cold War and nuclear holocaust).

    1. Thanks Eric. I think The Bedford Incident is very good. I also like Fail Safe although, ironically, it seems slightly less believable than the comic version of this scenario in Dr. Strangelove. The War Game also came out around this time and is another good one to give you nightmares.

  2. An excellent analysis, and well-written too. It's a clever movie, as you pointed out, and its themes are still relevant.

    1. Thank you. I think the film's themes will, sadly, always be relevant.


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