“Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff!”: Dr Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963)

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In Norman Kagan’s book ‘The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick’ (1997) Kagan compares the Kubrick’s seminal war film’s subject matter with Joseph Heller’s influential novel ‘Catch-22’ (1961) which in part is a critique of absurd bureaucracy and Cold War attitudes. Kagan explains how they “can be seen as products of the stifling anti-intellectualism, smugness and paranoia of the Eisenhower-McCarthy years. Both are full of brutalization, absurd and arbitrary power and smothering conformity.”.

Dr Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963) is an unfolding satirical comedy about the dangers of accidental nuclear warfare. An unhinged US air general triggers an impending nuclear attack on Russian states (Soviet Union), and much of the film is set in the ‘War Room’ where the numerous absurd characters (three played by Peter Sellers) attempt to stop the bombers. Originally intended as a straight adaptation of the novel ‘Red Alert’ (1958) by Peter George, Kubrick instantly discovered the subject and plot suited a more satirical approach. In ‘Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze’ (2000) by Thomas Allen Nelson, he was said to be fascinated by “’people’s virtually listless acquiescence in the possibility- in fact, the increasing probability- of nuclear war.’”. Upon hiring comic writer Terry Southern, it is clear that the humorous results of Dr Strangelove are entirely intended. Cold War films released at a similar time, On the Beach (1959) and Fail Safe (1964) imply nuclear war is a serious problem for which we all should be accountable. However, Dr Strangelove takes a playfully accusatory tone and is not afraid to point the finger at an illogical world leadership. Nelson explains this further, saying:

[On the Beach and Fail Safe] would rather be on the ‘right’ side of a morally complex issue than transform or unsettle an audience’s perception by showing how such a problem, more often than not, originates from deep inside the structures of social mythology and the paradoxes of human nature.”

From the very beginning of the film, we can notice the preoccupation with dialogue and character which reinforce the presentation of pompously, out-of-touch politicians and army men playing havoc with the world’s safety. Therefore “because the film defines character satirically…Kubrick was free to play with the forms of his medium in ways that earlier scripts made impossible.” For example in Dr Strangelove, the setting is a vision, accurate in the filmmaker’s mind though not necessarily in tune with reality. The ‘War Room’ was based on speculation and the imagination of Kubrick which permeated the set designs of each of his films. For instance, the settings in A Clockwork Orange (1971) appear to be 1970s England but contains highly stylised and fantastical mise-en-scene which can be pinpointed as truly ‘Kubrickan’. Furthermore, in response to the film, many critics were opinionated about the warped form the film had taken. Robert Bernstein of The New York Review of Books succinctly summarises, “The consequence of the [comedy film] spectacle is…a temporary purgation; to witness the end of the world as a comic event is, indeed, to stop worrying and love the bomb.” (1970)

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Much like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) most of the action takes place either in the confines of hierarchy safety or in the immediate danger of battle and conflict. Designed by Ken Adam, the large conference room known as the ‘War Room’ is intimidating, angular and cold. High angle camera shots of the conference table suggest the room is in the bowels of government building and holds powers akin to a villain’s lair.  Other interior shots such as the B-52 bomber planes seem too small for the pilots who occupy them. The listing of the survival kit contents e.g., “One miniature combination Russian phrase book and Bible;” (Major T.J. ‘King’ Kong) emphasise how efficiently compacted they are into confinement and the limitation of any escape from the decisions of leaders down below.

Made in England, Kubrick’s film was able to freely tackle issues which were affecting his homeland of the United States of America. In terms of the American war film genre, Dr Strangelove was a unique piece of film artistry. It challenged the popularity of American propaganda war films throughout the World War II period, and openly commented on issues such as the Cuban Missile Crisis during the Cold War which haunted the American social psyche at the time. Noted journalist Paul Lashmar in the documentary film Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001) concluded that “People remember the film because it deals with one of the most dark things of the war period- the idea that hanging over us there’s nuclear oblivion. This is the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis…this piece of satire just hit it right on the button and it was frightening. Very, very frightening.”

drs

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