Dr. Strangelove (1964) 50th Anniversary
50 years ago to the very day the finest black comedy ever committed to celluloid was released, Stanley Kubrick’s ferocious cold-war satire Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying & Love The Bomb. Firstly I think I need to make a full disclosure, yes I had tickets to see the film at the BFI last weekend complete with special Q&A guests, alas no I didn’t attend as I was out with friends having a jolly good time involving alcohol and Chinatown eateries so for once I put my social life ahead of my cinema life – fucking sue me. I have seen the film before at the BFI with legendary production designer Ken Adams in attendance back in those dark pre-blog days of around 2005, I will track it down eventually and craft a full review alongside all the remaining Kubrick texts (like I said I’ve got my cross-hairs set on A Clockwork Orange as part of the upcoming BFI Science Fiction season) so although I do feel a little guilty at evading this opportunity I can at least throw together a short tribute post to celebrate one of Stanley’s more terrifying achievements;
The film still casts a long phallic missile shaped shadow across just about every black comedy made over the past five decades, and every nuclear themed movie is measured against its radioactive blast radius, not to mention the etching of the War Room and Strangelove himself into popular culture as the sputtering idol of modern military insanity. As you may be aware the film was initially scoped as a earnestly serious movie on the then emerging concepts of MAD and Game Theory but as Kubrick delved into the material with his usual perfectionist poise he realised there was no way this would be swallowed by an audience, and the only way he could truly excavate the intellectual horror that was propagated by the evolving military industrial complex was through a comedic delivery system – mission accomplished. In terms of context it’s useful to consider that the film was being shot in London’s Shepperton studios as the world held its collective breath during the Cuban missile crisis, not to mention the film’s very first test screening was initially programmed for the now infamous date of November 22nd 1963, with that event prompting a few swift changes to the film’s dialogue. As you’d expect it was mauled by the right-wing press with the tediously predictable allegations of those responsible being ‘communists’, a rabid assertion which ignorant idiots always seem to vomit if any criticism is offered of their precious nationalist ideological infrastructure, and I’ve always enjoyed the revelation of a few NORAD inspectors touring the sets during production and turning pale and visibly distressed when they saw some of the technological details that Kubrick and his team had culled from publicly available mechanics and aeronautics manuals – apparently the CRM114 discriminator was absolutely spot-on.
I think what also made some viewers uncomfortable on a potentially unconscious level was precisely what mischievous screenwriter Terry Southern brought to the poker table (which was the design ethos Kubrick suggested for the War-Room), and that was the satirical melding of sex and death. The swooning, elegantly meandering B52 bombers are penetrated and de-couple to the romantic strains of ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ during the opening titles, and the film is replete with aphoristic boasts of impressive yields, powerful payloads and Sterling Hayden’s magnificently mentalist musings of ‘precious bodily fluids’. Infidelity and innuendo are endemic on both divides of the Iron Curtain, as these powerful men bolster their testosterone powered prestige on the world stage, sensuously interfering with the very infrastructure of civilisation which of course ends in an orgiastic series of multiple explosions. Whilst we’re on the subject someone really needs to commission Blue Movie, Southern’s Hollywood set novel which he dedicated to Kubrick (and whom at one stage he considered adapting), it’s tale of A grade Tinseltown stars actually consenting to full penetrative hardcore sex movies for general release, one assumes that such material was a little too transgressive even during the permissive 1960’s when now we are in the era of Nympomaniac for better or worse….
Naturally there are plenty of articles and dissertations being launched which supersede any comments I could make on the context of the film or its craft, however the truly terrifying reportage is here which shows just how close Kubrick and Southern came to nuking the paranoid mindset of the era, and let’s face sweet fuck all has changed in the intervening half century. I particularly like the image of some drunkenly obliterated US general insisting on staggering up on stage to blast out a few Beatles numbers in front of a shocked Soviet delegation, that’s pure Strangelove and one of those tales which you couldn’t put in a film for fear of being too ridiculous. More sobering is that jaw-dropping revelation that the Russkies infernal Doomsday Weapon actually exists, was implemented and they neglected to tell anyone else about it, and it may very well still be operational – oh well, it’s not the end of the world;