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Cult Column: Dr Strangelove

As the Russian doomsday machine detonates, and as the War Room of the U.S. government animatedly discusses the need to bring 10 beautiful women each into subterranean mineshafts in order to regrow the population, their top former-Nazi scientist, Dr Strangelove (in Peter Sellers’s best performance), stands bolt upright from his wheelchair, and cries: “Mein Führer! I can walk!”

And then the world ends.

In a time when our governments and their ability to handle issues of global importance is under ever-increasing scrutiny, Dr Strangelove (or, How I learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb), to give it its full title, feels more vindicated in its outlook than ever. For those unfamiliar with the film, it’s a fast-paced political satire and black comedy from 1964 in which an insane U.S. general tries to force the United States and the USSR into nuclear war, leading to desperate attempts to prevent the apocalypse. Written barely 10 years after the height of McCarthyism and the Red Scare’s paranoia, Dr Strangelove posits a worrying question: when even our esteemed Presidents and generals are obsessed with primal posturing, tribalism, and paranoia surrounding their own masculinity, what happens when they have the power to end the world?

Such a depressing question (with such a depressing conclusion) could result in a gritty, flat film. But the brilliance of Dr Strangelove lies in its comedic elements, and the subtlety of its satire. George C. Scott’s portrayal of General Buck Turgidson is the ideal example. Outwardly, he’s a hilarious stereotype of the swivel-eyed US war hawk, full of machismo and devoid of reason, even his name a cheeky signal to his masculine insecurity. But behind that stereotype lies a painful truth. We recognise our leaders in Kubrick’s sex-obsessed, opportunistic, and close-minded characters, and we recognise others too, who might help raise these characters to power. Like all classic satires, Dr Strangelove is great because it’s ultimately not too far from the truth.

But that praise alone would be unfair. Dr Strangelove is also great because of the work of its actors, who play their lunatic characters to perfection, its wonderful set design, screenplay, and Kubrick’s ace direction. The soundtrack choices also can’t go unmentioned. The traditional anti-war song When Johnny Comes Marching Home underpins every scene of the fateful bomber crew whose actions will eventually end civilisation, lending it a sense of foreboding and tragedy that resonates beautifully with the themes of the film. The final moments of the film simply show footage of nuclear bombs detonating, with Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again playing in perfect counterpoint – creating in its bleak irony one of the best endings in film history.

To be sure, Dr Strangelove is not an underrated or overlooked film by any means. On the other hand, it’s surely not the immediate film we think of when we think of Stanley Kubrick, at least stylistically. It might well be true that in 1964 Kubrick hadn’t fully developed the style that can be more easily seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), or A Clockwork Orange (1971). But it could also be argued that Kubrick works ideally as a satirist. His characters are rarely nuanced, developed beings, usually serving as vaguely human archetypes to experiment with. In that case, Dr Strangelove’s cast of satirical madmen meshes perfectly with that style, resulting in a comedy that actually feels more grounded in reality than many of Kubrick’s classics.

If you’ve started watching Kubrick, or if you’re only slightly familiar with his work, make Dr Strangelove your priority – it just might be his best film, and end up being your favourite.

Image: Matthew J. Cotter via Wikimedia Commons