I first viewed this film at an RAF cinema shortly after its initial release in 1964. I was around fourteen years old at the time, and I can still remember how amazed I was by it, how disorientated. I had literally never seen anything quite like it, this weird blend of cartoonish hilarity and overwhelming terror. In those days of ‘Protect and Survive’ leaflets, we spent much of our time worrying about impending nuclear Armageddon. Wouldn’t it be lovely to be able to claim that now, more than fifty years’ later, such fears are firmly behind us?
On Burpelson Air Force Base, the extremely paranoid Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has become convinced of a communist plot to poison the American water supply and, with this in mind, promptly orders a nuclear missile strike on Russia (as you do). General ‘Buck’ Turgidson (George C. Scott) is the man charged with the tricky task of breaking the news to President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellars in one of three roles he plays in the film), whilst also pointing out that, because of the clandestine nature of the protocol that surrounds such events, it’s going to be nigh on impossible to call the whole thing off. Meanwhile, Major ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens) and his crew of airmen are determined to carry out their orders, no matter what stands in their way.
Co-written by director Stanley Kubrick, with Terry Southern and Peter George, Dr Strangelove is a ground-breaking satire with a bizarre, cartoonish storyline that really ought to be totally beyond belief, but sadly, given recent world events, feels all too prescient. There are some extraordinary performances here. George C. Scott is a particular delight, gurning masterfully through his scenes, while in the role of the American president, Sellars’ telephone conversation with the unseen Russian premier is a masterclass in comic understatement. ‘Well, Dimitri, how do you think I feel about it?’
Showing as part of the Cameo Cinema’s Kubrick retrospective, it’s great to have a chance to reappraise this little gem on the big screen. Shot in super crisp black and white, it now clearly displays the shortcomings of its low budget combined with ‘still in their infancy’ effects – the many shots of the Flying Fortress en route to deliver its fifty megaton payload do occasionally look rather shonky and it’s hard to believe that, only three years later, Kubrick would deliver the technical milestone of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film that pretty much set the bar for all special effect movies thereafter. Also, viewed through contemporary eyes, Sellars’ climactic grandstanding in the titular role of a crippled former Nazi scientist brushes a little too close to a whole host of -isms and -phobias for comfort, even if it does tickle the funny bone.
But, as I’ve said before, all films are a product of the times in which they were made and should be viewed accordingly – the parts that really work here are so luminous, so utterly compelling, they tend to outshine those bits that are starting to show their age. It’s an important film in Kubrick’s pantheon – the one that first showed that he was more than just a capable director, the one that hinted at the darkly disturbing wonders to come. Returning to it after so long away proved to be a singular delight.