Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden,
Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Audio: PCM Mono, DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1
Features: See Review
Length: 95 Minutes
Release Date: June 28, 2016
“MEIN FUHRER! I CAN WALK!!”
Stanley Kubrick was a filmmaker constantly ahead of his time, and no piece is as singularly indicative of that fact as his legendary black comedy, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It was a movie that dared to poke fun at nuclear war presented to a country that was still terrified of it: we had scarcely exhaled our sigh of relief after the Cuban missile crisis when Kubrick flashed his brilliant, darkly funny and deeply disturbing masterpiece on the screen.
It’s a film that suggests not only that an accidental nuclear war is possible, but probably even unstoppable by the men in power who are either too zealous, too insane, or too caught up in the throes of diplomacy to do anything about it. If you don’t believe that, there are three scenes you really need to see: General Jack D. Ripper (Hayden) delivering his paranoid, unbalanced spiel about preserving our “precious bodily fluids” to British Group Captain Mandrake (Sellers), while his Air Force base is under siege by…the Army; the President of the United States (Sellers again) making a nervous call to the Russian Premier about the error (“one of our commanders…well, he went and did a silly thing…”); and General Buck Turgidson (Scott) delivering facts and figures about a hypothetical nuclear war, where he dismisses 10 to 20 million American casualties as “getting our hair mussed”.
Here’s how the events unfold: with our bombers holding at their fail safe points outside of the Soviet Union, General Ripper orders “wing attack plan R”, sending the planes rocketing toward their pre-determined targets inside Russia with two nukes apiece. In an emergency meeting in the war room, the President demands to know how such a thing could happen, since he is, in theory, the only person authorized to order a nuclear strike.
Plan R, as it turns out, is an emergency plan designed in case the Russians wiped out Washington and the President in a sneak attack: rather than escape retaliation because of lack of proper command, a lower order official could order a retaliatory strike. The problem? No one at Ripper’s base, nor the men in the planes, are aware that there’s been no first strike by the Russians!
This leads to the phone calls to the Premier (some of the funniest scenes in motion picture history), and the eventual attack on Ripper’s base by another Army outfit ordered to force the recall code from him so they can stop the planes before they drop their bombs!
A further complication: the surprise announcement of a doomsday machine developed by the Russians. It turns out, they have buried bombs loaded with a special radioactive element designed to destroy all human and animal life on earth if their country is attacked. There is no way to disarm it…the idea being to invoke a fear in her enemies to launch an attack. If the planes carry out their missions, it could mean the end of humanity.
One person with an idea is Dr. Strangelove (Sellers in yet a third role), a wheelchair bound German scientist with a bizarre plan for preserving the race in mine shafts. It includes a ratio of 10 women to every man for re-population purposes.
When watching the film for the first time, it’s actually easy to overlook some of the absurdity in lieu of the tension and suspense. There is a real threat presented in the film, and moments of almost unbearable apprehension as the clock winds down. It is, in fact, the very nature of a black comedy in that it makes you laugh while fully recognizing that you probably shouldn’t be laughing.
The film is not only a comic and suspenseful triumph; it marks a technical one for Kubrick as well. Without cooperation from the Air Force, who proclaimed that events such as the ones depicted in the film are not possible, Kubrick had to design everything from imagination. The interiors of the bombers? All Kubrick’s brainchild, along with the procedures and technical jargon that went along with them. The look and feel are entirely convincing throughout.
Dr. Strangelove also marks Kubrick’s earliest experimentation with music as a device of ironic counterpoint. The famed opening shot of a B-52 bomber refueling in mid air plays to the strings of “Try a Little Tenderness”. The wounded bomber struggling to find its target while not knowing it shouldn’t is accompanied by the heroic “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”. The film’s final images play to the song “We’ll Meet Again”…I’ll leave it to you to discover the irony behind that one. But this unique use of music served Kubrick’s goal of altering the narrative rules of film with each of his project: the score doesn’t have to exist in harmony with the images on screen to be effective. Conflict can be equally so, and sometimes even more memorable.
The film offers a tour-de-force performance by Peter Sellers, with three of his most memorable roles in one movie. The image of Dr. Strangelove has become something of a military fiction staple, with his uncontrollable hand, accent, and dark glasses. But for me, it is the much calmer President that steals the show, as he tries to prevent an international emergency with the utmost decorum and politeness. Excellent also are Hayden and Scott as the zealous generals, and Slim Pickens as Major “King” Kong, who gets one of film history’s most memorable exits. (Film legend has it that Pickens was never informed by Kubrick that the film was a comedy, which if true, lends a whole new dimension to his terrific performance.)
It took our nation a while to learn to laugh at Dr. Strangelove. Now, on the other side of the Cold War and with the Iron Curtain down, we can enjoy the film’s dark humor with a little less guilt, but with just as much thought and consideration as before. Nuclear war is still a reality, and all we can do is continue to hope our leaders maintain their sanity enough not to go off and do a silly thing like that.
BONUS TRIVIA: This movie marked the feature film debut of James Earl Jones.
Blu-ray actually does more for Dr. Strangelove than you might believe...this is one of the best looking classic black and white home video presentations I've yet seen. I've watched this movie countless times, but with high definition, it was a new experience; I noticed more details than ever before (including the names of reports on General Turgidson's desk and the fact that the soldier's name tag really DID say 'Bat Guano'), but overall, it's the added contrast that makes the black and white images really pop with new clarity and crispness.
It seems to be, as the box claims, a true 1.66:1 image; there is a very SLIGHT black line on the left and right side to correctly frame the image, but for the first time, I really feel like I'm seeing the visual representation that Kubrick always intended. This is a much cleaner print than I can remember...yes, a couple of bits are stock footage and you can tell, but that hardly takes away from the pleasure of seeing a true cinematic classic looking better than you've ever seen it before.
With Dolby TrueHD surround or uncompressed original mono sound, Dr. Strangelove actually opens up a whole new level of listening; even more so than I would have thought. The music has more dynamic punch than ever, as do the brief gun battle bits. When Mandrake and Ripper are chatting away, you can always hear the fighting in the distance. Some explosive images add a little subwoofer kick, and spoken words are always well presented against the music and effects.
The extras include:
• New interviews with Stanley Kubrick scholars Mick Broderick and Rodney Hill; archivist Richard Daniels; cinematographer and camera innovator Joe Dunton; camera operator Kelvin Pike; and David George, son of Peter George, on whose novel Red Alert the film is based
• Excerpts from a 1965 audio interview with Kubrick, conducted by Jeremy Bernstein
• Four short documentaries from 2000, about the making of the film, the sociopolitical climate of the period, the work of actor Peter Sellers, and the artistry of Kubrick
• Interviews from 1963 with Sellers and actor George C. Scott
• Excerpt from a 1980 interview with Sellers from NBC’s Today show
Plus a new booklet with essay!
Dr. Strangelove is a one of a kind masterpiece from a one of a kind filmmaker. It’s a comic nightmare that dares to invoke laughs about one of mankind’s greatest fears: nuclear war. With a top notch script that is both funny and suspenseful, unforgettable images and a brilliant array of performances, Stanley Kubrick’s cold war satire is a must see for any cinema lover, and this Criterion Blu-ray is by far the best version ever issued.