Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick & Terry Southern & Peter George (based on the novel Red Alert by Peter George)
Stars: Peter Sellers (Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake / President Merkin Muffley / Dr. Strangelove), George C. Scott (Gen. “Buck” Turgidson), Sterling Hayden (Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper), Keenan Wynn (Col. “Bat” Guano), Slim Pickens (Maj. “King” Kong), Peter Bull (Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky), James Earl Jones (Lt. Lothar Zogg), Tracy Reed (Miss Scott), Jack Creley (Mr. Staines), Frank Berry (Lt. Dietrich), Robert O’Neil (Adm. Randolph)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1964
Country: U.S.
Dr. Strangelove Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Dr. StrangeloveDr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Stanley Kubrick’s nuclear-nightmare satire, detonated right in the midst of Cold War tensions and national insecurities. Released two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis and only a few months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy (the film’s premiere was actually scuttled because it was scheduled on November 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was shot), it tapped a mainline vein of shared paranoia about worldwide nuclear annihilation, but did so through a sense of farcical comedy that revealed the underlying absurdities of the very situation we most feared. The brilliance of Kubrick’s film is not that it made comedic mincemeat out of nuclear terror, but rather took that terror very seriously (it was Kubrick’s obsession at the time) while simultaneously demonstrating how the worst-case scenario derives from, and is constantly fed by, the most ridiculous of human foibles.

Based on the meticulously researched 1958 novel Red Alert by Peter George, Kubrick originally planned to do a straight adaptation. Yet, as he and George worked on the screenplay, Kubrick kept seeing the material as more of an absurdist farce, and he eventually decided to commit to that route, bringing in novelist Terry Southern (Candy, The Magic Christian) to punch up the satire and dialogue. The result is one of the most astonishingly unexpected comedies ever made, a film that is both hilarious and unnerving. The effectiveness of Dr. Strangelove rides heavily on the disjunction between the absolute sense of realism with which Kubrick treats the visual and narrative details—the jargon-heavy militarist dialogue, the complex communication technologies, the use of documentary-like handheld camerawork during the battle sequences—and the comic grotesquerie of the characters, all of whom have been rechristened in the film with names that carry various levels of sexual charge. The black-and-white cinematography by Gilbert Taylor (A Hard Day’s Night), the choice of serious dramas in the 1960s, seals the effect; one couldn’t possibly imagine it in color.

The world is put on the brink of nuclear annihilation by General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden, whom Kubrick lured out of early retirement), the commanding officer at Burpelson Air Force base who orders his squadron of bombers to drop their payloads on targets inside the Soviet Union. Ripper has essentially lost his mind due to his dwindling sexual potency, which he blames on communist poisoning of the water via fluoridation, which has sapped his “precious bodily fluids.” He is stationed with Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), a British RAF officer who attempts to reason with Ripper, but is mostly reduced to an impotent accomplice.

From there, we are introduced to the War Room inside the Pentagon, the film’s most iconic location with its giant screens (“The Big Board!” as one character repeatedly refers to them) and massive round table lit by a circular panel of low-hanging lights. There we watch as various administration officials and military men attempt to stop what is sure to be the kick-off for World War III, which would seem to be as simple as sending out counter orders, but due to various safeguards that have been built into the system to ensure that a nuclear attack couldn’t be thwarted by the enemy, is actually quite impossible (a scroll at the beginning of the film, added at the last minute at the insistence of the U.S. military, assures us that such a situation is not actually possible).

Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers again), the Adlai Stevenson-esque U.S. President, is the lone voice of the reason in the vast room, as he essentially plays audience surrogate in conveying the same sense of utter incredulity that such a situation could arise. Military hawkishness is embodied by General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott), a gruff, overzealous, gum-chomping goofball of a commander whose anti-communism borders on the hilariously pathological, especially when President Muffley invites the Russian Ambassador (Peter Bull) into the War Room to help him get in touch with the Russian Premier. The conversation in which Muffley tries to inform Dimitri, the never-seen, but hugely amusing Premier, about what has happened in the most calm, polite way possible is one of the film’s most dexterous comic highlights. We only hear what Muffley says, but his reactions are such that we can easily imagine the man on the other end of the phone.

The absolute lunacy of nuclear warfare is embodied by the titular Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers … again), a creepy, half-mechanical weapons expert inherited from Nazi Germany who advises the President on various courses of action with a plastered smile and unnervingly piercing eyes shining out from behind his tinted glasses. The good doctor is by far the film’s most insidious creation, and he feels like he was imported from a Weimer-era sci-fi film by Fritz Lang (he was clearly modeled on Metropolis’s Rotwang, the cinema’s original mad scientist). The fact that Strangelove Freudian slips with some regularity into calling the President “Mein Fuhrer” and later his mechanical right arm starts malfunctioning and making “Sieg Heil!” movements against his will (surely one of Sellers’ most inspired bits of comic physicality) pessimistically suggests that evil is evil no matter who it’s working for, which casts aspersion on the U.S. government’s hiring of numerous Nazi scientists and use of Nazi technologies after the war.

When not at the Air Force base or in the War Room, we are aboard one of the 34 B-52 bombers that Ripper has ordered into Russia, this one piloted by Major “King” King (Slim Pickens), a good ol’ boy from Texas who dons a cowboy hat once he realizes that he’s about to go “toe to toe with the Rooh-skies.” Pickens embodies the well-intentioned, but ultimately dangerous naiveté of blind patriotism, as he unwittingly becomes an instrument of wholesale destruction while believing that he is doing the greatest good (President Muffley is a similar kind of character who is clearly in over her head; it is he, after all, who utters the film’s most infamous, ironic line: “Gentleman! You can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!”). Major Kong’s tenacity in seeing his orders through generate much of the film’s suspense, as we keep hoping—ironically, perversely—that he will be stopped, shot down, even, to prevent unnecessarily triggering the war to end all wars.

From the sexualized imagery of a B-52 bomber being refueled in midair with a giant phallic hose to the tune of “Try a Little Tenderness,” to the montage finale of nuclear bombs exploding to “We’ll Meet Again,” everything about Dr. Strangelove is audacious. Kubrick had already gotten away with adapting Vladimir Nabokov’s scandalous novel Lolita two years earlier, and he clearly wasn’t interested in shying away from controversy and button-pushing. Dr. Strangelove does what so few comedies do today: it challenges us, provokes us, unsettles us while also making us laugh. Some of the laughs are fundamentally low-brow (bathroom jokes, endless sexual innuendo, even a few slapsticky pratfalls), but the core of the humor is designed to make us laugh at our own vulnerability and our own culpability. Although we no longer live with the same sense of dread of nuclear annihilation that permeated the culture during the Cold War, we still live under shrouds of fear, particularly regarding foreign terrorism and random mass shootings, which means that Dr. Strangelove, despite being a direct product of its era’s particular concerns, is just as relevant today as it was in 1964. One of Kubrick’s central themes that bound so many of his films together was the circularity of violence—the endless cycle of humankind inflicting violence on itself—which makes Dr. Strangelove not a relic of its time, but a frighteningly prescient view of how things have always been.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb Criterion Collection Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • Subtitles English
  • Excerpts from a 1966 audio interview with Kubrick, conducted by physicist and author Jeremy Bernstein
  • Video interview with Kubrick scholars Mick Broderick
  • “The Art of Stanley Kubrick” featurette
  • Video interview with cinematographer Joe Dunton and camera operator Kelvin Pike
  • Inside “Dr. Strangelove” retrospective documentary
  • Video interview with archivist Richard Daniels
  • Video interview with David George
  • “No Fighting in the War Room” featurette
  • “Best Sellers” featurette
  • Video interview with film scholar Rodney Hill
  • Interviews from 1963 with Peter Sellers and actor George C. Scott
  • Excerpt from a 1980 interview with Sellers from NBC’s Today show
  • Exhibitor’s trailer and theatrical trailer
  • Essay by scholar David Bromwich and a 1994 article by screenwriter Terry Southern on the making of the film
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJune 28, 2016

    One of the more amusing aspects of Criterion’s cleverly designed package for Dr. Strangelove is that the information about the transfer has been printed in a tiny, postage-stamp sized booklet that mimics the Holy Bible and Russian Phrases book the B-52 crew is supplied with in the film. If you get out your magnifying glass, you will learn that the original negative for the film was destroyed by overprinting during its theatrical run, so the image on Criterion’s Blu-ray derives from a 2004 4K transfer made from a variety of sources, including 35mm fine-grain master positives, duplicate negatives, and prints. This means that the foundation of Criterion’s edition is the same as Columbia’s 2004 40th Anniversary Special Edition DVD and the subsequent 2009 45th Anniversary Blu-ray. Comparing Columbia’s and Criterion’s Blu-rays shows that they appear to be largely the same, although it looks like Criterion has done some additional tinkering that results in a slightly smoother presentation overall. Regardless, the image looks very impressive, especially given the variety of sources involved; it is mostly consistent throughout in terms of contrast, detail, and grain structure, all of which looks great.

    More so than any of Kubrick’s other films, Dr. Strangelove has caused no end of debate in terms of its proper aspect ratio. Kubrick originally intended the film to be presented in a variable aspect ratio, shifting between the 1.33:1 full-frame Academy aspect ratio and the 1.66:1 European widescreen aspect ratio, and that is how Criterion first presented the film back in 1992 on laserdisc, which was produced under Kubrick’s supervision. Since then, several of the DVD releases have also featured the variable aspect ratio, although starting with the 2004 DVD, a fixed 1.66:1 aspect ratio has been used at the recommendation of the Kubrick estate to take best advantage of HD televisions’ 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Of course, Kubrick himself is not here to weigh in, but the consistent ratio strikes me as a better approach, since the “opening up” of the frame to the full Academy aspect ratio, which in theaters in the mid-1960s and on 4:3 televisions would have made the image larger, in home theater presentations today would actually diminish it in size.

    Like Sony’s previous two releases, Criterion’s Blu-ray includes the soundtrack in both its original monaural (in a Linear PCM track) and an alternate 5.1-channel surround mix (presented in DTS-HD Master Audio). The soundtrack was mastered from the best available surviving optical tracks, and Criterion has done some further tweaking and clean-up to make it sound as good as possible.

    Criterion’s extensive array of supplements include a wealth of both new material and older material that has been culled from previous DVD and Blu-ray releases, although I’ll just say right now that the elusive footage of the infamous pie fight remains unseen except in stills.

    New to Criterion’s edition are a number of excellent interviews that shed additional light on the film and help explain its continued significance: Kubrick scholar Mick Broderick (author of the recently published Reconstructing Strangelove: Inside Stanley Kubrick’s “Nightmare Comedy”) discusses the film largely in terms of Kubrick’s role as producer, in addition to director and co-writer (20 min.); film scholar Rodney Hill (co-author of Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick: From Day of the Fight to Eyes Wide Shut) discusses the film’s numerous archetypes (17 min.); cinematographer and camera innovator Joe Dunton and camera operator Kelvin Pike discuss the film’s visual aspects and Kubrick’s innovative use of the camera (12 min.); Richard Daniels, senior archivist at the Stanley Kubrick Archives, discusses various archival holdings and how they shed light on the film’s production and Kubrick’s strategies and techniques (he lays to waste, for example, the idea that Kubrick always knew exactly what he wanted by showing how Dr. Strangelove went through numerous iterations during the editing) (14 min.); and David George, son of Red Alert novelist Peter George, discusses his father’s working relationship with Kubrick in adapting the book and sheds new light on the creation of the Dr. Strangelove character. Criterion has also added quite a bit of material from the archives, including three minutes of excerpts from a 1966 audio interview with Kubrick that was conducted by physicist and author Jeremy Bernstein (a rarity, given that Kubrick pretty much stopped giving interview after A Clockwork Orange in 1971); a split-screen interview from 1963 with Peter Sellers and George C. Scott (7 min.); an excerpt from a 1980 interview with Sellers from NBC’s Today show (4 min.); and the exhibitor’s trailer and theatrical trailer.

    From various previous releases we get “The Art of Stanley Kubrick,” a 14-minute featurette about Kubrick’s evolving artistry from still photography to master filmmaker that includes interviews with Kubrick biographer John Baxter, critic Alexander Walker, and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, among others; Inside “Dr. Strangelove”, a 45-minute retrospective documentary produced in 2000 that features producer/filmmaker James B. Harris, production designer Ken Adam, actor James Earl Jones, title designer Pablo Ferro, and writer Niles Southern (son or Terry Southern), among others; “No Fighting in the War Room,” a half-hour featurette from 2004 featuring secretary of defense Robert McNamara and journalist Bob Woodward; and “Best Sellers,” an 18-minute featurette from 2004 featuring Roger Ebert, Shirley Maclaine, and Michael Palin.

    Finally, the insert materials in the packaging include a new essay by scholar David Bromwich and a 1994 article by Terry Southern on the making of the film.

    Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Sony Pictures Home Entertainment / The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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