A Brit Late: Dr.Strangelove

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I decided to break my Stanley Kubrick virginity this month by watching his 1964 comedy film, Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb. A film that is universally revered by critics, I naturally assumed that it was worth watching.

Dr Strangelove is a satirical take on the Cold War atmosphere of the late 50s and 60s. A US General loses his mind and orders his flight squads to start attacking their Soviet nuclear targets. The rest of the film is then spent watching events unfold as the President and the Soviet Premier try and resolve the problem before the pilots kick start a nuclear war. As I watched the film, it became apparent that knowledge of the Cold War itself is required to fully enjoy the film. I don’t want to call it dated, but a lot of the satire revolves around the paranoia and misinformation that surrounded the arms race between the US and the Soviets. But then it does this humour well.

A lot of this humour comes from the various characters that are played by Peter Sellers. He has a total of three roles in the film, playing an RAF captain in the US, the President and Dr.Strangelove himself. Given that the film’s title is named after him, you don’t actually see a lot of Dr.Strangelove. His role in the US government isn’t fully explained, but he appears to be some kind of nuclear expert. It’s also strongly hinted that he was previously a Nazi, as he struggles to stop calling the President Mein Fuhrer and giving the Nazi salute. He’s a very strange but interesting character and he displays a lot of physical humour. Some of the comments he makes about the nuclear situation also made me laugh, because of the fact that he says some very inhuman things in regards to the survival of the human race, which is laughable because you can imagine some people in positions of authority giving such ridiculous and sometimes damn right scary ideas.

The two other characters that Peter Sellers plays are very much the straight men in this film. They see beyond the ridiculousness and paranoia of the US army and often point out the sheer absurdity of what their peers are saying. For example, the best two characters in the film are the RAF Captain Mandrake and the US General Jack Ripper. Throughout most of the film, they are stuck together while Mandrake tries to coax the code that will call back the attack out of Ripper. The interaction between the two characters is very British comedy like, basically consisting of the smart character and the idiot. If you think about some of the sketches that Monty Python have done then you’d be on the right track. Ripper himself is the personification of the paranoia towards Communism at the time. He talks about how Americans have pure bodily fluids and how there is a communist plot to pollute them through water. It’s completely ridiculous and Sellers does a great job through his reactions as we can relate to him knowing just how deluded this general is, but having to go along with it because he would otherwise be killed.

Acting aside, the other thing I was impressed with, given I don’t have much previous knowledge of Kubrick’s work, is his cinematography. It might have helped somewhat that I was watching a HD broadcast of the film, but for a 1964 film, his camera work seemed really ahead of its time. Cameras focus in and out, there are a variety of different types of shots and none of them wouldn’t look out of place in any films today. Given that pretty much all of the film takes place in the three same sets, I was impressed in how he kept these set pieces fresh and enduring. His ending is also brilliant. It just works so well both as comedy and as a haunting ode to nuclear war. You’ll just have to see it for yourself.

So those are my short impressions on Dr.Strangelove. It’s hard to describe what it is really as it felt to me like it was a satire that isn’t a satire. Perhaps that was Kubrick’s point, that the events that take place for the most part are actually believable, at least in that particular time period. I personally think that it takes something good to satirise potential nuclear war, and through a combination of the acting, writing and camera work, Kubrick achieved it. It deserves the acclaim it gets, and I enjoyed watching it.

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