Weekly classics: Dr. Strangelove
Global mass-destruction, liberalism, conservatism, capitalism, communism — they all become meaningless in the face of extinction.
These are the themes Stanley Kubrik plays with in “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” commonly known as “Dr. Strangelove” — a movie that dares to point out how our want to destroy ourselves might be rooted in some bizarre consequence of our libido.
Based on the book “Red Alert” — a completely serious Cold War nuclear war scenario — “Dr. Strangelove” came out in the shadow of the Cuban missile crisis and its first test screening was slated for Nov 22, 1963, the day US President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Kubrik originally set out to do a serious treatment of the book. But in writing the screenplay, the dialogue kept going into satire. Recognising the challenge, Kubrik recruited Terry Southern to write the screenplay.
Casting the film was part genius and part fortunate accident. Slim Pickens who played the role of the B-52 bomber pilot, never realised during the film’s production that “Dr. Strangelove” was a comedy, or that it was unsympathetic to the propaganda of the Cold War. Having Pickens play the role seriously was a stroke of genius on Kubrik’s part and he was able to keep Pickens completely unaware that he was actually playing in a comedy.
Other than Peter Sellers’ roles, George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden delivered memorable performances. Both were obviously instructed to play their roles “over the top.” Kubrik instructed Scott to overact the role of the cigar-smoking, gut-slapping, martini-drinking and womanising General Buck Turgidson.
In the classic scene in the war room where Turgidson exuberantly proclaims the spectacle of a B-52 bomber evading radar by hedge-hopping, Kubrik instructed George C. Scott to deliberately overact the part, Kubrik had Scott re-take the scene several times. On the last take of that scene, Scott practically performed it as a burlesque parody, which was of course, the final take that was actually used.
Sellers’ characterisation of Dr. Strangelove is the epitome of the post-nuclear man as a monster. He’s completely comfortable, almost gleeful, when talking about mass-murder as an abstraction.
Brilliantly filmed in black and white, “Dr. Strangelove” is some of Kubrik’s best work.
Uncompromising and defiant, Kubrick condemns the hubris and macho posturing on all sides by using a weapon more powerful than any A-bombs or H-bombs — Humour. Watch for Pickens as twangy-voiced Maj. “King” Kong – his final scene has become iconic and will stay with you for some time.
For Pakistanis this movie is all the more relevant, for while Kubrick’s madman epitomised in Dr. Strangelove is wholly contrived, we have our very own Strangelove in the form of Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan who is all too real.
“The whole point of the doomsday machine is lost … if you keep it a secret,” rants Dr Strangelove in the film. Khan, the disgraced father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, seemed to have taken this advice to heart, allegedly distributing nuclear secrets and components over a period of many years to Iran, Libya and North Korea and who knows where else. Even now the full extent of his largesse and the full explanation for it remain matters of urgent doubt.
While many Pakistani sees Khan as a national hero, there is little doubt that by and large, he was the single most dangerous individual in the world. And the frightening part is that he wasn’t a madman driven by irrationality, but a reasoned thinking scientist who calculatingly created the single biggest nuclear arms proliferation ring.
When the film first came out, it was not universally received or even widely understood. It was panned by political commentators and movie reviewers who found it to be tasteless and juvenile.
Few other films have so defied convention and created a story that turned conventional wisdom on its head. “Dr. Strangelove” keeps coming at you with one outrageous scene after another, interspersed with segments of complete straight-faced dead-pan, piling them all on until the fateful end.
The writer is a reporter at Dawn.com