Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove’: The Sharpest, Most Cautioning, Hilarious Political Satire

Playing chess in the war room; Stanley Kubrick and cast during production of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Production still photographer: Bob Penn. Courtesy of BFI, SK Film Archives LLC, Sony Colombia, the Kubrick family, and University of the Arts London
Playing chess in the war room; Stanley Kubrick and cast during production of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Production still photographer: Bob Penn. Courtesy of BFI, SK Film Archives LLC, Sony Colombia, the Kubrick family, and University of the Arts London

The story has it that Stanley Kubrick was very interested in the nuclear war, and that he read more than seventy books on the subject, one of which being Peter George’s ‘Red Alert.’ Having acquired the rights to the novel, he started working on a screenplay, eager to make a serious drama. However, the more he thought about the story, and the more he developed the plot and characters, the more he realized it takes a lot of energy or misguided patriotism not to see the absurdity in the ominous situation that the world—meaning, the United States and the Soviet Union—has become nestled into. Therefore, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Love the Bomb, one of the most brilliant political satires of all time, started out as a piece of “serious” cinema, but the natural course of development took the story onto a whole new level, creating a narrative so absurd, so full of paradoxes and hilarious caricatures, but at the same time so plausible and cautioning, it successfully captured the attention of its 1964 audience and to this day remained one of the most aptly crafted satires ever born on the silver screen.

Having parted ways with his producing partner James B. Harris, which resulted in the British studio Seven Arts Production backing off from supporting the film, Kubrick needed to find another backer. Columbia Pictures agreed to cover the film’s two million budget, but convinced that Peter Sellers was the reason Kubrick’s Lolita was so successful in Europe, the studio executives insisted he be cast in no less than four roles in this film. Kubrick brought in satirist Terry Southern to help him with the script as soon as he realized the project’s black comedy potential, and the two of them wrote four different characters for Sellers, three of which were finally actually played by the legendary English actor. Agreeing to play Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley and the former Nazi nuclear war expert Dr. Strangelove, Sellers refused to play Major T.J. ‘King’ Kong—allegedly struggling with the Texan accent—opening up the spot for experienced character actor Slim Pickens. George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden filled the two other important roles in the roster, with especially Scott making the most of his gun-crazed chief of staff.

Shot in black and white by Gilbert Taylor, edited by Anthony Harvey (with, of course, Kubrick’s effort being uncredited), with the musical score of Laurie Johnson, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a masterfully sharp, accutely sobering comedy that unreservedly pins the blame for the nuclear race madness and Cold War paranoia squarely on the nature of human beings, misguided individuals fiddling with the power to eradicate all life on Earth as if they were playing a game. The sexual allusions are more than obvious—from the phallic symbols of cigars and missiles, through the ever-present linguistic associations of bombing Russia with the act of coitus to the fantastic opening sequence of two planes merging for fuel to the tunes of ‘Try a Little Tenderness’—and Kubrick and Southern’s script provided numerous small pieces of brilliance such as the constantly quoted “this is the War Room” line, or several new expressions that entered the everyday language. Roger Ebert called it arguably the best political satire of the century, and after coming back to the film countless times, testifying to its endurance, originality and sharp humor, we simply couldn’t agree more.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern & Peter George’s screenplay for Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
“It is by now a legendary anecdote: Stanley Kubrick began adapting George’s dead-serious nuclear thriller ‘Two Hours to Doom’ (released as ‘Red Alert’ in the U.S.) and, suddenly struck by the ridiculousness of it all, transformed it into his seminal nightmare satire. So it may come as a surprise to anyone reading George’s novel today to discover just how much it actually resembles Dr. Strangelove—how much of the structure, incident, and character of the book has survived in the film. The similarities—and, naturally, the differences—offer a telling look at why Strangelove refuses to age, why its ability to provoke simultaneous laughter and terror remains undiminished, 45 years after its initial release.” —How a dead serious novel became the nightmare satire of Strangelove by Bilge Ebiri

NOTES FROM THE WAR ROOM BY TERRY SOUTHERN

“What we are dealing with,” said Kubrick at our first real talk about the situation, “is film by fiat, film by frenzy.” What infuriated him most was that the “brains” of the production company could evaluate the entire film—commercially, aesthetically, morally, whatever—in terms of the tour de force performance of one actor. I was amazed that he handled it as well as he did. “I have come to realize,” he explained, “that such crass and grotesque stipulations are the sine qua non of the motion-picture business.” And it was in this spirit that he accepted the studio’s condition that this film, as yet untitled, “would star Peter Sellers in at least four major roles.” It was thus understandable that Kubrick should practically freak when a telegram from Peter arrived one morning: “Dear Stanley: I am so very sorry to tell you that I am having serious difficulty with the various roles. Now hear this: there is no way, repeat, no way, I can play the Texas pilot, ‘Major King Kong.’ I have a complete block against that accent. Letter from Okin [his agent] follows. Please forgive. Peter S.” For a few days Kubrick had been in the throes of a Herculean effort to give up cigarettes and had forbidden smoking anywhere in the building. Now he immediately summoned his personal secretary and assistant to bring him a pack pronto. —Notes from The War Room by Terry Southern

At the time of this interview (1967), Southern was famous as the ­coauthor of ‘Candy,’ the best-selling sex novel, and as the screenwriter ­behind Stanley Kubrick’s dark antiwar, antinuke comedy, Dr. Strangelove. Both appeared in the U.S. in 1964 (a headline in Life magazine read “Terry Southern vs. Smugness.”) By 1967 he could be spotted on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, standing between Dylan Thomas and Dion. Gore Vidal called him “the most profoundly witty writer of our generation.” Lenny Bruce blurbed his books. —Terry Southern, The Art of Screenwriting

Terry Southern discusses working with Stanley Kubrick and describes the famous missing scene from Dr. Strangelove in his own words. Courtesy of Creative Screenwriting Magazine.

Tell us about working with Stanley Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove.
Working with Stanley was terrific. It was ideal, although the circumstances may seem peculiar—in the back seat of a big car. The film was being shot at Shepperton, outside London, in the winter. So he would pick me up at 4:30 in the morning and we would make this hour-long trip to the studio. It was a big Bentley or a Rolls, so the passenger part was something like a railway compartment, with fold-out writing desks and good lighting. It would be pitch black outside and really cold, and we would be in this cozy-rosey compartment, in a creative groove, working on the scene to be shot that day.

Writing it? Or rewriting it?
Well, let’s say trying to improve it. Kubrick would say, “Now what’s the most outrageous thing this guy [a character in the scene] would say at this point?” The thing about Kubrick is he’s not only extraordinarily creative, but he will encourage the other person to go all out, and not try to keep a “reasonable lid” on it. Stanley’s like a kind of chess-playing poet. One side of his brain is very scientific, the other very poetic.

Over the years I heard talk of a “missing scene” or a sequence that was deleted from Strangelove. What’s the story on that?
Well that would be the fabulous so-called pie fight episode. You may recall the scene near the end of the film, in the War Room, after the bomb has been dropped, and Strangelove suddenly stands up from his wheelchair, and says, “Mein Fuhrer, I can valk!” And he takes a step? Recall that?

I do indeed.
Well, in the missing sequence, after taking one step he falls flat on his face and starts trying to get back in his wheelchair, but each time it scoots out of his grasp. Meanwhile, parallel to this action in another part of the War Room, the Russian Ambassador is caught again trying to take pictures of the “Big Board.” George C. Scott nails him and again they’re fighting in the War Room. So Scott exposes about eighteen micro-mini spy cameras on the Ambassador—in his wrist watch, cuff links, tie pin, on his ring finger, everywhere. But Scott says, “I think these are dummy cameras. I think he’s got the real McCoy concealed on his person.” And he turns to the detail of MP’s who have come in. “I want you to search him very carefully, boys,” he says, “and don’t overlook any of the six bodily orifices.” And the Russian Ambassador goes through this quick calculation, “vun… two…” and then when he reaches the last one, he freaks. “Vhy you Capitalist swine,” he says, and he reaches out of the frame, gets something and throws it at George C. Scott. I should mention we previously established a huge catering table that was wheeled in, laden with food, so they don’t have to leave the War Room during this crisis.

So the Ambassador reaches out of the frame, grabs something from the table and throws it at Scott. We don’t see what it is immediately, but Scott ducks, and this big custard pie hits the President in the face. The mere indignity of this is so monstrous that the President faints dead away. Scott grabs him and keeps him from falling, and he’s holding him in his arms like a martyred hero. “Gentlemen,” he says to the others, “Our President has been struck down in the prime of his life… by a custard pie. I say Massive Retaliation!” And he throws something at the Ambassador. And it misses and hits one of the other Joint Chiefs. So this immense pie-fight begins—between Army, Navy, Air Force—a bit of inter-service rivalry, if you grasp the innuendo.

Now while this pie-fight is going on, Strangelove is still trying to get back into this wheelchair, moving like a snake across the floor of the War Room, the chair continuing to scoot out of his grasp each time he reaches for it. Finally, he gets to the end of the War Room, and the chair is against the wall and it looks like he’s got it this time. But it scoots away again. So Strangelove pulls himself up so that he’s sitting with his back against the wall. And he’s watching the pie-fight in the distance.

Then his hand—his uncontrollable right hand—reaches inside his coat and comes out with a Luger pistol and points it at his head. He grabs his wrist with his other hand and grapples for the pistol, which goes off with a tremendous roar. Then cut to the long shot of all these generals in a freeze frame. And Strangelove says, “Enough of these childish games. We have work to do.” So they all stand there staring at him in complete silence, until Scott recognizes this is the guy to get tight with, so he walks all the way across the War Room floor, and says, “Doctor, may I help you?” And helps him into his wheelchair. He starts pushing him back across the floor, which by now is so deep in custard pies it resembles a beach—and sure enough we quickly pass the President and the Russian ambassador sitting there cross-legged like two children, doing sand castles, making mountains. And Strangelove says, “Ah, too bad. Apparently their minds have snapped under the strain. Perhaps they’ll have to be institutionalized.”

And so Scott continues pushing him across to this group of officers and CIA types, who are so covered they look like ghosts. And he says, “Well, boys, I think the future of this great nation of ours is in the hands of people like Doc Strangelove, and I think we owe him a vote of thanks. Let’s hear it for the good Doctor.” And in a really eerie (whispering) voice, they go, “Hip-hip hooray, hip-hip hooray.” And then he continues pushing him across the floor as they start singing, “For he’s a jolly good fellow, for he’s a jolly good fellow.” And this counter-camera pulls up so you’ve got this long shot of the ultimate allegiance between this mad scientist and this general from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And then they cut to the explosion and the song “We’ll Meet Again,” comes in—and the credits rise.

And that was what was cut?
Not without good reason. The problem was that Stanley, great genius director that he is, forgot to say, “Listen, what we’re representing here is interservice rivalry.” Which is one of the most evil things—each time there’s an appropriation to one group the other says, “Listen, we’ve got to have that too.” And there’s no stopping the Pentagon on this level. It’s vicious. And he forgot to tell them it’s vicious.

So what’s happening in this pie fight is that people are laughing, and they shouldn’t be laughing. It’s supposed to be deadly serious. And it was such a funny situation, that people outside the periphery, including Stanley and myself, were tossing pies into the melee, you see. And so it lost its edge. It was like a comedy scene, when everything else in the film had been played straight, except once when the Coca-Cola machine spurted in Keenan Wynn’s face. So that’s why he decided not to keep it in. —Terry Southern: Writing to His Own Beat

Nile Southern on why it’s not amazing that Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern made Dr. Strangelove—it’s a miracle. Courtesy of Written By Magazine. You can also download the PDF file directly to your computer, from where it can be opened using a PDF reader.

Terry Southern’s profile of Stanley Kubrick that Esquire squelched in the 1960s. Lucky for us it has been rescued. In 1963, as Kubrick began production on Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Terry Southern completed a profile of the director for Esquire, which promply shelved it. Earlier this summer it was finally printed in ‘Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot To Print’ (Nation Books), edited by David Wallis. The abridged version of Southern’s article  that follows is reprinted on the occasion of Sony Pictures Repertory’s 40th anniversary presentation of Dr. Strangelove this fall. —Check-up with Dr. Strangelove by Terry Southern

Embedded below is a rare 35mm promo reel for Dr. Strangelove, narrated by Stanley Kubrick himself. Some of the takes did not make it in the final cut of the film.

 
On Nov. 22, 1963, Stanley Kubrick was supposed to present his new film, Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, to the press. Shortly before the screening, word arrived that President Kennedy had been assassinated that day. The screening was canceled and, because the film treats a U.S. President character with less than the utmost respect, changes were made before the film’s release. The character of Major Kong had a line describing how “a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas”—but because the President had been killed in Dallas, the line was changed to “in Vegas.” A pie-throwing sequence that Kubrick found too silly was also cut; it would have included the line “our beloved President has been struck down in his prime.” The film’s planned London premiere, scheduled for Dec. 12 that year, was also cancelled. Dr. Strangelove eventually opened in the U.S. on Jan. 29, 1964. —Art Imitates Life: 10 Movies Altered Due to Real-Life Events

An invite to a sneak preview that never was, with Kubrick’s own handwriting. A special thanks to Will McCrabb.

A documentary about the historical context of Dr. Strangelove. Featurette includes numerous clips from the film, never-before-seen production stills, and rare and never-before seen or heard material from the private collection of the star of Dr. Strangelove, Peter Sellers.

 
Wally Veevers (special effects) stands underneath the model B-52. Production still photographer: Bob Penn. Courtesy of BFI, SK Film Archives LLC, Sony Colombia, the Kubrick family, and University of the Arts London.

Ken Adam’s production design for the war room. Courtesy of BFI, SK Film Archives LLC, Sony Colombia, the Kubrick family, and University of the Arts London.

George C. Scott and Stanley Kubrick playing chess on set. Production still photographer: Bob Penn. Courtesy of BFI, SK Film Archives LLC, Sony Colombia, the Kubrick family, and University of the Arts London.

Stanley Kubrick wrote this response letter to a Dr. Strangelove fan admiring his awareness of the films “sexual framework.”

“He’s the hardest worker I know. I’d come into the studio at seven o’clock in the morning and there would be Peter Sellers. Waiting, ready. Full of ideas. When you are inspired and professionally accomplished as Peter, the only limit to the importance of your work is your willingness to take chances. I believe Peter will take the most incredible chances with a characterization, and he is receptive to comic ideas most of his contemporaries would think unfunny and meaningless. This has, in my view, made his best work absolutely unique and important. He has the ability to go into the area where it’s like a dream. He can go into surrealism and keep his other leg in reality. He can do things which are not real—for instance, it’s almost inconceivable that anybody could behave as Strangelove does in the last scene, with the hand. I suppose even a psychotic personality wouldn’t really behave that way. But it’s something somebody might do in a dream.” —Stanley Kubrick

“Kubrick had also intended Sellers to play Major Kong, the commander of the only bomber to get through to its Russian target. Sellers hesitated to take the role of Kong, because he was uncertain that he could master Kong’s Texas twang, but Kubrick remained adamant that he play it. Finally, Sellers accidentally injured his ankle, when he tripped while emerging from his limo, and begged off from doing Kong’s scenes. Kubrick complied, but wondered if Sellers had suffered the fall “accidentally-on-purpose,” to get out of playing a part he was not comfortable with. Kubrick was disappointed that Sellers declined to play the fourth part, since, in his view, that would have meant that almost everywhere the viewer looks, there is some version of Peter Sellers holding the fate of the world in his hands.”

Peter Sellers captures Stanley Kubrick and George C. Scott mid-chess game behind the scenes of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964.

THE PETER SELLERS STORY

Excerpts from the BBC Arena program, The Peter Sellers Story, a documentary directed by Peter Lydon featuring Seller’s home movies shot with his portable cameras. These excerpts covers the year when Sellers became famous in the US and the time he spent with Stanley Kubrick, making Lolita and Dr. Strangelove in England. Scenes from both Lolita and Dr. Strangelove are included and quotes from Kubrick statements about Sellers are read by the narrator. The documentary features interviews with several Sellers’ friends and cooperators and a clip from 1964 TV program The Steve Allen Show where Sellers was interviewed about how he created the character and the voice of the mad Dr. Strangelove by taking inspiration from photographer Arthur Fellig, aka Weegee: a tape with Weegee’s voice studied by Sellers is included, where the photographer talks about his nickname and his work. Full documentary (3 hrs long) on Peter Lydon’s Vimeo profile. —Filippo Ulivieri

 
Featurette about the life and career of British comedian actor Peter Sellers (1925-1980).

 
Very rare picture of Kubrick around the shooting of Dr. Strangelove. Cover article of Millimeter magazine, December 1975.

Inside: Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (2000), a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of one of the classics of modern cinema. Including interviews with many members of the cast and crew of this story about the scramble by the heads of state to head off a rogue general’s attempt to launch a nuclear war, this film gives fans a wealth of new information on the work and effort that went into bringing the film to fruition.

 
Every aspiring actor should watch this: Sterling Hayden on working with Stanley Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove.


Open YouTube video

The Invisible Man is a terrifically enlightening glimpse into the innermost workings of one of film’s most remarkable minds. It’s a must-see for any Kubrick devotee. Watch the whole thing below.

 
Here’s another fascinating compilation of photographs taken behind-the-scenes during production of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Production still photographer: Bob Penn. Courtesy of BFI, SK Film Archives LLC, Sony Colombia, the Kubrick family, and University of the Arts London.

 
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