Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Cinematography Gilbert Taylor
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
An insane general triggers a path to nuclear holocaust that a war room full of politicians and generals frantically try to stop.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, more commonly known as Dr. Strangelove, is a 1964 political satire black comedy film that satirizes the Cold War fears of a nuclear conflict between the USSR and the USA. The film was directed, produced, and co-written by Stanley Kubrick, stars Peter Sellers and George C. Scott, and features Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, and Slim Pickens. Production took place in the United Kingdom. The film is loosely based on Peter George‘s thriller novel Red Alert.

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The story concerns an unhinged United States Air Force general who orders a first strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. It follows the President of the United States, his advisers, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a Royal Air Force (RAF) officer as they try to recall the bombers to prevent a nuclear apocalypse. It separately follows the crew of one B-52 bomber as they try to deliver their payload.

Dr. Strangelove was filmed at Shepperton Studios, near London, as Sellers was in the middle of a divorce at the time and unable to leave England. The sets occupied three main sound stages: the Pentagon War Room, the B-52 Stratofortress bomber and the last one containing both the motel room and General Ripper’s office and outside corridor.

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The studio’s buildings were also used as the Air Force base exterior. The film’s set design was done by Ken Adam, the production designer of several James Bond films (at the time he had already worked on Dr. No). The black and white cinematography was by Gilbert Taylor, and the film was edited by Anthony Harvey and Stanley Kubrick (uncredited). The original musical score for the film was composed by Laurie Johnson and the special effects were by Wally Veevers. The theme of the chorus from the bomb run scene is a modification of When Johnny Comes Marching Home. Sellers and Kubrick got on famously during the film’s production and shared a love of photography.

For the War Room, Ken Adam first designed a two-level set which Kubrick initially liked, only to decide later that it was not what he wanted. Adam next began work on the design that was used in the film, an expressionist set that was compared with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Fritz Lang‘s Metropolis.

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It was an enormous concrete room (130 feet (40 m) long and 100 feet (30 m) wide, with a 35-foot (11 m)-high ceiling ) suggesting a bomb shelter, with a triangular shape (based on Kubrick’s idea that this particular shape would prove the most resistant against an explosion). One side of the room was covered with gigantic strategic maps reflecting in a shiny black floor inspired by the dance scenes in old Fred Astaire films. In the middle of the room there was a large circular table lit from above by a circle of lamps, suggesting a poker table. Kubrick insisted that the table would be covered with green baize (although this could not be seen in the black and white film) to reinforce the actors’ impression that they are playing ‘a game of poker for the fate of the world.’ Kubrick asked Adam to build the set ceiling in concrete to force the director of photography to use only the on-set lights from the circle of lamps. Moreover, each lamp in the circle of lights was carefully placed and tested until Kubrick was happy with the result.

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Lacking cooperation from the Pentagon in the making of the film, the set designers reconstructed the aircraft cockpit to the best of their ability by comparing the cockpit of a B-29 Superfortress and a single photograph of the cockpit of a B-52 and relating this to the geometry of the B-52’s fuselage. The B-52 was state-of-the-art in the 1960s, and its cockpit was off-limits to the film crew. When some United States Air Force personnel were invited to view the reconstructed B-52 cockpit, they said that “it was absolutely correct, even to the little black box which was the CRM.” It was so accurate that Kubrick was concerned whether Ken Adam’s production design team had done all of their research legally, fearing a possible investigation by the FBI.

In several shots of the B-52 flying over the polar ice en route to Russia, the shadow of the actual camera plane, a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, is visible on the snow below. The B-52 was a scale model composited into the Arctic footage, which was sped up to create a sense of jet speed.  Home movie footage included in Inside the Making of Dr. Strangelove on the 2001 Special Edition DVD release of the film shows clips of the B-17 with a cursive “Dr. Strangelove” painted over the rear entry hatch on the right side of the fuselage.

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Fail Safe

Red Alert author Peter George collaborated on the screenplay with Kubrick and satirist Terry Southern. Red Alert was more solemn than its film version and did not include the character Dr. Strangelove though the main plot and technical elements were quite similar. A novelization of the actual film, rather than a reprint of the original novel, was published by George, based on an early draft in which the narrative is bookended by the account of aliens, who, having arrived at a desolated Earth, try to piece together what has happened. It was reissued in October 2015 by Candy Jar Books, featuring never-before-published material on Strangelove’s early career.

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During the filming of Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick learned that Fail Safe, a film with a similar theme, was being produced. Although Fail Safe was to be an ultrarealistic thriller, Kubrick feared that its plot resemblance would damage his film’s box office potential, especially if it were released first. Indeed, the novel Fail-Safe (on which the film is based) is so similar to Red Alert that Peter George sued on charges of plagiarism and settled out of court. What worried Kubrick most was that Fail Safe boasted acclaimed director Sidney Lumet and first-rate dramatic actors Henry Fonda as the American President and Walter Matthau as the advisor to the Pentagon, Professor Groeteschele. Kubrick decided to throw a legal wrench into Fail Safe’s production gears. Lumet recalled in the documentary Inside the Making of Dr. Strangelove: “We started casting. Fonda was already set … which of course meant a big commitment in terms of money. I was set, Walter [Bernstein, the screenwriter] was set … And suddenly, this lawsuit arrived, filed by Stanley Kubrick and Columbia Pictures.”

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Kubrick argued that Fail Safe’s own 1960 source novel Fail-Safe had been plagiarized from Peter George’s Red Alert, to which Kubrick owned creative rights and pointed out unmistakable similarities in intentions between the characters Groeteschele and Strangelove. The plan worked, and Fail Safe opened eight months behind Dr. Strangelove, to critical acclaim but mediocre ticket sales.

The end of the film shows Dr. Strangelove exclaiming, “Mein Führer, I can walk!” before cutting to footage of nuclear explosions, with Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again.” This footage comes from nuclear tests such as shot BAKER of Operation Crossroads at Bikini Atoll, the Trinity test, a test from Operation Sandstone and the hydrogen bomb tests from Operation Redwing and Operation Ivy. In some shots, old warships (such as the German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen), which were used as targets, are plainly visible. In others, the smoke trails of rockets used to create a calibration backdrop can be seen.

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Former Goon Show writer, and friend of Sellers, Spike Milligan, was credited with suggesting the Vera Lynn music for the ending. (Additionally, Sellers’ ad-libbed dialogue as the President on the phone with the Russian premier is drawn from a skit between him and Milligan in the Goon Show episode “The Lost Emperor”.

A first test screening of the film was scheduled for November 22, 1963, the day of the John F. Kennedy assassination. The film was just weeks from its scheduled premiere, but because of the assassination, the release was delayed until late January 1964, as it was felt that the public was in no mood for such a film any sooner..

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One line by Slim Pickens, “a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff”, was dubbed to change “Dallas” to “Vegas” since Dallas was where Kennedy was killed. The original reference to Dallas survives in the English audio of the French-subtitled version of the film.

The assassination also serves as another possible reason that the pie-fight scene was cut. In the scene, after Muffley takes a pie in the face, General Turgidson exclaims: “Gentlemen! Our gallant young president has been struck down in his prime!” Editor Anthony Harvey stated that the scene “would have stayed, except that Columbia Pictures were horrified, and thought it would offend the president’s family.” Kubrick and others have said that the scene had been cut before preview night because it was inconsistent with the rest of the film.

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Satirizing the Cold War

Dr. Strangelove takes passing shots at numerous contemporary Cold War attitudes, such as the “missile gap“, but it primarily focuses its satire on the theory of mutual assured destruction (MAD), in which each side is supposed to be deterred from a nuclear war by the prospect of a universal cataclysmic disaster regardless who “won”. Military strategist and former physicist Herman Kahn, in his 1960 book, On Thermonuclear War, used the theoretical example of a doomsday machine to illustrate the limitations of MAD, which was developed by John von Neumann. The concept of such a machine is consistent with MAD doctrine, when it is logically pursued to its conclusion. It thus worried Kahn that the military might like the idea of a doomsday machine and build one. Kahn, a leading critic of MAD and the then president Eisenhower administration‘s doctrine of massive retaliation upon the slightest provokation by the USSR, considered MAD foolish bravado, and instead urged America to plan for proportionality and thus, even a limited nuclear war. With this logical reasoning, Kahn became one of the architects of the flexible response doctrine, that while superficially resembling MAD, allowed for responding to a limited nuclear strike, with a proportional or calibrated, return of fire(see On Escalation).

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Kahn would educate Kubrick on the concept of the semi-realistic “Cobalt-Thorium G” doomsday machine and Kubrick then used the concept for the film. Kahn in his writings and talks would often came over as cold and calculating, for example, with his use of the term megadeaths and in his willingness to estimate how many human lives the United States could lose and still rebuild economically, but it was unfair, as he was not really advocating nuclear warfare. (He simply meant that if it came to nuclear war, there might, in fact, be a limited one, and options should be kept open.) Kahn’s cold analytical attitude towards millions of deaths is reflected in Turgidson’s remark to the president about the outcome of a preemptive nuclear war: “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops, uh, depending on the breaks.” Turgidson has a binder that is labelled “World Targets in Megadeaths“, a term coined   in 1953 by Kahn and popularized in his 1960 book On Thermonuclear War.

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The post-hoc planning in the film, by Dr. Strangelove, done after the MAD policy has clearly broken down, to keep the human race alive and to regenerate from populations sheltered in mineshafts, is a parody of those strict adherents of the MAD doctrine who are opposed to the prior creation of fallout shelters on ideological grounds. To such adherents, talk of survival takes the “Assured Destruction” out of “Mutual Assured Destruction”, hence no preparations should be conducted for fear of “destabilizing” the MAD doctrine. Moreover, it is also somewhat of a parody of Nelson Rockefeller, Edward Teller, Herman Kahn, and Chet Holifield‘s November 1961 popularization of a similar plan to spend billions of dollars on a nationwide network of highly protective concrete-lined underground fallout shelters, capable of holding millions of people and to be built before any such nuclear exchange began.

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These extensive and therefore wildly expensive preparations were the fullest conceivable implementation of President Kennedy‘s, month prior, September 1961 advocacy in favor of the comparatively more modest, individual and community fallout shelters, as it appeared in Life magazine. Which was in the context of shelters being on the publics mind at the time due to the Berlin Crisis. The Kennedy administration would later go on to expand the nascent United States civil defense efforts, including the assessment of millions of homes and to create a network of thousands of well known, black and yellow plaqued, community Fallout Shelters. This was done, not with a massive construction effort but by the relatively cheap re-purposing of existing buildings and stocking them with CD V-700 geiger counters etc. In 1962 the Kennedy administration would found the American Civil Defense Association to organize this, comparatively far more cost-effective, shelter effort.

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The fallout-shelter-network proposal, mentioned in the film, with its inherently high radiation protection characteristics, has similarities and contrasts to that of the very real and robust Swiss civil defense network. Switzerland has an overcapacity of nuclear fallout shelters for the country’s population size, and by law, new homes must still be built with a fallout shelter. If the US did that, it would violate the spirit of MAD and according to MAD adherents, allegedly destabilize the situation because the US could launch a first strike and its population would largely survive a retaliatory second strike. See MAD–Theory section.

To refute early 1960s novels and Hollywood films like Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove, which raised questions about US control over nuclear weapons, the Air Force produced a documentary film, SAC Command Post, to demonstrate its responsiveness to presidential command and its tight control over nuclear weapons.

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