‘Dr. Strangelove’ Was a Nightmare Comedy. Time Forgot the Nightmare Part

On Jan. 29, 1964, a triple premiere — in New York, London and Toronto — launched one of Stanley Kubrick’s signature masterpieces into the chilly Cold War atmosphere: Dr. Strangelove, with the marquee-challenging subtitle Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Kubrick described it as a “nightmare comedy.” Sixty years later, the comedy still works, but the immediacy of the nightmare may be missed.

Shot in Shepperton Studios outside of London from February through November 1963, Dr. Strangelove was conceived and realized in the shadow of a real-life nightmare scenario that no one laughed at: the Cuban Missile Crisis, which unfolded over 13 terrifying days in October 1962.

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On Oct. 14, 1962, a U-2 spy plane detected facilities for the launching of nuclear ballistic missiles from Cuba, a Soviet client state since 1959. President John F. Kennedy convened an executive committee of the National Security Council to consider options. The consensus from the Joint Chiefs of Staff was to bomb the sites in Cuba, which might cause the USSR to retaliate in kind, so the U.S. might as well cut to the chase and launch a preemptive strike on the USSR. JFK, Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara sought a plan of action that would avoid World War III.

With no direct telephone line to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Kennedy used another medium to send a message. On Oct. 22, 1962, at 7 p.m. EST, he took to the television airwaves to deliver what is certainly the most bracing presidential address in American history. “Using the word ‘nuclear’ eleven times, Kennedy drew a panorama of devastation enveloping the whole hemisphere,” wrote the broadcasting historian Erik Barnouw. The president announced a quarantine around Cuba — avoiding the word “blockade,” an act of war — and trusted that the oncoming Soviet Navy would not breach the perimeter. While the world held its breath — that was the phrase everyone used — Kennedy and Khrushchev reached a back-channel accommodation: The Soviets would remove their missile sites from Cuba, the Americans would do the same in Turkey. The two superpowers had stepped back from the precipice.

Kubrick was already on the case. A loyal subscriber to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and a voracious reader of literature on nuclear warfare, he had long been “keen on the theme of a nuclear war being started either by accident or madness.” Kubrick came across a likely blueprint in the novel Red Alert by Peter George, a former RAF pilot, originally published in 1958 under the title Two Hours to Doom. Released in paperback in 1959, it had sold upwards of 250,000 copies.

But Kubrick had a problem: In October 1962, with unbeatable timing, the Saturday Evening Post began serializing Fail-Safe, by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, two professors of political science. The book was published that same month to wide acclaim; the title became part of the language. So pervasive was the Fail-Safe mania that the Pentagon issued a statement denying the novel’s central conceit — that once given an accidental green light, a B-52 bomber could not be called back. However, Secretary of Defense McNamara may not have assuaged fears by admitting that the fail-safe system was not in fact “foolproof.”

Veteran producer Max E. Youngstein and his Entertainment Corporation of America bought the Fail-Safe screen rights for a reported $400,000. Rushing into production with a planned 30-day shooting schedule, Fail-Safe was on track to beat Kubrick’s film now called Dr. Strangelove, etc., into theaters.

On Feb. 11, 1963, Kubrick and Red Alert author George filed suit to restrain Youngstein from production on Fail-Safe. (Terry Southern, the third credited screenwriter on the film, would be brought on toward the end of production. As would prove to be not uncommon in a Kubrick film, the director would squabble with his co-author over the byline credit.) In London, at a press conference at the Dorchester Hotel, Kubrick staked his prior claim on the nuclear Armageddon sweepstakes and accused the Fail-Safe team of plagiarism. He described his forthcoming production as “a nightmare comedy in which a psychotic Air Force general triggers an ingenious foolproof and irrevocable scheme, unleashing his wing of B-52 H-bombers to attack Russia. The president of the United States, unable to recall the aircraft, is forced to cooperate with the Soviet premiere in a bizarre attempt to save the world.”

Dr. Strangelove
Stanley Kubrick on the set of ‘Dr. Strangelove.’

This is not the plot of Fail-Safe, where the rogue B-52 is dispatched by an analog computer glitch, and which the authors claimed to have conceived in 1957. Nonetheless, the Fail-Safe defendants settled, doubtless to the commercial benefit of both films: Directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda, Fail Safe (the film dropped the hyphen) was released in September 1964 to critical and box office success. In truth, the two halves of the year’s H-bomb double bill are very different films — Dr. Strangelove is a roller coaster of mood swings, Fail Safe is deadly serious from start to finish — but both share an unquestioning faith in the dauntless courage and intrepid skill of our bomber crews. Despite the best efforts of the U.S. and the USSR, our boys will penetrate Soviet air space and deliver the payload.

With the immediate pressure off, Kubrick began collaboration in earnest with the other indispensable man on the project, the brilliant comedian-chameleon Peter Sellers. In Lolita (1962), Sellers had previously worked as a one-man ensemble for Kubrick, and both were eager for the repeat performances. The multiple parts in the picture all called “for the same high level of comedy acting skill,” Kubrick said. “I wanted to make this picture very much and Sellers is the only man who could make this possible.”  Sellers was also slated to play the role of the loquacious B-52 pilot, Major “King” Kong, but he broke his ankle, making him unable to sit astride an H-bomb cylinder, so, fortunately, Western character actor Slim Pickens was cast as the cowboy flyboy.

Like all Hollywood features at the time, Dr. Strangelove was tracked by the radar of the Production Code Administration. “I think you’ll find this a bit easier than Lolita,” Kubrick joked in his letter to PCA chief Geoffrey Shurlock, when he submitted the script, referring to the epic battles over adapting Vladimir Nabokov’s statutory rape-themed novel to the screen. In 1954, the mild-mannered Episcopalian Shurlock had replaced the no-nonsense Irish Catholic Joseph I. Breen as Hollywood’s resident censor in chief. He spent the rest of his tenure — the PCA would be terminated in 1968 — fighting a hopeless rear-guard action against a motion picture industry no longer willing to obey the old commandments.

Predictably, the Code staffers fretted over an “overabundance of profanity in the script.” American audiences, said Shurlock, “do not take kindly to ‘hells’ and `damns’ on the screen,” and the epithet “rotten sons of bitches” was outright forbidden. Kubrick ignored the suggestion to delete the “distasteful” reference to “prophylactics” — an item included in the bomber crew’s survival kit, along with such essentials as a combination miniature Russian phrasebook and Bible, lipstick, and nylons. Noting that the only woman in the film (the curvaceous Tracy Reed) would be clad in a bikini, Shurlock instructed Kubrick to “make sure that this bikini is not of the extreme type.” In the end, the language was toned down and the bikini was non-extreme, but the boisterous ridicule of government authority, military and civilian alike, remained. The times really were changing: Never before had the PCA permitted such irreverence toward the heretofore sacrosanct persons of the president and the senior military command.

In this, Dr. Strangelove was at the cutting edge of a broader cinematic cycle, a series of politically minded and mostly dark melodramas exploring the corridors of American power in the early 1960s: Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent (1962), John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Franklin Schaffner’s The Best Man (1964) and Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May (1964). All the films in the cycle were shot in black and white, still a normative format for serious thrillers and social problem films (not until 1965, when the television networks shifted to an all-color prime time strategy, was the monochromatic scale largely abandoned in deference to TV sales). For Dr. Strangelove especially, the monochromatic palette accentuated the vertiginous lurches from absurdist satire (the surnames, the dialogue, the broad slapstick) to documentary verisimilitude (the check-off protocols for nuclear codes, the hand-held camerawork for the ground-level combat sequences, and the authentic aerial shots of the Arctic landscapes). Braving lens-cracking sub-zero temperatures, Strangelove’s director of photography Gilbert Taylor used a newly developed film stock (Ilford Pan F 35mm Cine film) for the low-altitude location shots in Greenland, Iceland and the Arctic that would stand in for Siberia. “This very fine grain stock produced exceptional detail,” said Taylor, which “allowed the use of large back projection screens without a loss of definition.”

Dr. Strangelove
One of the posters promoting Peter Sellers’ in ‘Dr. Strangelove.’

Kubrick’s vision of “nuclear combat toe-to-toe with the Rooskies,” as Major Kong drawls, is intricately and logically plotted, never less than credible: If the names of the characters are pure Looney Toons, the scenario reads like a contingency report from the Rand Corporation. The director cross-cuts seamlessly among three fields of action: Burpelson Air Force Base, where mad-as-a-March-hare Gen. Jack D. Ripper (a cigar-chomping Sterling Hayden) has ordered an unauthorized first strike on the USSR, a development his prissy British executive officer Capt. Lionel Mandrake (Sellers) risks the wrath of the Coca-Cola Company to forestall; the claustrophobic interior of the fuselage of Major Kong’s B-52, where the bomber crew performs its duties with exemplary dispatch; and the nonviolent precincts of the Pentagon War Room with its huge circular table and wall-sized map board, one of the great vistas of production design (Ken Adam) and art direction (Peter Murton) in all of 1960s cinema. In the war room, via hot line (a device added after the Cuban Missile Crisis), President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) tries to sweet talk the Soviet premiere into helping him stop the apocalypse while the excitable Gen. Buck Turgidson (a nimble George C. Scott, sinking his teeth into a rare comic role) wants to seize the opportunity (“I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed!”). In the third act, the title physicist (Sellers again), battling to control a right arm with a mind of its own, emerges to propose a survival plan, at least for the elite 1 percent, 90 percent of whom will be sexually attractive women. The end is really the end: a newsreel montage of mushrooming H-Bomb detonations exploding across the screen to the tune of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again Someday.” For all the hilarity, the overall effect is quite devious: Under the spell of the propulsive power of the editing and the momentum of the countdown, moviegoers — as Kubrick intended — found themselves rooting for the B-52 to get over ground zero and unleash doomsday.

Kubrick had his final cut ready for a gala opening in London on Dec. 12, 1963, but the assassination of JFK on Nov. 22, 1963, postponed the festivities to Jan. 29, 1964.

Backed by a saturation television ad campaign personally supervised by Kubrick, the film shattered house records. Critics swooned. “Every sacred idea of the Cold War is methodically raked over by a barrage of satire,” exulted Esquire.  The Hollywood Reporter called it “the cleverest satirical handling of a current global apprehension ever treated onscreen.” Yet even the reviewers who raved about the film felt queasy: After all, school children were still practicing “duck and cover” drills in homeroom. No one denied Kubrick’s sheer technical brilliance, but should we really be laughing at the prospect of nuclear holocaust? “Gotham Critics Manic-Depressive Re Strangelove,” headlined Variety. At The New York Times, old-guard film critic Bosley Crowther was troubled. “There is so much to it that is great, so much that is brilliant and amusing,” he said, but there is “much that is grave and dangerous.”

The ambivalence was best reflected in, of all places, the response of the National Legion of Decency, the powerful Roman Catholic pressure group that had kept Hollywood in line since 1934. The Legion gave Dr. Strangelove an A-IV rating (“morally unobjectionable for adults with reservations”), more lenient than a B (“objectionable in part for all) or the dreaded “C” (condemned, which meant Catholics risked their immortal souls by attending). The cleric-critics recognized that the film was “a brilliant satire on the military mind and our defense policy,” but also felt it wallowed in “an irreverent and dangerous buffoonery which is just as sophomoric in its own way as the concept of the defense establishment which it purports to be satirizing.”

The custodians of the nation’s nuclear codes were emphatically not of two minds: They were insulted and appalled. Washington Post reporter Chalmers Roberts, a favored conduit for official leaks from the CIA and the Pentagon, passed on the official government reaction. Dr. Strangelove “can cause the United States as much harm as many a coup or revolution,” he wrote. “It is an outrageous effort to deal in satire with nuclear war and it is done in a way that maligns both the United States Air Force and the American Government. No Communist could dream of a more effective anti-American film to spread abroad than this one.” He urged U.S. officials — including President Lyndon B. Johnson — to take a look and “see its effect on the national interest.”

A few high-profile officials in Washington circles had special reason to be resentful. Despite the coy disclaimer at the top of the film that none of the characters portrayed “are meant to represent any real characters, living or dead,” speculation about the real-life models was rife. President Muffley seemed patterned after Adlai Stevenson, the buttoned-down, bald patrician who was the Democratic standard bearer for president in 1952 and 1956. Conservatives were wont to deride Stevenson as a milquetoast egghead, but in 1964 he would have been alive in memory due to his fiery exchange at the United Nations with Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin, who, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, denied that the USSR had built missile sites in Cuba. When Zorin tried to evade the question, Stevenson angrily shot back that he was prepared to wait for a straight answer “until hell freezes over.”

Dr. Strangelove
Slim Pickens in ‘Dr. Strangelove’

By common consent, Sterling Hayden’s (slightly) over the top depiction of Gen. Ripper is based on Gen. Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay. General LeMay oversaw the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945 and was the architect of the postwar Strategic Air Command system of defense. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, he had advised JFK to bomb the missile sites.

Candidates for the inspiration for the mobility-impaired former Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove (nee Merkwürdigliebe) included just about any prominent professor (Henry Kissinger) or scientist (Wernher von Braun) with a German accent, but the laurel goes to Hungarian born Edward Teller, father of the H-Bomb. (Television producer Peter Goodchild even titled his 2004 biography Edward Teller: The Real Dr. Strangelove.) Film critic Herman Weinberg suggested that the caricature also drew on two characters from a pair of Weimar-era Fritz Lang films, the black-gloved artificial hand of Rotwang in Metropolis (1927) and the wheelchair-bound Haghi in Spies (1928).

Of course, the connect the dots parlor game is a distraction from the doomsday clock ticking throughout Kubrick’s meditation on Mutually Assured Destruction, a deterrence policy with the perfect acronym. It’s all such a sidesplitting laugh riot that, 60 years later, the radioactive level of fear and trembling in the atmosphere may have dissipated — unless you were there at the time. I speak from experience: The morning after Kennedy’s televised ultimatum to the Russians, my father appeared at breakfast in his Air Force Reserve uniform. His unit had been called up.

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