Normally one wouldn't think the possibility of nuclear annihilation would be the wellspring for a comedy, just as most people today wouldn't think the Holocaust is fodder for satire. Yet when Stanley Kubrick set out to do a straightforward dramatic film based on novelist Peter George's "Red Alert," a novel about an "accidental" nuclear attack on the Soviet Union by the United States, the more research and contemplation the director and co-screenwriter did on the subject of nuclear deterrence and all the nitty gritty of nuclear warfare, the more insane the whole theme seemed. So Kubrick -- no doubt aware that a similarly themed film (Fail-Safe) was underway -- gave in to his impulses and switched gears from drama to "dark" comedy.
Kubrick sets the tone right from the main title sequence. As the credits (and you have to see these yourself) roll, we see footage of a B-52 Stratofortress being refueled by a KC-135A aerial tanker. In the background, the very romantic strains of "Try a Little Tenderness" gives this aerial ballet an almost grotesque ironic counterpoint. Love music? In a scene depicting a nuclear bomber being refueled as it heads toward its fail-safe point?
Things get going, though, when Royal Air Force liaison officer Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) gets an unexpected phone call from Burpleson AFB's B-52 wing commander, Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), ordering him to impound all privately owned radios and to order the B-52s already on deterrence patrol to leave their fail-safe points and to implement Wing Attack Plan R. Befuddled but obedient, Mandrake complies, setting off Gen. Ripper's plan to launch an unauthorized attack against the Soviet Union.
Dr. Strangelove follows three story threads, each getting loopier as the world hurtles closer and closer to annihilation:
First, there is hapless Group Capt. Mandrake's reaction to his discovery of Ripper's real plot and the loony logic of the general's motives. The Soviet Union hasn't started a war, Ripper says, but has been messing around with Americans' natural fluids since 1946 -- the same year fluoridation began to be implemented in earnest.
Second, there is President Merkin Muffley's (Peter Sellers again) stunned reaction when he is summoned to the Pentagon's War Room along with the Soviet ambassador, where his increasingly pathetic attempts to defuse the crisis run into various stumbling blocks, including the hawkish demeanor of Air Force General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), the dissembling of the ambassador (Peter Bul), the vagaries of long distance telephone service, the bizarre machinations of one of his senior advisors, Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers yet again), and the inebriated state of the Soviet Premier.
Third, there is the sheer pluck of Air Force Maj. T.J. Kong( Slim Pickens), who, upon getting the orders to implement Wing Attack Plan R, doffs his flight helmet and puts on a cowboy hat, peppering his orders and pep talk with slangy cowboy terms. He, too, is a bit loony, yet he and his crew (which includes James Earl Jones in his first film appearance) overcome every obstacle thrown at them on their way to their target.
Kubrick peppers his film with sight gags (nuclear bombs with Dear John and Hi There! stenciled on their warheads, a buffet counter in the war room) and punny names (Keenan Wynn's paratrooper character, one who fears retribution from the Coca-Cola company more than the prospect of an unstopped nuclear war, is named Bat Guano), and his use of music in an ironic counterpoint to the visuals ("Try a Little Tenderness" in the aforementioned title sequence, a hummed rendition of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" over Major Kong's toe-to-toe with the Rooskies speech, and Vera Lynn's famous rendition of "We'll Meet Again" as the crisis comes to a stark close) puts an end to the misconception of the director as being cold and unfunny.
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