Dr. Strangelove Or: How Stanley Kubrick Invented Black Comedy

Entertainment | June 11, 2019

Left: Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove. Right: George C. Scott as General 'Buck' Turgidson. Source: IMDB

Stanley Kubrick's 1964 nuclear-war farce Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb has been called the first black comedy in film history. The film, starring Peter Sellers and George C. Scott, addresses many rather serious questions of the era, when the Cold War cast its ominous shadow over daily life in America. The United States and the Soviet Union were capable of destroying each other many times over -- was this concept of "mutually assured destruction" supposed to make us sleep easy at night? The "peace," if that is the word for it, depended on a precarious balance -- what if something goes wrong? And what if the people in power -- who are endlessly wargaming doomsday scenarios and coldly crunching numbers -- are slightly crazy? While the outcome of these quandaries in the film is complete annihilation, the film is able to find the absurdity in the situation and satirize it.

Audiences had never quite seen anything like Dr. Strangelove, and there hasn't been a film quite like it since. 

Beginnings Of The Film

The War Room as shown in a poster for 'Dr. Strangelove.' Source: parkcircus.com

The dilemma begins when Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper sets nuclear war with Russia in motion. Ripper, a slightly unhinged character, believes that the Russians were poisoning the water supply with fluoride. The rest of the film focuses on the repercussions of his action, showing the absurdity of the people who are making decisions that may impact humanity.

The film was based on the novel Red Alert by Peter George. Although George collaborated with Stanley Kubrick, the director, and satirist Terry Southern, there were some differences between the film and the book. The film retained much of the main plot and technical elements of the novel. However, the novel did not include the character Dr. Strangelove and it was much more serious than the film. Kubrick had originally planned to film a drama, but during research, discovered comedic elements in the situation and eventually fully incorporated them into the film.

The Cast Of 'Dr. Strangelove'

Left: Sterling Hayden as Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper. Right: Sellers as President Merkin Muffley with Scott. Source: IMDB

Peter Sellers played three separate roles in the film because Columbia agreed to finance the film only if he played at least four major roles. This stipulation was based on the belief that the success of Kubrick’s Lolita was based on Sellers’s performance as a single character who takes on multiple identities.

Sellers, who played the roles of President Muffley, Lionel Mandrake, and Dr. Strangelove, was also cast to play Major Kong but was unable to play that role because of a leg injury. They then cast Slim Pickens, whose prior roles had mainly been as cowboys. His demeanor made him perfect for the role of Major Kong, a cowboy-soldier. When they hired Pickens, they did not tell him that the film was satiric. Kubrick also kept secrets from George C. Scott who was aware that they were filming a satire. However, Kubrick convinced Scott to exaggerate the character as an exercise. They were not supposed to be included in the final cut of the film. However, unbeknownst to Scott at the time, his wacky performance was part of the film.

'Precious Bodily Fluids'

Sterling Hayden as Jack D. Ripper. Source: IMDB

The linchpin of the movie isn't President Muffley, Dr. Strangelove, or General Turgidson; it's General Jack D. Ripper, played brilliantly by Sterling Hayden. Ripper's actions are a perfect storm of what could happen when a person in power entertains conspiracy theories and activates a doomsday plan. As Mandrake discovers, there's no arguing with Ripper -- he is completely certain that his beliefs are correct. He counters Mandrake's feeble attempts to reason with him by asking Mandrake when water fluoridation began.

Nineteen hundred and forty-six. 1946, Mandrake. How does that coincide with your post-war Commie conspiracy, huh? It's incredibly obvious, isn't it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice. That's the way your hard-core Commie works.

Ripper activates Plan R, which is designed on the premise that the enemy has successfully attacked the U.S., so any commands are to be ignored or at least greeted with severe suspicion. Under Plan R, the bombers that Ripper commands to attack Soviet Union targets cannot be called off without a specific code. American troops trying to gain access to the base where Ripper is holed up are fired upon because, according to Plan R, they are assumed to be Communist forces. The wheels are set in motion, and there's almost nothing President Muffley can do about it.

To further complicate the situation, the Soviet ambassador reveals that his country has a doomsday device that will render the entire planet uninhabitable if the USSR is attacked with nuclear bombs. 

Dr. Strangelove: Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost, if you keep it a secret! Why didn't you tell the world, eh?
Ambassador de Sadesky: It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.

At the climactic moment in the film, we see that the most powerful people in the world have outsmarted themselves. Mutually assured destruction isn't a peacekeeping strategy -- it's the inevitable outcome.

The Film Has Roots In Reality

Slim Pickens rides a nuclear bomb to his -- and everyone's -- doom. Source: IMDB

Critics of the film said that it was implausible. There was some truth in the film, as Eisenhower had given several high-level Commanders the ability to use nuclear weapons if the conditions necessitated it. In 1960, 15 members of Congress toured NATO bases, accompanied by Harold Agnew, a Los Alamos physicist. They found that weapons were often under the control of foreign military personnel, and, in one case, the only thing that kept one of the planes from leaving to bomb the Soviet Union was a lone soldier.

Kubrick not only worked with Peter George to create the film, but he also researched the topic for years and spoke to experts about the possibility of accidental nuclear war. Interestingly, it seems that the government too was concerned about the possibility of an accidental nuclear war.

Additionally, Ripper’s beliefs that the Soviets were poisoning the water supply with fluoride was not overly outlandish. The John Birch Society, which was founded in 1958, promoted an anti-fluoridation agenda and some who were advocates of fluoride were threatened with arrest.

Finding The Humor In A Strange Situation

Picture from the pie fight Kubrick originally imagined as the end of the film. Source: (bfi.org)

Despite its foundation in real fears, comedy was laced throughout the film. Even the character’s names became part of the humor. Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper, the character whose delusions lead to annihilation is one of the more blatant examples. Other names are less obvious. Buck Turgidson, a character whose masculinity is a bit exaggerated, has a name which includes the word “turgid,” a word that means “swollen and distended.” The bald, wimpy President Merkin Muffley, whose first name is another word for a pubic wig, is exactly the wrong man to handle a global crisis. And of course, there was Strangelove’s name (which is a direct translation of his German name, Merkwürdigliebe).

The humor in Strangelove’s name becomes apparent at the end of the film. As Kong rides the nuclear warhead as if he is in a rodeo, Dr. Strangelove shares his plan for humanity to survive the inevitable destruction, including a ratio of 10 attractive females to each male, which will be necessary to repopulate the planet. As Dr. Strangelove explains how monogamy would need to be abandoned, his arm continues to shoot into the air in a Nazi salute. At the end of the film, with the backdrop of total annihilation, the previously impotent Dr. Strangelove regains the power to walk.

The character of Strangelove also has historical significance. Following World War II, the U.S. rounded up dozens of German scientists and brought them to America to work on cutting-edge weapons systems in a program called Operation Paperclip. Concern that some of the scientists had been Nazis was swept under the rug -- their expertise was needed, and better they be working for the U.S. than the Soviets. In Kubrick's film, Strangelove's premeditated strategy for surviving the war and his Nazi salute imply that he's activating some sort of old Nazi plan, and the American leaders in the War Room are, disturbingly, happy to go along with it.

'Dr. Strangelove' Challenged Audiences And Critics Alike

Left: Slim Pickens as Maj. 'King' Kong. Right: Sellers as Strangelove. Source: IMDB

Many viewers and critics didn't quite know what to make of the film. They had never seen such a frightening, real-world scenario played for laughs. New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther proclaimed, in the first sentence of his review, the film to be "beyond any question the most shattering sick joke I've ever come across." Crowther's review ends:

Somehow, to me, it isn't funny. It is malefic and sick.

The Washington Post wrote that "No Communist could dream of a more effective anti-American film to spread abroad than this one."

The brutal ridiculing of America's political and military leaders made some audiences uncomfortable -- after all, the nation had weathered a scare in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 with President John F. Kennedy in the White House. Americans were still in shock over Kennedy's November 1963 assassination when Dr. Strangelove premiered on January 29, 1964. Kids were huddling under their desks in air-raid drills and Americans were shopping for nuclear fallout shelters. The Cold War was real, and nobody thought it was funny. Were Americans ready to laugh at this stuff? Was the final scene, of the world's destruction in a rush of mushroom clouds to the tune of "We'll Meet Again," supposed to be funny at all?

Those who objected to the film as un-American turned out to be in the minority -- on the whole, Americans did laugh, however uneasily, and critics got the point of the film's daring satire. "Baleful and brilliant" was The Hollywood Reporter's verdict. "Stanley Kubrick's creation makes visual the underlying anxiety that today stirs uneasily in most of the world's population. The Columbia release is concerned with that dread probability, an 'accident' triggering the Bomb. It is so funny because it is so true."

Today, we're used to dark or black comedy (whether we care for it or not), though usually on a more personal scale. Films like Heathers, Very Bad Things, and American Psycho dare us to laugh at a cartoonish disregard for human life. Dr. Strangelove, with its gallows humor on a global scale, is often considered the first -- and many film fans have said, the best -- black comedy ever made.

Tags: Black Comedy | George C. Scott | Movies In The 1960s | Peter Sellers | Slim Pickens | Stanley Kubrick | Sterling Hayden | The Cold War

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Cyn Felthousen-Post


Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!