Nearly every scene is great in the 1964 Stanly Kubrick black comedy Dr. Strangelove, in which a preemptive nuclear war is initiated by a rogue American bomber base commander (General Jack Ripper), in order to destroy the Soviet Union before the dirty Commie plot to fluoridate civic water systems can be brought to fruition.
There are some vignettes that seem particularly and hilariously dry, as Kubrick inserts the mundane, reflexive habits of civil social discourse into situations in which the stakes are incomprehensibly huge.
Take the moment when Peter Sellers, playing Group Captain Mandrake, an RAF officer on exchange with Strategic Air Command, realizes that General Ripper has gone rogue and launched his bomber wing on his own authority. Mandrake has found a transistor radio, and the emergency broadcast system isn’t in effect, it’s just pop tunes, which would mean that there was no Russian attack underway, no war, except the one Ripper was now starting. Ever the consummate Englishman, Mandrake remains scrupulously polite throughout, as the truth dawns slowly upon him. It’s a beautifully understated, stiff-upper-lip-old-boy performance.
Ripper: Group Captain, the planes are not going to be recalled. My attack orders have been issued and the orders stand.
Mandrake: Well, if you’ll excuse me saying so, sir, that would be, to my way of thinking, rather… well, rather an odd way of looking at it. You see, if a Russian attack was in progress we would certainly not be hearing civilian broadcasting.
Ripper: Are you certain of that, Mandrake?
Mandrake: I’m absolutely positive about that, sir, yes.
Ripper: And what if it’s true?
Mandrake: Well I’m afraid I’m still not with you, sir. Because, I mean, if a Russian attack was not in progress then your use of plan R, in fact your orders to the entire wing… oh…
There’s the scene as Major Kong, piloting one of the B-52s that Ripper has hurled at the Soviet Union, tallies up the contents of the crew’s survival kits:
Kong: Survival Kit contents check. In them you will find: one 45 caliber automatic, two boxes of ammunition, four days concentrated emergency rations, one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills, one miniature combination Rooshan phrase book and Holy Bible, one hundred dollars in rubles, one hundred dollars in gold, nine packs of chewing gum, one issue of prophylactics, three lipsticks, three pair of nylon stockings — shoot, a fellah could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff…
Everything that comes out of George C. Scott’s mouth, playing General Buck Turgidson, is hilarious – it’s the performance of a lifetime. Meanwhile, Sellers, playing mad German strategic theorist Dr. Strangelove to the hilt, keeps calling the President “Mein Fuhrer”, while one of his arms, apparently not under his own conscious control, keeps giving the Nazi salute.
Part of what makes this movie so wonderful, apart from the acting, script etc., is that Kubrick clearly had an expert understanding of the deadly logic of then-current deterrence theory, the very stuff I was studying at the time I first saw the movie. He also clearly understood that despite what civilians might think, owing to repeated suggestions from some quarters that there’s always something fraudulent about the transactions between defence contractors and the government, you could rest assured that real hard-core military hardware, far from being the $12,000.00 toilet seats and ashtrays of legend, not only works, it’s unstoppable – in the movie every effort to shoot down a single B-52 fails despite the exertions of the entirety of both militaries, the bomber evading defences and protecting itself just as it was designed to do. As Colonel Kong’s crew goes about the task at hand, within a superb mock-up that precisely mimics the actual interior of a B-52, it becomes obvious that the crew members are proficient and resourceful, their tactics flawless, their plane, a Boeing-built masterpiece, itself rugged and powerful. They may be nuts from Cold War brainwashing, but in no way are they incompetent. In fact, they’re masters of their apocalyptic instrument. That’s the horror of it. Once tasked, they will sure as shit get the job done, and the wondrous technology at their disposal will function just as planned – even the auto-destruct switch does its job to literal perfection, by blowing itself up. The CRM-114 radio receiver discriminator, designed to screen out false radio command signals from the enemy, performs its function by not receiving anything at all.
But could just one bomber penetrate the massed forces of the entire Soviet air defence system? Hell yes, enthuses Turgidson, warming to the topic. “Aw, you should see it Mr. President, a big plane like the ’52 flying in so low that its jet exhaust is frying chickens in the barnyard!” He’s dead right; Major Kong’s bomber is assailed by surface-to-air missiles, shot up, starts losing fuel, but keeps on going, inexorable, and when it can’t reach its designated primary, secondary, or even tertiary targets, it goes for the first “target of opportunity” – and then the bomb bay doors won’t open. Battle damage. No problem. Kong, played by Western movie regular Slim Pickens, crawls down into the bay, sits astride the thermonuclear weapon (“Hi There!” written on the warhead), hot wires the doors, and plunges out, hooting and hollering.
My favourite scene occurs earlier in the War Room, as President Merkin J. Muffley, also played by Sellers, enlists the help of the Russian ambassador to phone Soviet Premier Kissoff so he can try to explain the situation. It’s absolutely priceless. Kissoff, drunk in his dacha, has to be told to turn the music down, and then Muffley tries to handle him with kid gloves, like a contrite suitor trying to explain a screw-up to his angry girlfriend. One of our base commanders went a little, well, funny, Muffley explains, and well, he did a silly thing: