Do you remember Fail Safe? Me neither. But, if you have heard the title, no doubt it is being contrasted with Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the more famous movie about a potential nuclear crisis—a movie which is still alive and well, even as the Soviet Union has bitten the dust. Back in 1964, when nuclear war and mutually assured destruction were pressing enough concerns that preparing for both was in the public school curricula, movies like Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe might be received with a mixture of paranoia and horror. But Dr. Strangelove, the dark satire, survives because we can still laugh at it.
And, as one of the greatest comedies ever recorded on film reels, Dr. Strangelove gives us plenty to laugh about. That is not to say the concept behind it sounds funny on paper: When a NATO base commander in Europe named General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden) goes insane—sputtering nonsense about the communist fluoridation plot to make Americans docile—he orders a bomber fleet under his command to carry out a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union and institutes strict radio silence. Crisis follows, but things get worse when President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) and his top military advisor General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) find out that the Soviet Union is in possession of a “Doomsday Device” which will kill all everything that creeps on crawls on the surface of the planet in the event of a nuclear strike. Things don’t get much more serious than this.
But it is the seriousness of the situation from which director Stanley Kubrick manages to glean so much humor, particularly in the utter incompetence of everyone tasked with deciding the fate of the human race. General Turgidson fumbles with the recall codes for the planes (“It’s gonna take us about three or four days ‘til we get this sorted out”); General Ripper’s executive officer, Captain Lionel Mandrake (Sellers again) attempts to recall the wing through the only working line of communication, a pay phone for which he has 5 cents too little; and President Muffley has an apologetic conversation with the Soviet premier, Dmitri Kisov (hunkered down in a brothel for the crisis), about his general who “got a little funny in the head.”
The incompetence of the various characters has led many viewers to believe that Dr. Strangelove is an anti-Cold War film (an interpretation consistent with the fact that Kubrick made a few notable anti-hot war films, such as Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket.) But this is mistaken. If, in the universe of Dr. Strangelove, there is an alternative to the standoff that sets of the crisis in the first place, the movie never bothers to explicate what it might be. There is no apologia for mutual respect or understanding. Beyond Turgidson’s and Ripper’s references to “commie plots,” the ideological context of the Cold War never even comes up.
Rather, Dr. Strangelove is about the inability—both innate and inevitable—of humans to control all of the power that is at their fingertips. The men who occupy the screen in Dr. Strangelove have more power than any other world leaders in history, yet from the milquetoast president to the jingoistic generals, the audience is left to wonder how any of them obtained their positions of such awesome responsibility.
Perhaps this suggests the other interpretation that comes up in numerous analyses of Dr. Strangelove: It is not so much an anti-Cold War film as an attack on hypermasculinity. Aside from General Turgidson’s secretary (who apparently wears a thong bikini to work) no women appear in the film, but the scenes are still rife with innuendoes, not only in the names (Strangelove, Kisov, Mandrake) but in the comic sequences, beginning with the opening credits, in which the cast and crew is titles appear before images of a routine aerial refueling which actually plays out more like a love scene between two planes. But, as events play out in the story, the crisis is perpetuated by much more than the masculine drive for another conquest.
The problem is less that people long for mutually-assured destruction as it is that no amount of bureaucratic morass is capable of preventing it. General Ripper serves as a lynchpin for the action and is the closest thing that Dr. Strangelove has to a villain. Nonetheless, the fault appears to lie more with our stars than with ourselves. Even Major Kong (Slim Pickens) and his crew who eventually deliver the fatal payload are less motivated by hubris than by their unflinching faith in their chain of command. Major Kong might ride a nuclear weapon to his death as though it were a rodeo bull (and, implicitly, kill the majority of the planet with him) but his end is equal parts tragic and comic.
Because his oeuvre spanned almost every genre, it is hard to talk about the elements that make a movie a Kubrick film, but Dr. Strangelove is more than an auteur vehicle. It is a movie that belongs as much to its cast as it does to its director. George C. Scott—who was allegedly mortified to find out that the takes of his character used in the film were not just rehearsals—gives the most over the top performance of his career, but he inhabits every inch of his character and commands every scene that he appears in. Who could forget a man confident enough to nonchalantly accept the notion that “moderate and acceptable civilian casualties” could be 10 or 20 million, tops?
And, of course, there is Peter Sellers himself. If there is one idiosyncrasy viewers tend to remember about Dr. Strangelove, it is that Peter Sellers plays three different characters—all with diverse accents and distinct physical appearance. This was not an artistic choice but was rather a stipulation of the studio’s executives, and it is difficult to say whether it serves the movie better than it would have had Sellers just played the titular role; Sellers excels as President Muffley, Captain Mandrake and Dr. Strangelove, but Slim Pickens probably plays Major Kong as well as Sellers would have, even though it was only a twisted ankle that prevented Sellers from playing that part too.
But Dr. Strangelove is unthinkable without Peter Sellers and, to the extent that Sellers is familiar to American audiences, it is probably mostly because of Dr. Strangelove, even though his Pink Panther movies and other comedic roles are remain popular. The most memorable role that Sellers took on in Dr. Strangelove is probably that of the pseudonymous character, a German ex-patriot science advisor who is quite literally divided against himself. (Suffering from alien hand syndrome, he constantly has to wrestle his arm out of a Nazi salute or fight to keep it from strangling him.)
Based on Werner von Braun—the German inventor of the V-2 rocket during his time in the Nazi Party—Dr. Strangelove apparently forgets whether he is still living in the Third Reich or the United States, accidentally referring to the president as “Mein Fuhrer” on more than one occasion. But underneath the comedic foibles of his exterior, Dr. Strangelove represents a distillation of the non-ideological technocrats whose ideas became the basis for the early Cold War era. His strategies—such as ensuring humanity’s survival by building a network of underground mineshafts and repopulating the world through polygamous relationships—sound amusing until one remembers that there actually were scholars who planned such contingencies during the time when the movie was made. Like the book that General Turgidson is sometimes seen carrying around, War Targeting in Megadeaths, Dr. Strangelove seems ridiculous, but ridicule usually has a source.
All of this is to say that, while history may have transformed Dr. Strangelove from a satire into a comedy, the crisis that it portrays was much closer to a reality than many would care to remember. Most Americans today do not love the bomb, but we have at least learned to stop worrying. Among the many things that people fear today, nuclear war probably ranks lower on the list than climate change. But Dr. Strangelove is still capable of making us confront the fact that, however we institutionalize human action to make ourselves safer, human error can find its way into any bureaucratic system. Perhaps we can laugh louder now, knowing that the contingency the movie presents never happened, but responding to Dr. Strangelove correctly means walking away from it with a dose of humility. This is not easy; as the movie suggests, humility is a virtue which people who rise to leadership positions often lack; but look what happens when it is absent.