Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Released:  1964

Cast:  Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, Tracy Reed

Oscar Nominations:  Best Picture, Best Actor (Peter Sellers), Best Director (Stanley Kubrick), Best Adapted Screenplay (Stanley Kubrick, Peter George, Terry Southern)

SUMMARY:   At Burpelson Air Force Base, Air Force Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders the 843rd Bomb Wing to bomb targets inside Russia.  One of the pilots in the group is Major T.J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens); he and the other pilots are instructed to set their radios to a special station, which will only receive communication prefaced by a special code — known only by General Ripper.  However, Ripper’s executive officer, British Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) finds out that the Pentagon did not order any such attack, and confronts Ripper.  Ripper explains that he is taken preemptive action:  he thinks that the Soviets have fluoridating the U.S. water supply in order to pollute the “precious bodily fluids” of the nation’s inhabitants.  Mandrake realizes that Ripper is crazy, but since the man has locked both of them in his office, there is nothing he can do.  Back in the United States, President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) has convened a council in the War Room, made up of a number of aides, advisors and military officers, including General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott).  Muffley cannot understand how an attack could be ordered without his approval, but Turgidson explains that Plan R (approved by the President) allows a lower-ranking officer to order an attack if all of his superiors have been killed — Ripper has done this, without telling his men that the President and his advisors are still alive.  Turgidson then tells the President that the military is sending a stop message to the planes with every conceivable three-letter combination, but that it could take two days to get through all of them.  However, the planes are due to reach their objectives in less than an hour.  The President then orders a military attack on Burpelson, and the arrest of Ripper.

However, Turgidson is in favor of letting the attack continue, taking the opportunity to destroy the Soviets before they can destroy the U.S.  Muffley flat-out refuses to do this, and instead calls in the Soviet ambassador, Alexei de Sadeski, to call the Soviet premier Dimitri Kissov.  When the call is connected, Muffley explains the situation, and hands over the location of the planes so that they can be shot down by the Soviets.  Sadeski then reveals that the Soviets have created a “doomsday device”, which will set off an unprecedented explosion and chain of events, should the country come under nuclear attack.  There is no way to disable this device:  any attempt to do so will actually trigger it.  At this point, one of the President’s advisors, ex-Nazi Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers) points out that if the Soviets really had such a device, they would have publicized it; Sadeski answers that such an announcement was to have been made next week.  Back at Burpelson, the Army has arrived and begun attacking the base.  They eventually take over; when Ripper realizes this, he kills himself so that he will not reveal the code under torture.  At Ripper’s desk, Mandrake finds the code written on a blotter, but is interrupted by the arrival of an Army officer, who does not know the details behind the attack.  Mandrake tries to call the code in, but the phone lines have been cut; finally, he manages to use a pay phone (after breaking into a Coke machine for change) and get in touch with the President.  This allows most of the planes to be recalled, but one of them, the one piloted by Major Kong, has endured a missile hit that destroyed their radio.  Muffley tells Kissov of the plane’s target, unaware that Kong has picked a new target because of a fuel shortage.  As the plane reaches the new target, the crew is unable to open the bomb doors so Kong goes below to fix them.  Just as he does this, the bombs release, plummeting to earth with Kong astride.  In the War Room, Strangelove reveals a plan to gather a few hundred thousand people to live underground in mineshafts, deep enough that the radiation will not reach them.  Part of this plan includes having ten females for every man, which goes over well with the rest of the assembly.  Strangelove then abruptly realizes that he can walk (he is in a wheelchair), but the doomsday device triggers.

MY TAKE:  Obviously, this is a satire, and pokes particular fun at the U.S. and the Soviet Union — just look at the character names.  It’s also kind of a showcase for Peter Sellers, who plays three different characters — Mandrake, Muffley and Strangelove.  Despite the movie’s title, Dr. Strangelove is a small character, and isn’t even introduced until halfway through the movie.  He is responsible for most of the obvious comedy, as the rest of it is implied, rather than outright.  It comes in the outrageousness of the characters, such as the way that Turgidson keeps thinking that the Soviets are trying to fake them out.  The funniest moment in the film is when Strangelove is explaining his underground plan:  his right arm seems to have a mind of its own.  It alternately tries to choke Strangelove, turn his wheelchair in little circles, and give the Hitler salute.  It’s funny to watch him get pissed about this, but it’s even more funny to watch the men behind him:  at one point Peter Bull (Sadeski) is unable to stay in character, and cracks an obvious smile at the antics of Peter Sellers.  Other than this, I didn’t find the money all that amusing.  Maybe that’s because I was born during the collapse of the Soviet Union, and don’t remember the Cold War at all.

RATING:  Some funny moments, but didn’t live up to the hype for me.



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