“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” Peter Sellers was my valentine this year.
DIRECTED BY STANLEY KUBRICK WRITTEN BY STANLEY KUBRICK TERRY SOUTHERN PETER GEORGE SCORED BY LAURIE JOHNSON
STARRING PETER SELLERS GEORGE C. SCOTT SLIM PICKENS STERLING HAYDEN TRACY REED
Filmed after the Cuban Missile Crisis, this film is Kubrick’s darkly comedic take on the dangers of nuclear warfare and just how dangerously easy it is to blow the world up. James Earl Jones makes his film debut. Peter Sellers plays a President, a British Military Captain, and a nazi. Every male character is horny for megadeath.
I know I said I didn’t want to watch another war movie for a while, but I swear I had no idea what this movie was about when I sat down to watch it. So… whoops. Anyway, Dr. Strangelove! I loved this movie. The fact that it still holds up after nearly 60 years is a testament to the great script, sadly relatable concept, and the comedic talents of Peter Sellers. So, let’s get into the history behind this film and why it feels relevant today.
This film was released in 1964 on the heels of the Kennedy assassination and smack dab in the middle of the Cold War (1947-1991). The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is the basis of much of the film’s satire. I’ll let the official HISTORY website take this one…
“During the Cuban Missile Crisis, leaders of the U.S. and the Soviet Union engaged in a tense, 13-day political and military standoff in October 1962 over the installation of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles on Cuba, just 90 miles from U.S. shores. In a TV address on October 22, 1962, President John F. Kennedy (1917-63) notified Americans about the presence of the missiles, explained his decision to enact a naval blockade around Cuba and made it clear the U.S. was prepared to use military force if necessary to neutralize this perceived threat to national security. Following this news, many people feared the world was on the brink of nuclear war. However, disaster was avoided when the U.S. agreed to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s (1894-1971) offer to remove the Cuban missiles in exchange for the U.S. promising not to invade Cuba. Kennedy also secretly agreed to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey.” Source.
A common thought about this movie is that it’s unrealistic because the safeguards in place at the time would have prevented nuclear war from ever happening. However, at the Cuban Missile Crisis Havana conference in 2002, it was revealed that on October 27, 1962, a Soviet submarine armed with a nuclear torpedo lost contact with on land officials and the three men on board had to decide whether or not to launch the torpedo. 2 men said yes. 1 man said no. That is how close we came to nuclear war.
All that depressing information aside, let’s get into the movie. All these men are horny for war. In a scene between General Buck Turgidson and Miss Scott, his secretary and mistress, Turgidson has to leave in the middle of the night to the dismay of Miss Scott. Turgidson replies, “You just start your countdown, and old Bucky’ll be back here before you can say… Blast Off!” At this moment, he’s objectifying her and equating the woman he’s having sex with to an actual bomb. In addition, some aspects of the decision-making process in the War Room are to the delight of the officials. When Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove mentions the fact that the underground bunkers will be 10 women to every 1 man, they get excited.
Also, I haven’t found this comment anywhere, but the paranoid and insane Brigadier Jack D. Ripper has a confounding homoerotic energy to him. And before anyone says “FilmBabie, it’s not that deep, you’re just reading into everything as gay subtext,”… yes, I am. However, the fact that he always has a cigar in his mouth and the way he positions himself uncomfortably close to Sellers’ Lionel Mandrake to talk about bodily fluids is… curious. Again, I haven’t seen any critiques of this characterization or the influence that film’s long history of gay villainization has had on Kubrick, but it makes me wonder. Regardless, Ripper is also horny for war.
Let’s talk about Peter Sellers and his three incredible performances as Captain Lionel Mandrake, a British RAF exchange officer, US President Merkin Muffley, and Dr. Strangelove himself. Sellers has an incredible ability to completely inhabit each of these very different characters and we see that most in his physicalities and vocal patterns. Mandrake is very stiff, posh, and a bit jittery, which makes his scenes opposite Ripper so captivating. Muffley is smooth, deliberate, and stoic, which makes the scene of him clumsily calling Dimitri Kissov so hilarious. Dr. Strangelove is villainous, passionate, and yes, strange. Honestly, every scene is gut-bustingly funny the way Sellers plays him. Sellers is extremely gifted and this film is a perfect showcase for all his talent.
Dr. Strangelove demonstrates the danger of human error and the consequences of devaluing human life. Since the film was released, more safeguards have allegedly been put in place. However, humans can make mistakes as evidenced by this film. Just last year, ex-President Trump nearly created an identical predicament with North Korea. Luckily, it did not result in nuclear war. However, after almost a year of a global pandemic and nearly 2.5 million deaths worldwide, Trump warrants a comparison to Ripper and the more aggressive megadeath seekers.
As much as I don’t want to find relatability in this conflict, it’s unfortunately more relevant than ever. Maybe that’s why it still holds up. National and international tragedy, massive loss of life, and feeling like the guys in charge don’t know what they’re doing will always be relevant. So what can we do? Well… we can laugh. And that’s exactly what I did. In the wake of a never ending lockdown, unemployment, and mental health crises… I found a moment of escapism in this very real story to just laugh. That’s all we really can do. So if you’re feeling down, watch Peter Sellers suffer from alien hand syndrome.
- “We’ll Meet Again” by Vera Lynn is now permanently stuck in my head.
- I love that all the characters have double entendres for names.
- Seeing Peter Bull break character to smile at Sellers because it was just simply too hard to keep a straight face made me laugh uncontrollably.