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Stanley Kubrick’s nuclear holocaust suspense satire Dr Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is now rereleased nationwide, at the same time as the Kubrick retrospective at London’s BFI Southbank. It was written by Kubrick with the journalist and counter-culture satirist Terry Southern, transforming the conventional thriller Red Alert by Welsh author Peter George.
Strangelove was released in 1964, two years after the Cuban missile crisis, and 31 years before a real-life Strangelove scenario, when Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin came close to pressing the red button after a US meteorological rocket investigating the northern lights off Norway had been interpreted by the Russian military as a hostile gesture. A Kubrickian movie about that blood-chilling event is in order, although it has been discussed in Lucy Walker’s nuclear documentary Countdown to Zero.
Maybe it was Dr Strangelove that really did persuade us all to stop worrying about the bomb. Perhaps this film inoculated our minds with black comedy, absurdified and ironised the horror and made the unthinkable thinkable. But I can never watch it without a bowel-liquefaction of fear. Somehow this is most acute when Peter Sellers, playing the stiff-upper-lipped RAF officer Lionel Mandrake is curtly informed by his crazy American commanding officer Brigadier General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden) that the nuclear confrontation has begun – which is to say, Ripper has pre-emptively begun a war to prevent communists sapping America’s precious bodily fluids. “Oh hell – are the Russians involved, sir?” breathes Mandrake. It’s supposed to be bizarre, yet the quiet fear in Sellers’s voice is very real.
Hayden was well qualified for this satirical role. As an intelligence officer in the second world war, he had served with the Tito partisans and in 1946, in a spirit of martial gallantry and admiration for them, had briefly joined the Communist party. The house un-American activities committee forced him to name names, with the FBI privately threatening that refusing would mean he would lose custody of his children in his ongoing divorce case. Hayden regretted complying and the role of Jack D Ripper was his way of hitting back, just a little, at the red-scare bullies.
This was arguably Sellers’ finest hour on screen, with his bravura multi-personality performance, playing Mandrake and also the insidiously bland mandarin President Merkin Muffley, and, most egregiously of all, the ex-Nazi scientist inspired by the V-2 rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. He is Doktor Merkwürdigliebe, who has anglicised his name as Strangelove: the wheelchair user and strategic visionary who has a habit of addressing the president as “Mein Führer” and, as the nuclear immolation nears, starts discussing how an American master race might be bred down in a mineshaft while waiting for the post-strike radiation to clear. Energised by this fascistic new idea, and its sexual opportunities, he then experiences an extraordinary personal miracle. (Only when watching this film again this week did I sense that Sellers drew for inspiration here on his Goon Show comrade Spike Milligan.)
The “war room” scenes are extraordinary. Ken Adam’s spectacular design has governed everyone’s idea about how and where these decisions must surely be made – in Bond-villain-type stage sets. (The recent TV version of The Man in the High Castle contained a scary homage, with the huge, dark, eerily uplit round table round which the postwar Nazis discuss their plans for a global nuclear strike.) And Strangelove does an efficient job of reminding us about the mentality of war – the “Pearl Harbor” thinking that the mad but nonetheless prescient Ripper knew would take hold once he had lit the fuse. The authorities start planning the pre-emptive strikes against the enemy’s military capabilities, which might well be mobilised, because of their own meaningless and unprovoked attack.
Age has not withered that final queasy nightmare of the mushroom clouds, set to Vera Lynn’s hopeful We’ll Meet Again – underscoring how the certainties of the second world war ceased to hold their meaning in the nuclear age.
Source: The Guardian
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