A half-century ago this spring, director Stanley Kubrick completed principal photography on a movie perhaps unparalleled for its kind of audacity: “Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” one of the greatest black comedies. Kubrick originally envisioned it as straight drama. But this most perspicacious of filmmakers soon realized that such dire subject matter might best be treated as satire.
The film was made when the Cold War was a powerful force. The Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, the Berlin crisis later that year and, especially, the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 had the world on edge.
In an interview after the release of the movie, Kubrick spoke of “the serious threat [that] remains that a psychotic figure somewhere in the modern command structure could start a war, or at least a limited exchange of nuclear weapons.”
Besides being a breakthrough film for the young Kubrick, “Dr. Strangelove” was an acting showcase for Peter Sellers, who portrayed the Milquetoast-like President Merton Muffley and stiff-upper-lip RAF Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake. Sellers also played the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove, whose uncontrollable black-gloved hand kept shooting upward in a Nazi salute.
Sellers was originally scheduled to play a fourth character, Maj. “King” Kong, pilot of an errant B-52 bomber, but, it was reported, he persuaded Kubrick that three over-the-top parts was enough. That role was played with down-home rusticity by Slim Pickens.
George C. Scott, in one of his early roles away from stage work, was superb as the fumbling (and tumbling) Gen. Buck Turgidson, who railed against “commie rats,” and likened the prospect of losing 20 million Americans in a nuclear attack to “getting our hair mussed.”
Sterling Hayden, who by his own account never took his profession too seriously, delivered the performance of his career as the crazed general whose decision to attack Russia triggered nuclear Armageddon.
Hayden, who had worked with Kubrick in the 1956 heist thriller “The Killing,” initially struggled with the character of Gen. Jack D. Ripper. In a 1981 French television interview, Hayden spoke of his experience on the set of “Strangelove.”
“Lord knows, it was a wonderful picture,” the actor said. “We all knew that. I guess I pulled my weight in it. But I went through the worst day of my life the first day on that picture because I began to blow my lines, and I went 48 takes. I had the cigar and all the dialogue, the military jargon. I’m pouring sweat, and they’re mopping me off.
“Finally, I got up. I couldn’t take it anymore. I walked up to him and said, ‘Stanley, I apologize to you.’ He said, ‘Sterling, the terror in your eyes and on your face might just be the quality we want in this jackass Gen. Jack Ripper.’ I went across the street and had a couple of shots of Black Label, came back and it worked out.”
Kubrick wrote the screenplay with the late Terry Southern, based on “Red Alert,” a novel by Peter George. The film was scheduled for a Nov. 22, 1963, test screening, but the assassination of President John F. Kennedy that day delayed the opening to January 1964. It was shot on a $1.8 million budget, paltry by today’s standards, and nominated for four Academy Awards. It was bravura filmmaking that inspired such future directors as Steven Spielberg.
Relations between this country and Russia are still tense. Other nations have developed nuclear stockpiles. So 50 years later, “Dr. Strangelove” still has a powerful message.