Friday, 10 July 2009

Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Depending on the breaks

No 26 - Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Director - Stanley Kubrick

Kubrick is a very impressive fellow. I'm sure this is something I've mentioned before, but just look at his back catalogue. He very rarely tackled the same genre twice. But whatever film he makes be it sci-fi, horror, epic or Comedy, he makes a pivotal film of the genre.

Of course, when doing a comedy, it doesn't hurt to have the very excellent (though somewhat temperamental) Peter Sellers. What I love about this film is the initial subtlety of the comedy and how that subtlety is gradually blasted into tiny pieces over the course of the film.

The opening credits set the tone of the film as scenes of ships refuelling in the air are shown with sensual music playing over the top. The end effect is almost pornographic and begins to illustrate one of the key points of the film. Lust and war and sex and violence are all mingled together and this becomes increasingly evident in the thoughts and actions of the military.
In fact, the military are not well portrayed in this film (with the exception of Group Captain Mandrake who is gloriously British and possibly the only sane person in the film) - I would be surprised to hear that Kubrick was staunchly anti-war as the film does illustrate the Cold War as a futile and ridiculous endeavour.

As well as the Military, Kubrick seems to have a problem with fool proof plans. Mainly the idea that creating a fool proof plan, or a failsafe... seems to be tempting fate and asking for trouble. Te plot comes into play when the insane General Ripper activates Plan R, a retaliatory battle plan which allows the military to perform nuclear strikes without the permission of the president. The plan is also designed to be next to impossible to stop, just in case the Russians try and sabotage.
So the entire American and Russian governments are left with a Nuclear strike which they can't avert all because of this foolproof failsafe plan.

As this becomes clearer, General Turgidson refuses to accept any responsibility from the president who becomes more and more frustrated at this clearly flawed procedure. You have to be impressed at General Turgidson's refusal to accept that Plan R was not a good idea. His backtracking and spin is enough to make a politician proud.
President Merkin Muffley: General Turgidson! When you instituted the human reliability tests, you *assured* me there was *no* possibility of such a thing *ever* occurring!
General "Buck" Turgidson: Well, I, uh, don't think it's quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up, sir.

All of this causes the situation to become more and more desperate as Armageddon seems likely. It also allows the film to completely lose the fragile grip on reality that it had been maintaining....

This film is famous for Peter Sellers' multiple characters. However the first two are very restrained. General Mandrake is very stiff upper lip, the straight man in a sea of fools, he is both a strong character and a serious character. Whilst still a straight character, the much weaker President Muffley is a Woody Allen-esque nervous jittering man trying to handle the fact that his world is falling to pieces. Most of the true insanity comes from the other characters, that Sellers gets to riff off.
Whereas in Pink Panther he was the fool, in this film he is the straight man.

Except.... About 2/3 of the way through the film we meet the titular Dr Strangelove. A creation which is so stark raving bonkers it is impossible to figure out how he came to be.
A definite former Nazi (he occasionally slips into 'Meine Fuhrer' and the odd Nazi salute) the real oddness comes from what is described as an 'Evil Hand'. Whilst Dr Strangelove comes from a Nazi background he is now the scientific advisor for the President. His begloved 'Evil Hand' still has traces of the Nazi in it and Dr Strangelove seems unable to control it. The hand frequently tries to slow Strangelove down and on one occasion even tries to kill him.
I always thought this was the silliest most random bit of the film, but to my astonishment it is an actual condition!

As Armageddon seems surer and surer (due to retaliations and anti-retaliatory precautions) the Americans start planning on how they could survive living underground in mineshafts until the fallout clears.
Eventually - Plan R is averted and all but one plane return to the states. But one plane is enough to trigger the Russian Doomsday machine which could mean the end of the world.

The film ends with us not really knowing what has happened. There is just a montage of nuclear explosions and Vera Lynn singing we'll meet again. The original song choice was apparently going to be We Will All Go Together When We Go... but whilst I think Tom Lehrer's song is a perfect ending tune, We'll Meet Again is just a bit bleaker....

And this is a film that relishes in the comedy in tragedy


Anonymous said...

Oh yes, Evil Hand is definitely an actual condition, I learned that from House!

Have you seen The Life and Death of Peter Sellers? Excellent film. Part of my ongoing challenge to find and recommend biopics to my Dad (he only likes nonfiction in books and films, favourite genre musical biography but he's a huge Peter Sellers fan)

Miles DeFortuna said...

So, you gave a good breakdown, and I agree with every single one of your points at least as far as this film was at it's point of release, but do you think it stands the test of time? I have my doubts.

Ally said...

Miles - I think the film DOES stand the test of time. Just because the threat of total nuclear annihilation isn't as prevalent as it once was, doesn't mean the thought of it is any less terrifying, or the situations in the film any less hilarious in their futility.