Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (40th Anniversary Special Edition) Review
Gone mad at the thought of Russian communists trying to pollute America's precious bodily fluids, General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), in charge of the Burpleson Air Force base orders an all out nuclear attack on the U.S.S.R, led by a fleet of B-52 bombers. Having closed off the base and keeping the recall code to himself, Ripper shuts himself in his office where his only companion, Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers) struggles to find out the code in order to prevent the disastrous bombing on the Soviets, that threatens to wipe out humanity
Meanwhile the president of the United States of America, Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) is conducting discussions in the Pentagon's war room. He responds to the attack plan "R" by ordering the aid of General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) who sends an army to attack Burpleson and recall the bombers. The president proceeds by calling Soviet Premier Dmitri Kissof and warning him of the imminent attack, whilst up in the skies Major "King" Kong (Slim Pickens) orders his men to find a way into Russian air space and keep hidden before they reach the target destination.
All that is left now is hope, which is quickly fading and perhaps the mind of ex-Nazi scientist, Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers) who thinks he may have the perfect solution to all of mankind's problems - that is if the dreaded Doomsday device is triggered to wipe all life from the planet.
Where can I begin on a film so masterful? Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a difficult film to sum up in few words.
This was quite a departure for Kubrick but thankfully he took on this project on the back of Lolita which was also a darkly comic tale, so his appetite had been somewhat wetted when he decided to adapt Peter George's novel. He knew early on that he wanted the film to be a comedy but he was warned about the potential risk in this considering the subject matter. Until 1963 America was hardly deep in war comedies and nor did it show any particular interest in making them - why should war be laughed at? That is exactly the hook that Stanley Kubrick needed. His attitude toward presenting the film as a satire was and still is admirable. It is when we look at the film years later that we can agree had he stuck with a serious anti-war film then it would be all the worse for it.
So why does Dr. Strangelove work so well? The answer to that is because from start to finish it is played out so seriously. As film critic Roger Ebert explains - "Dr. Strangelove's humour is generated by a simple comic principle: People trying to be funny are never as funny as people trying to be serious and failing. The laughs have to seem forced on unwilling characters by the logic of events. A man wearing a funny hat is not funny. But if the man doesn't know he's wearing a funny hat - now you've got something".
From this we can look at other perfect examples of comedy features that employ the same tactic. Classics such as Young Frankenstein, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and This is Spinal Tap have all since proved that the best way to carry over humour is to make it as straight as possible. The often ludicrous tendencies that crop up in my chosen picks are as infinitely enjoyable as any other comedy that tries too hard. This makes them work flawlessly so that each time you view them they remain as consistently funny, unlike many a film that works off the one joke principal that might be hilarious first time around but when you know it is coming next time you don't find it as funny, as it's been played out in your head. Dr. Strangelove's strength lies in its delivery and charm. It is because of its comedic approach toward the subject that we learn more from it in the end. It doesn't just take a film like Saving Private Ryan to bring home the horrors of war. As a satire, Dr. Strangelove is the greatest of all time.
And then the canvas deepens. Underneath the film's exterior lies a rich diversity of characters that make the film as memorable as it is. If you read the above synopsis you'll notice a curious assortment of names, each one a clear joke in itself that perfectly sums up the personality of whom it rests on - from Jack D. Ripper and his obvious personal inadequacies and outlook on sexual nature to Buck Turgidson whose name can be easily broken down to divulge a man of clear testosterone and rashness. It is difficult to even pick any one favourite character as each has so many quirks that make them so special.
And this brings me to Peter Sellers who put in an unforgettable three-way performance. Stanley Kubrick always was a man of risk, whether it was from shooting one scene twenty times over or just picking actors who ordinarily might not fit the bill, the latter comes into play here. Kubrick obviously knew from working with him on Lolita that Peter Sellers was a man of enormous talent but calling him in to take on three important roles might have been a recipe for disaster. As it turns out Kubrick again made the right decision and Peter Sellers performs so stunningly that had you not known before hand you might not guess who it was he took on. I remember the first time I saw the film, about 9 years ago. At the time I hadn't seen much of Seller's work, save for The Pink Panther and The Party and so after seeing Dr. Strangelove I was even more impressed with the man, particularly after realising later that he played the president in addition to Mandrake and Strangelove. I never clocked on first time because he was just so damn perfect. Sellers had an amazing ability to change himself in an instant. With just a bald cap his chameleon ability allows him to create a character so far removed from his own look and personality, so convincingly that you can't help but be stunned. There is no doubt that he was the world's greatest living comedic actor, who sadly was cut down too early in his life. It is a rare ability to be able to feel different emotions toward several characters in a film played by one person. If you take Coming to America as an example - although Eddie Murphy played many notable parts the viewer could only sit and say "That's him, he's that guy too". It was less about forgetting and more about knowing. What Peter Sellers does so well is to personally involve himself within the characters he is playing. It no longer becomes a film that stars three Peter Sellers for us to pick at three characters but instead a film with each one so diverse and important to the central plot that you can believe are all different, existing people. Sellers was nominated in 1964 for a best actor award at the 37th Academy Awards but was beaten by Rex Harrison for his role in My Fair Lady. Sure Rex is good but Sellers really deserved to walk away with this one.
It would be unfair not to include the rest of the cast and if anyone could match Sellers onscreen then it was George C. Scott. Here he plays the typical, male "Buck" as it were - which is the whole point. There's a hilarious quality about Turgidson in that he's so forcefully opinionated, thinking he knows what is best that he ultimately looks the fool and yet he draws us on his side. Turgidson seems to stand for the average Joe - he is the voice of America though one that would suggest in order to triumph we must go to unthinkable lengths. Scott shines in too many scenes to count and while I praise Peter Sellers I can't say that he steals the show, in fact no one really does. Each and every actor, no matter how small their role is spot on, there is no way you can pick out any one defining performance as it offers 100% all round from an extremely dedicated cast who have a great amount of respect for Kubrick's work.
Dr. Strangelove has a very sexual flavour, one that Kubrick has explored many times but where the inclusion of several female actresses aided previous and latter films he sticks to a very male dominated show in this case. Interestingly Tracy Reed (at the time a Playboy model) is the only woman to appear in the film, offering a brief glimpse into Turgidson's home life as his "secretary" - Miss Foreign Affairs. The rest of the film is built upon sexual metaphors aside from satirical jabs that regularly crop up in many shapes and forms.
Lastly the film is an attack on technology, filled with an amount of hatred that is diffused onscreen through various antics. Kubrick shows a healthy amount of distaste for his chosen subject, it is clear that the issues he addresses are meant to be taken seriously in any other context and it would have been had anyone else opted to make a feature about World War III at the time. For all the comedy Dr. Strangelove is an appropriate demonstration on the possibilities of what can go wrong and asks what would our nations do under such a crisis? Today the film is as meaningful and relevant as it was forty years ago and in light of recent times we can only look upon the film that started off as a fantasy and wonder "just what if....?"
Columbia Pictures celebrate the film's 40th anniversary by releasing this excellent 2-disc set, packed with interesting features. This review is taken from the Canadian release which has no French translations on the packaging, which is nice.
Dr Strangelove has had several releases in the past, with notably Criterion's laserdisc switching aspect ratios. Kubrick decided to film in different ratios but the one which shows the film off best is the one we see here in Anamorphic 1.66:1. While the film has been remastered for High Definition TV little has been touched. The image is certainly much sharper than previous editions and shows a great amount of detail throughout. Black levels are excellent, with healthy shadows and Kubrick's suitably grainy look works as well as ever. There isn't much point in getting overly picky but I will say the image still has plenty of visible wear and tear that would likely cost a fortune to fully restore and is rare unless you're Lucasfilm.
Columbia have chosen to offer several tracks for this release - the original mono, a newly created 5.1 surround (from the original mono) and DTS. I chose the DTS option and it proves to be a good example of why some films don't need it. While the track is the loudest option it doesn't do so well in separating the channels for a more worthwhile experience. Most of the action comes through the front speakers, with little subwoofer and rear usage. Likewise the 5.1 is much the same. The most strict fans will be quite happy with the original mono track which still sounds great. A good effort from Columbia but one that isn't entirely necessary.
As this review is taken from the Canadian release it is worth pointing out that there is also a French mono track. In addition the optional English subtitles are excellent (coloured yellow) and easy to read
Note: Strangely there are only optional subtitles in Korean.
In addition to these features there is also an essay by Roger Ebert that is presented as a small booklet with glossy photos.
No Fighting in the War Room Or: Dr. Strangelove and the Nuclear Threat
This 30-minute documentary takes a look at the importance of the film's release, featuring contributions from Roger Ebert, James Harris, Robert MacNamara, Bob Woodward and Spike Lee. There are recollections and discussions on why the film is so meaningful, offering a good amount of insight into the history of certain events that lead up to the film's inspiration.
Inside Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Running for 46-minutes we get an excellent documentary that gives you just about everything you would want to know about the production. The emphasis on Kubrick's sheer dedication to the film is marvelous. There are pieces here that are covered in the previous documentary but overall this is a very detailed and informative piece.
Best Sellers Or: Peter Sellers and Dr. Strangelove
Running for just over 18-minutes this affectionate look at Peter Sellers takes us through his various guises and features praise from several stars such as Michael Palin, Roger Ebert, Shirley MacLaine, Alexander Walker, Sir David Frost, Richard Lester, Bob Woodward, Spike Lee and Richard Harris. His early days are briefly touched upon and his roles in various shows.
The Art of Stanley Kubrick: From Short Films to Strangelove
At close to 14-minutes this feature takes us through Kubrick's artistic abilities, featuring contributions from John Baxter, James Earl Jones, Roger Caras, Anthony Harvey and more. The piece looks at Kubrick's early life and his love for photography that ultimately lead to his debut feature. Several of his films are looked at as well as Kubrick's notoriety at stamping his mark on everything he touched.
An Interview with Robert MacNamara
This piece runs for 24-minutes and is a superb little interview, featuring some immensely interesting information. This is an uncut interview, various bits and pieces were used in earlier documentaries so now we get the chance to see the entire conversation.
Split Screen Interviews with Peter Sellers and George C. Scott
This runs for a little over 7-minutes and comprises of two mock interview pieces filmed during the production. This is a great rare piece that shows both actors having a good time and taking us through some good stories and amusing moments. Peter Sellers is fun as he takes us through various impressions.
Selected bibliographies for Stanley Kubrick, Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens and James Earl Jones.
Theatrical Advertising Gallery
A selection of various theatrical posters and stills.
Trailers for Dr. Strangelove, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Fahrenheit 9/11, The China Syndrome, From Here to Eternity and On the Waterfront.
Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is one of the finest comedy films ever made. Trying to sum it up in few words is probably beyond my capabilities as a writer - I've no doubt even left out parts worth mentioning. It is a film that I hold very close to me and one that stands up to repeat viewings. It is in my mind Stanley Kubrick's greatest achievement and one that Columbia Pictures has given the respect it deserves.