by Robert Hatch
In Dr. Strangelove, the team of Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter Sellers sharpens the humanitarian message of such works as On the Beach and Fail-Safe by subjecting the bomb-induced paranoia of our era to ironic laughter. Irony is a very tricky implement for operating on the mass mind, and it remains to be seen whether in sharpening their position they may not also have narrowed it. In any case, they have made from Peter George’s novel Red Alert a picture that is hideously funny, in the full meaning of the adverb.
The events and personnel of Dr. Strangelove are the familiar ingredients of a considerable anti-annihilation literature—the air force general who decides on his own that the hour to strike has struck, the safety device that fails to operate, the indoctrinated bomber crew that commits total murder with the trustfulness of good children, the anachronistic staff officer who sees himself charging the foe with the ghost of Patton at his elbow, the decent, mediocre American President who reasons desperately on the phone with a hysterical Russian premier, the heavily accented mathematical logician who plays doomsday chess—none of these is a fresh invention in the prophetic journalism of the day. But as anyone who has read Flash and Filigree or The Magic Christian would expect, Terry Southern has keyed the script to a ghastly slapstick and an unblinking nihilism that are new in the counteroffensive to brinkmanship.
His SAC general (Sterling Hayden) is not only irrational on the subject of Russia: he has lost his reason entirely and launches mankind’s farewell war to protect the purity of his bodily fluids. And the bomber pilot (Slim Pickens), when the “go” signal reaches him at his patrol station, exchanges his crash helmet for a Texas cowhand’s Stetson and takes off after the target with the ribald exuberance of a sheriff’s posse.
The third officer in this lunatic triangle is a Pentagon staff general (George C. Scott) who is preserved in innocence by an impenetrable vulgarity. He cannot distinguish between nuclear war and the Rose Bowl game, he sees world tensions only in terms of what guys we can beat (never mind how we beat them). The spectacle of George Scott salivating over the prospect of destroying every human being east of the Danube at the cost of only a few million American lives is a tour de force in nausea. It is matched in this film only by the shots of American soldiers killing one another for possession of an air force base somewhere in the Southwest.
Peter Sellers is quite literally all over the picture — he plays three parts: an RAF group captain attached to the air base, the President of the United States and Dr. Strangelove himself. In the first of these roles, Sellers establishes a tone of British disdain that by itself could alienate a good part of the American audience. We have become a big country since Mrs. Trollope put us across her knee, but the curled British lip is still intolerable anywhere in the United States outside the Anglophile lecture circuit. Sellers’s President, on the other hand, is a work of such persuasive art that, although he in no way resembles any of our Chief Executives, you can scarcely believe that he is not an inspired piece of mimicry. President Muffley is the embodiment of the American executive ideal—a man whose sole quality is a talent for deciding what other men should do—and the fiendish notion here is to project such a man into a moment of ultimate crisis where any decision is irrelevant.
The two great scenes for Sellers are one in which, as the RAF officer, he persuades a redneck combat officer (Keenan Wynn) to commit blasphemy by shooting open a Coca-Cola dispenser so that he can get enough change to phone the President, and one in which, as President, he tries by sweet Rotary Club reason to convince a slightly drunk Russian premier that America is the most confiding of friends despite the fact that the entire Strategic Air Force is careening toward the industrial and military heartland of the USSR.
Dr. Strangelove may well be the part that Sellers most enjoyed, but, despite the picture’s title, it is curiously peripheral to the action and the least persuasive element of the script. That may be in part because the status of the game-theory warriors has been severely degraded in the months since work began on this picture. Aside from that, however, Strangelove takes no effective part in the events narrated and he is conceived in terms that go beyond the biting exaggeration of the other roles into virtuoso fantasy. The ex-Nazi theoretician’s computerized brain is paralleled by a largely synthetic body, whose eyes float behind glasses as thick as quartz, whose false teeth click and clash like intricate gears, and whose prosthetic right arm snaps up in an involuntary Fascist salute as he writhes spastically in his wheel chair. He is clearly intended as the particular horseman of our apocalypse, but in the picture he never becomes more than an actor’s ingenious conceit.
Mr. Kubrick is a bold man: he has taken a whole complex of America’s basic assumptions by the shoulders and given them a rough shaking. And he has done it in a rough style that pays little heed to camera niceties or the normal luxury of commercial film-making, but throws all its emphasis on bravado acting and rapid, uncompromising melodrama. The picture sometimes falters into too obvious gags (pratfalls, the Russian ambassador with the hidden camera, the private secretary with the Playboy voice), but overall it holds a cold blade of scorn against the spectator’s throat.
The danger is that it will be cheered by the people who already agree with it and resented by those still unconverted. Kubrick can argue with good logic that if you are to expose the fallacy of depending on the hydrogen bomb as the last bastion of a free society, you must also expose the ignorance of bigotry that invents and fosters such nonsense. But he and Terry Southern take a pleasure in flaying their contemporaries that may be more effective as sadistic humor than as adult education.
Robert Hatch, “Films,” The Nation, Vol. 198, no. 6, February 3, 1964