by Gerard Fay
Stanley Kubrick is unusual among American film directors for a complete lack of flamboyance. He dresses without distinction, talks quietly and modestly, eats and drinks frugally, reads and thinks a lot. He is not an Austrian or even an Hungarian but was born in the Bronx, New York. He has a round, pale face, thick, dark hair worn with the dishevelled look, brown eyes which move about a lot, and curvy eyebrows. He is not tall and I failed to weigh him (which would make me a flop on an American paper) but he has a trim look and the fact that he had a baseball bat, mitt, and ball in his room when I met him suggested that he may take some outdoor exercise. He also plays chess, a notoriously sedentary occupation.
One of his favourite subjects of study is nuclear strategy and this took him, on one of his visits to England, to the Institute of Strategic Studies. The director, Alastair Buchan, told him of a novel which he thought the best description of how nuclear war could happen by accident—Two Hours to Doom by Peter Bryant. On this Kubrick is making his film, which is sure to be a sensation, called Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
Some film directors are like some barristers. When a brief involves them in a new subject they grasp it, master it, possibly become enthusiastic about it (one I know even married it), and when the case is over forget all about it.
This is not so with Kubrick. He is making the film—which should be released here in late autumn—because he is Interested in the subject, not vice versa.
The theme and manner of the picture are summarised by this half page of the script. The President of the United Stiles is speaking on the telephone to the leader of the USSR:
“Hello?… Hello, Dimitri… Yes, this Is Merkin. How are you? … Oh, fine. Just fine. Look, Dimitri, you know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the Bomb? … The Bomb! THE HYDROGEN BOMB!… That’s right. Well, I’ll tell you what happened. One of our base commanders… well, he went a little funny in the head and … ordered his planes … to attack … your country… Well, look, let me finish… Let me finish… Let me finish. They won’t reach their targets for at least another hour. … I’m positive… Uh-huh… Well how do you think I feel about it?…”
The reason for this call is that a psychotic general, believing that the Reds are secretly putting fluoride in American water, directs his fully armed wing of H-bombers to attack Russia. He alone holds the recall code; he shoots himself. An RAF officer works out the code somehow and gets It to the President. It arrives just lit time to cancel the order—except that one aircraft is damaged and can’t receive the message. The bomb is dropped. The Russian retaliation is so massive that all life on the earth is wiped out. The end.
Yet it is a comedy and ends up with custard-pie throwing. The action and dialogue are a scream and seriousness scarcely ever breaks in though there is a passage where the President says:
“The great nations have always acted like gangsters, and the small nations like prostitutes. They have bribed and threatened and murdered their way through history. And now the Bomb has become an even greater enemy to every nation than they nave ever been, or ever could be to each other. Even disarmament is not enough. We can never entirely get rid of the Bomb because the knowledge of how to make it will always be with us. Unless we learn to create a new system of law and morality between nations, then we will surely exterminate ourselves.”
It Is Kubrick’s quite serious belief that nuclear or thermo-nuclear war is more likely to happen by accident, miscalculation, or madness than by design. He points to the case of an American serviceman who tried to set off a bomb by shooting at it with a revolver. Ridiculous—but why wasn’t his madness spotted? He was under treatment but his job was so secret that the psychiatrist never knew that his patient had access to the bomb. This was in England. In the US an aircraft in difficulties dropped its bomb on the reasoning that it was packed with safety devices. All the devices but one failed.
“On the law of probability” (is it a law?), says Kubrick, “if the safety devices and procedures are 99.9 per cent perfect a bomb is bound to go off by accident over a period of 30 years.”
Yet. I repeat, the film is a comedy. Only the ideas behind it are nightmarish.
As I left Kubrick presented me with a copy of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists “the magazine of science and public affairs.” He said: “You ought to subscribe to this.” I doubt if I shall.
The Guardian, 5 June 1963