by Penelope Gilliatt
Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Witty, icy title. The film is about the most devastating piece of art about the bomb I can remember; even more disturbing than Hiroshima, Mon Amour, because comic.
Most antibomb films and plays are awful. They always seem to be overrun by a peculiar kind of wet naivete, which is a worse disability than usual when you’re letting off about a subject as sophisticated as nuclear politics. Antibomb plays generally happen in a folksy vacuum, with abrupt dialogue going on about the large good simplicities of life between people who stand up all the time. Antibomb films are on the same lines, though they’re more arty than folksy. They seem to be full of uncharacterized figures who stand for the New Generation or the Emergent Nations, and the children and Africans charged with this thankless job never, never say anything which is supposed to make them more symbolic.
This is only to sketch in the kind of work that Dr. Strangelove emphatically isn’t. One of its virtues is that it is very, very sophisticated. Another is that it is absolutely specific, as specific as the wound of a stiletto, and so close to the facts that it makes you feel ill. It happens, not in a vacuum, but accurately in America: in a nuclear bomber, in an echoing model of the War Room at the Pentagon, and at a nuclear base camp where the hoardings say “Peace Is Our Profession” and “Keep Off the Grass.” Whereas most left-wing art is concerned to emphasize that nothing is any particular nation’s fault, so much so that it seems practically an act of Fascist racialism to give any of the characters a recognizable accent, all the people in this film are wickedly localized. The observation of different kinds of American male speech would satisfy Professor Higgins, and the photography seems to be almost deliberately like a reportage on wrap-it-up TV. Strangelove must be the most anti-American comedy ever made, and only an American would have had the experience and guts to do it.
The premise of the plot is very simple. It is the one that the professionals themselves are worried about: the danger that a single psychotic in the right place could start a nuclear war. General Ripper, played by Sterling Hayden, is a broody nutcase who has fluoridation of water on his brain. He sees fluoridation as one of your real hard-core Commie plots to sap the American people’s body fluids. After years of fuming about the injustice of it he puts into operation Plan R, originally devised to appease a senator who complained that the American deterrent lacked credibility.
In the interests of greater credibility—i.e., greater risk of the deterrent going off—Plan R allows an underling to press the button, immediately seals him from contact with anyone who could stop him, protects him with a force of soldiers who proceed to defend him to the death against the intervention of the President, and prevents any of the planes from being recalled because only the ecstatic nutcase knows the code. The machine is in motion; no one can stop it, and the moment the first bomb falls annihilation of animal life on the planet will follow because no one, not even the Soviet Premier, can stop the Russian Doomsday-machine from going off in response.
The key of the brilliant comic tone of the film is in the title. What makes the picture so funny, terrifying and horribly believable is that everyone in the film really has learned to stop worrying, as smokers do about lung cancer after living with the statistics for a bit. Disaster is half an hour away but nobody goes berserk with fear. The President—Peter Sellers, very good as a calm Adlai Stevenson figure—talks to the Soviet Premier on the telephone in the voice of an analyst trying to calm down a hysterical patient. George C. Scott as a midriff-slapping general, first discovered in Bermuda shorts and Hawaiian shirt in a bedroom with his secretary, is so proud of his boys’ initiative when he gets to the War Room that he can’t bear to call them back.
And meanwhile the general who started the holocaust sits in the base camp quietly chatting with Peter Sellers as an RAF officer, while the place is being besieged by his own countrymen. The general believes in an afterlife, which must be a help. What he still seems most bothered about is this fluoridation, a deadly danger that he says he discovered during the act of love. “I don’t avoid women,” he says, suddenly worried about his virility-image, which is a funny thing to want to preserve if you’re about to go up in smoke, “but I do deny them my essence.”
The film has a sort of running theme about this kind of priapic hauteur. At the end, with Peter Sellers in a third incarnation as a naturalized German nuclear scientist—the only place where the film’s foot slips—everyone in the War Room is entranced by the scientist’s suggestion that they will have to preserve the race by going down a mine shaft with ten fertile women to every man. No one quite believes in his own death. The rasping ram played by George Scott, swooping proudly about pretending to be an airplane while the President asks him questions, really does think he’ll be back in bed with his secretary any minute. The Biggin Hill figure played by Peter Sellers runs up against a hardcore hetero colonel who won’t let Sellers telephone the President because he thinks he’s struck a mutiny of preverts [sic]; but what Sellers threatens him with is a Court of Inquiry, not extinction. The character of Dr. Strangelove gets more forced in the last ten minutes, and it sometimes seems a gimmick to have Peter Sellers play three parts: why? It isn’t as though the three men were aspects of the same characteristics in people, which would have been an inner reason for doing it. Perhaps it was the only way of getting finance for the film, which in a timid and conventional industry is a different kind of inner reason.
The thing that is exhilarating about Strangelove as a piece of film-making, apart from the masterly way it is organized and the acting of all the American parts, is the wit of the screenplay. Kubrick did it himself, with Terry Southern and Peter George, and every sharp-eared line of it is a pleasure. They have caught, for instance, the plump, loping euphemisms used by nuclear strategists, and the way bureaucratic Americans don’t recognize European sarcasm, and the way some busy men will use a first name in every other sentence. It was a funny idea to catch on to this mannerism in a conversation on the hot line between the President and the Soviet Premier when the world is blowing up:
Now then, Dmitri, you know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the Bomb. The BOMB, Dmitri. The Hydrogen Bomb. Well, he went and did a silly thing. . . . Well, I’ll tell you what he did. . . . Well, how do you think I feel about it? All right then, who should we call? Where is that, Dmitri? . . . Soviet Air Command in Omsk. Listen, Dmitri, do you happen to have the number on you?
Like N. F. Simpson in the theater, Kubrick is working one of the best veins in comedy: the simple observation that our planet is inhabited by a race of eccentrics who, unlike all other animals, take practically no notice of anything that is going on outside their own heads and have absolutely no sense of priorities. Strangelove is a real comic achievement. It is savage, undeniable, and uniquely defiant.
The New Yorker, February 2, 1964
Republished in: Penelope Gilliatt. Unholy fools. Wits, Comics, Disturbers of the Peace: Film and Theater, New York : Viking Press, 1973. (pp. 119-122)