by Andrew Sarris
The great merit of Dr. Strangelove is its bad taste. It is silly to argue that we have the right to say anything we want but that to exercise this right is the height of irresponsibility. Responsible art is dead art, and a sane (no pun intended) film on the bomb would have been a deadly bore.
Given the basic premise “of nuclear annihilation, the zany conception of Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, and Peter George has much to commend it. Where my critical fallout with most of my colleagues occurs is in the realm of execution. Aided by the tightest scenario since Rashomon, and the most deceptive as far as directorial exercises go, Kubrick has been hailed in many quarters as the greatest director since D. W. Griffith. This despite a career that has consisted of six near and far misses.
Why not? Dr. Strangelove seems so audacious at first glance that even its faults have been rationalized into virtues. To take a crucial example, no one to my knowledge has commented on the fact that Peter Sellers was supposed to play the pivotal role of Major “King” Kong, commander of the ill-fated bomber (named “Leper Colony”) that destroys the world. Because of an injury, Sellers was replaced at the last moment by Slim Pickens. Sellers was already involved in three roles—President Merkin Muffley, RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, Dr. Strangelove alias Merkwürdigichliebe, formerly one of Hitler’s V-2 rocket researchers at Peenemünde—so that almost everywhere you turn there is some version of Peter Sellers holding the fate of the world in his hands. The satiric symmetry of this mass casting, cribbed from Kind Hearts and Coronets, makes comic sense only if Sellers closes every escape hatch with his mimicry. By dropping Sellers out of the Kong role, Kubrick creates a fatal gap in his scenario between the War Room-Air Force Base sequences, where everyone is horsing around, and the bomber sequences, where an antistereotype Negro bombardier (James Earl Jones) evokes a Hawksian nobility that reminds us that “our boys” once destroyed Hitler with the same courage and professionalism now deemed ridiculous. Kubrick does his best to hoke up the actual bombing with anticowboy whoops and hollers, but the bomber has long since eluded him as it has the combined surveillance of the Pentagon and the Kremlin. Sellers playing three out of the four parts originally assigned to him is comparable to Guinness’s having interpreted only six of the eight D’Ascoynes in Kind Hearts. Not that Sellers is any Guinness. More a mimic than an actor, Sellers starts brilliantly with President Muffiey but ends badly; starts badly with Strangelove but ends brilliantly; and just muddles through with Mandrake despite some of the choicest lines in the script.
I suspect that most of the clever touches in the script can be credited to Terry Southern, author of such “underground” classics as Flash and Filigree and Candy. The nomenclature is particularly ambitious in its unrelenting expressiveness. Mandrake and Jack D. Ripper make a particularly mythic pair of misfits. Turgidson and DeSedeski read better than they sound, while Dimitri Kissoff and Bat Guano sound better than they read. Merkin Muffley is about perfect as a representation of a Stevensonian cipher.
Since Kubrick’s major shortcoming, like Kurosawa’s, is in structuring (or rather in failing to structure) his films with a consistent camera viewpoint, a scenario like Dr. Strangelove comes as a godsend. All the action is divided neatly and plausibly into three main sections, separate in space and concurrent in time. With the fate of the world riding on every twist and turn of the plot, suspense is virtually built into the theme of the film. Kubrick could sit back and let the clock tick away without reducing the tension in the audience. In this context the feeblest jokes gain added vibrations from the nervous relief they provide. Still, Kubrick’s direction is, on the whole, efficient without ever being inspired. Where I think he has miscalculated most grievously is in directing George C. Scott’s Air Force Chief of Staff, General Turgidson, like a saber-rattling hillbilly. Scott, who can play very quietly given half the chance, is encouraged to chew up his lines and any spare scenery lying around the War Room. By contrast, Sterling Hayden’s General Ripper comes over as a tortured, psychotic, but never unintelligent fanatic. Whereas Scott masquerades as a general as if there were nothing sillier than exercising authority, Hayden captures the pathos of the man of action perverted by the contradictions of his calling. With the pathos, Hayden captures more of the comedy as well.
Kubrick can be faulted occasionally for blatant overstatement. The sign reading peace is our business has an ironic kick, however obvious, the first time it is shown in a strife-torn Air Force base, but when repeated a half dozen times more, the effect crosses the thin line between satire and propaganda. It is also hardly necessary to have General Turgidson lead the War Room dignitaries in prayer when all seems saved. This is even bad propaganda, since it confuses the argument. If the Pentagon is ruled by monstrous hypocrites, the audience can assume that a more reasonable set of chieftains might avert such a disaster.
Some of Kubrick’s most admired effects are not quite as original as they may seem to the unschooled eye. The aerial copulation-fueling introduction is hardly a patch on the rampant jet-propelled sexuality of Josef von Sternberg’s Jet Pilot some seven years ago. (Of course, an anti-Communist farce with John Wayne could never hope to be taken as seriously as an anti-American farce with Peter Sellers.) The trick of using popular songs as an ironic counterpoint to monstrous images may be relatively new in feature films, but people like Stan Vanderbeek have been turning out shorts like this for years. The Hiroshima and Christmas Island explosions constitute the most dog-eared footage for “peace” movies on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Consequently it is never clear whether Kubrick’s “doomsday” ending is actually representational or merely rhetorical in the time-honored symbolism of antibomb movies.
Dr. Strangelove is more effective, if less consistent, when it probes the irregular sexual motivations of its crazy generals. It is hilariously unfair to ridicule one officer for keeping a tootsy on the side and then ridicule the other for conserving his precious fluids from hordes of women seeking his depletion.
Ultimately, Dr. Strangelove is not a bad movie by any standards, and I would feel much more kindly toward it if it were not so grossly overrated. Yet aside from questions of critical perspective, I think the whole subject is about a year out of date. It is just Kubrick’s bad luck that he instituted this project before the signing of the test-ban treaty and the Kennedy assassination. The agitated apocalyptic mood of the Cuban confrontation is long gone. Today we read about natives with bows and arrows shooting down American helicopters flying under an alleged nuclear umbrella that is becoming more and more nebulous. What Walter Lippmann calls polycentrism is infecting both hitherto monolithic concentrations of power in the Cold War. Each day local satraps taunt the moguls in the Kremlin and the Pentagon with greater and greater impunity. Indeed, as I write, a Russian negotiator at Geneva has apparently defected to the West with all the secret Soviet strategy for conducting disarmament negotiations. Maybe Kubrick, Southern, and George can now turn their talents to a satire on all those people who were subconsciously disappointed when the world was not obliterated at the time President Kennedy had the impudence to affirm America’s interests in the world. As it is, Dr. Strangelove can serve as a comic testament to the death wish of many American intellectuals. The world may still come to an end, of course, but the current odds are not with a bang but a whimper.
Andrew Sarris, “Come now, Dr. Strangelove,” Village Voice, 9 February 13, 1964; p. 13-14
Reprinted in Andrew Sarris, Confessions of a cultist: on the cinema 1955-1969; New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970. (p. 119-22)