How was I supposed to know my University expected me to submit work? It’s a film course.
Anyway, here’s my piece for last term’s Criticism, Analysis & Theory module, in all it’s Harvard referencey glory.
I talk about the historical context of Strangelove. You should read it.
Stanley Kubrick’s political satire Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), a loose adaptation of the novel Red Alert (1958), is seen to be as influential in the public shaping and definition of the Cold War as it was controversial. A farcical satire of the contemporary political landscape of the Atomic age, Strangelove was a impactful game-changer, and a bastion of cinematic aspirations.
Strangelove garnered an extremely positive critical reception, receiving four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and is still considered one of the most prestigious films of the 20th century, earning a placement in “The 50 Greatest Comedies Of All Time” (Premiere, 2006), 14th in “Greatest Film of all time (Entertainment Weekly)”, and 3rd of “100 greatest comedies” (American Film Institute). Many attribute Strangelove’s critical and commercial success to its biting wit, surreal comedy set-pieces and iconic performances. However, I believe that a large portion of Strangelove’s success is owed to the manner in which it resonated with its contemporary audience.
As Cold War tension escalated, due to events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion, the general public was left in a state of consternation and dread. Kubrick chose to use this tense environment as the basis for comedy and farce. Not only would this approach appeal to those wishing for escapism in an era wrought with fear, where terms such as “Missile-gap” and “Megadeath” (Henriksen) entered common parlance, but also resonated with a demographic that were surrounded by post World War II idealism permeating all entertainment forms, and yearned for something innovative.
Between 1947 and 1960, the major Hollywood studios released an approximate total of 300 films per year (Shaw, Tony 2007, pp.158-159). Post-war cinema in the USA, whilst hardly stagnant, had its ideology firmly rooted in the principles established in a wartime environment. These principles promoted individuality and a pride found in masculine role fulfillment. These themes often manifested as lone gunman action films (Fistful of Dollars, 1964), or spy thrillers (Dr. No, 1962) that reinforced the strength of the individual. Tony Shaw references this with regard to films released in the 1960s:
“A relatively small number of these movies were explicitly anti-communist or anti-soviet. A far greater number lent implicit ideological support to the US government’s Cold War stance through their inherent endorsement of individualism, consumerism and patriotism.” (Shaw, 2007)
Horror films, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), used this escalating sense of fear in the American populace to their advantage by playing upon the paranoia of the American people. Historical dramas were also extremely prevalent, such as William Wyler’s Ben Hur (1959) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963), and were the bulk of what remained true to the traditional Hollywood production system. These historical dramas were, in part, generated by cinema’s tendency to reminisce, a habit that was strongly rooted in the post-war mindset.
In many ways, Strangelove was the catalyst for a fundamental change in the understanding of comedy, as it chose to mock and satirise a subject that was so deeply engrained in the public consciousness, making it all the more impactful. More than just a comedy of forgettable laughs, Strangelove used comedy to deliver poignancy. This technique is clearly demonstrated in Blake Edwards’ romance/comedy Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), which elevated the concept of a comedy-drama, using subtle comedy to conceal a harsher dramatic undertone. These two quotes, whilst tonally different, carry heavy subtext concealed within a quippy quote:
“Certain shades of limelight wreck a girl’s complexion.” – Holly (Breakfast at Tiffany’s)
“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.” – President Merkin Muffley (Dr. Strangelove)
Strangelove was clearly influenced by films of this nature, as the themes at play were far too macabre to present without subtlety, and the political statements that are made never seem especially heavy-handed. The jokes were presented with an air of flippancy, a tone that the film generates throughout. From the film’s character names to its ludicrously long title, Strangelove oozes a decidedly facetious style. This comedic renaissance paved the way for satirical deconstructions of pre-established genre conventions, such as Theodore J. Flicker’s The President’s Analyst (1967) which sharply spoofed Ian Fleming’s “James Bond” series, first brought to the cinema by Albert R. Broccoli in Dr. No. In a similar reflection, Stephen Sondheim’s musical A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum was adapted to film by Richard Lester in 1966, and clearly parodies the historical dramas that were so prevalent.
One interesting element of the film is its entirely male main cast. With almost no female characters appearing on screen, and those who do having little or no impact on the narrative, it’s certainly noticeable. Although elements of this are due to the era of production, as there would almost certainly have been no women with the political standing to enter the war room during the 1960s, I believe that it may have been a conscious decision by Kubrick. Since a large portion of the narrative consists of archetypal masculine self-fulfilment (eg. warfare, weaponry, political dominance) leading to mutually-assured
destruction, it’s entirely possible that Kubrick supported gender equality and was demonstrating this through a dark depiction of the alternative.
A vital member of the writing team, and the man largely responsible for the vein of authenticity running throughout Strangelove, was co-writer Peter George. Author of Red Alert, and former RAF pilot, George imbued the criticism with sincerity and validity, never allowing the narrative to stray too wildly into the absurd, whilst still remaining farcical. This delicate balance between the real and surreal is very much the basis for all humour and observation in Strangelove. The comedy stems from the juxtaposition of absurdist circumstances against a real, relatable backdrop of nuclear war. This dichotomy fuels the majority of the narrative, and lends context to the parody. However, if the narrative were to deviate too far into the absurd to the point of becoming inane, the weight and delivery of the themes are eliminated. Even in a farcical comedy, a narrative must have a logical progression, as Jane Gaines explains:
“In classic realist narration everything that happens must be clearly motivated by a plausible clause. This chain of cause and effect produces narrative as a linear sequence of logically motivated events.” (Gaines, 1989 pp.138-139)
The film takes liberties in extending and exaggerating the political archetypes that it parodies, but the themes always remain grounded in reality. Whilst Peter Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove exudes ridiculousness, and George C. Scott’s deliberately overacted General Turgidson is a wry caricature of government shortcomings, the narrative never strays from its central grounding in the real world. The alternate, apocalyptic, timeline that Strangelove proposes seems like a tangible, if worrying one.
The feeling of realism overtly clashing with absurdity stems from a series of tactical decisions within the screenplay, choosing to infuse certain elements of the film with a peculiar feeling of irony. One example of this lies within the film’s opening (Falsetto, Mario 2001, pp.143-144):
“From the beginning of its credit sequence, over the visuals of the refueling of a B-52 in midflight by another aircraft, one can sense the dialectic of realism and artifice at work in the film.” (Falsetto, 2001)
The visual component of this scene is a realistic portrayal of the refueling process applied to B-52 aeroplanes, an iconic image that carried many connotations for American audiences at the time, and alone this portion of the opening could easily be mistaken for wartime stock-footage. However, the musical accompaniment, Vera Lynn’s “Try a Little Tenderness”, warps the previously rigid, documentarian nature of the visuals into what is essentially a sexualised sequence. This deliberate juxtaposition of formalism and realism is a product of the brewing Cold War tensions that fuel the entire production, and it’s displayed here to outline the intentions of the film, as Falsetto explains:
“Not only does this sequence prepare the audience for the sexual associations to come in the film, it also implies that any piece of reality can be manipulated to become a fiction.” (Falsetto, 2001)
Kubrick has often displayed an impassioned political stance in regards to warfare, as evidenced in his 1957 Drama Paths of Glory, and later in his critically acclaimed 1987 classic, Full Metal Jacket. For Strangelove, Kubrick allegedly insisted upon a generous marketing scheme, as he believed that for the film to have the intended impact it must be seen by as broad an audience as possible. This included filming a split screen sequence in which one of two characters (Sellers‘ President Muffley & Scott’s Gen. Turgidson) would act out a series of responses over the phone that would then be edited together with a modern interviewee. This particular technique resonated with a much larger portion of the public, as this breaking of the fourth wall appealed to a demographic that appreciated a personalised approach. Peter Sellers’ three roles were also heavily marketed on the posters, as the novelty alone was enough to attract some viewers. Sellers received a payment of one million dollars for his role in Strangelove, 55% of the film’s budget, prompting Kubrick to famously quip:
“I got three for the price of six.” (Kubrick, 1964)
As evidenced in his filmography prior to and after Strangelove, Kubrick has no qualms in depicting war at its most savage and brutal, emphasising the emotional turbulence that accompanies it. However, Strangelove is an entirely different depiction of war. Kubrick chose to portray a romanticised, comedic vignette of a potentially apocalyptic scenario, and did so with tongue firmly in cheek. Kubrick was famously quoted stating (Varak-Iglar, 2007):
“No better way to express the whole thermonuclear dilemma; it was so crazy and it was so insane that the best way to do it would be as a satire.” – (Kubrick 1965)
Kubrick makes the same disparaging comments here that he had directed towards World War II in Paths of Glory (and later in Full Metal Jacket), but focuses less on the effect of war upon the individual, and instead on the wider cultural implications. The film climaxes with the mutual destruction of both Russia and the USA, instigated by one unstable General, an entirely possible outcome based on true reports of potential doomsday weaponry. Remarkably, the failsafe system that General Ripper exploits was an actual procedure put in place during the Cold War, with twelve fully armed B-52 aeroplanes deployed and prepared for a pre-emptive strike (Kaplan, 2004).
A number of the main characters were based on actual military and political figures, including General Turgidson and the titular Dr. Strangelove. George C. Scott’s General “Buck” Turgidson was based primarily on General Curtis LeMay, commander of the Strategic Air Command and advocate of nuclear weaponry, a trait that was certainly translated to the fiction. The character of Dr. Strangelove appears to be an amalgamation of RAND German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, Manhattan Project principal John von Neumann, RAND Corporation strategist Herman Kahn and the “father of the hydrogen bomb”, Edward Teller (Peter Goodchild, 2004). A common misconception is that Dr. Strangelove was partially based on German-born American writer and Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. Both Kubrick and Sellers deny this however, and it is highly unlikely, as Kissinger was not a prominent political advisor until 1969.
The focus on comedy was less a conscious choice by the screenplay and writing staff, although it certainly played its part, and more the only logical direction Kubrick felt he could take. The Cold War was already farcical, and so ripe for parody that no other approach would seem appropriate, as Kubrick suggested:
“The only social problem where there’s absolutely no chance for people to learn anything from the experience.” (Kubrick,1964)
An interesting way in which Strangelove is indicative of its historical context is actually in what Kubrick omitted from the final cut of the film. The infamous “Pie-Fight” scene was cut from cinematic release, but stands as an intriguing reflection of the influence of the culture surrounding the film’s production. On 20th January 1961 John F. Kennedy was officially sworn in as 35th president of the United States of America, serving for almost three years until his assassination on 22nd November 1963. Only two months later, Strangelove was released, on 29th January 1964. Judging by the production conventions of that era, it’s safe to assume that Strangelove would have been in the post-production stage during Kennedy’s assassination.
The aforementioned “Pie-Fight” scene consisted of a custard pie battle between the members of the War Room, including the President. During the scene, President Muffley is struck with a custard pie and falls down, prompting General Turgidson to cry “Gentlemen! Our gallant young president has just been struck down in his prime!”. This scene was originally intended to showcase the hysterical mindset of those involved, and was originally going to be placed near the climax of the film, but Kubrick supposedly cut it as he felt it was thematically out of place (Webster, Patrick 2011, pp. 247-248) :
“The custard pie scene in Dr. Strangelove may well have been the best custard pie scene in cinematic history, but Kubrick thought the slapstick quotient did not gel with the satirical discourse of his film.” (Webster, 2011)
Whether or not that statement is accurate is debatable, as the scene would have carried unfortunate connotations given its subject matter. It’s difficult to say for certain why Kubrick chose to cut the scene, but it’s certainly an interesting discourse to have, as it neatly demonstrates how the socio-historical context of a film can affect not only its reception, but also its production.
Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is both a stimulating example of innovative, controversial filmmaking, and a recognisable product of its era. Absorbed in cultural context, Strangelove challenged not only the formal conventions of the comedy genre, revolutionising its development for years to come, but also expanded the demographic that its contemporaries targeted. With a universal message and a masterful, yet accessible, screenplay, Strangelove remains relevant to modern audiences and serves as a fascinating exhibition of wartime psychology. More than just a comedy of errors, Strangelove plays to the genuine concerns of the American populace, and spawns entirely from its socio-historical moment. Without the escalation of cold war tensions, the implications of the arms race and the unrelenting potential of a nuclear winter, Strangelove couldn’t exist.
Strangelove is a product of its era in both production and reception. The film’s message relied largely on the comprehension of its audience, as an extra-textual knowledge of the political landscape is key. This is why the film’s historical context was so vital to its success, as the relevancy of the themes registered with the audience in numerous ways. Kubrick understood this, and tailored the film accordingly. Standing as both a historical and political landmark in film, Strangelove is appreciated for its masterfully crafted script, ingenious narrative pacing and ground-breaking cinematographic techniques, and remains one of Stanley Kubrick’s greatest cinematic masterpieces.