Nobody has seen all the classic films that they are supposed to have watched but there’s always time to catch up.
A plane drops a nuclear bomb whilst a cowboy rides on it whooping and waving his hat. Military and political leaders argue around a circular table in a darkened room below a single circular light. A sinister scientist with a rictus grin sits in a wheelchair. Peter Sellers plays three roles.
Many people today will complain that movie trailers are too long and show too much. When you sit down to watch Dr Strangelove, you have seen all the key visual elements of the movie not because they are in a trailer but because these images are influential enough to have helped form part of the visual alphabet that tv show producers and film-makers refer to constantly.
So the bones of the film are familiar but what about the connective tissue?
The most striking thing about the film to me was the two-toned nature of the movie. On the one hand, many of the characters in the film are surreal, ridiculous and slapstick. Strangelove (a minor character) and the Russian Ambassador are ridiculous clownish characters who pratfall and have funny accents. When Colonel Guano shoots a soft drinks machine, it squirts him in the eye.
It’s easy to remember the silly surreal humour but much of the movie derives its humour separately from characters that are played completely straight. Much of the latter humour comes directly from the truthful insane logic of nuclear deterrent – the squabbly platitudes between the President and Russian Premier, the cow-headed hawkishness of General Turgidson and the ridiculousness of the no-win nuclear confrontation itself.
These two elements of humour combine very effectively as the movie muddles a feeling of dreamlike ridiculousness from the larger than life characters with a feeling of dreamlike ridiculousness from the terrifyingly true facts of a situation whereby humanity annihilates itself in a nuclear holocaust. The scenes in the War Room are highly comedic and silly, meanwhile the bomber crew of Major Kong’s plane take place in another type of film where their determination to fulfil their mission is deadly serious and even perversely heroic.
Watching today, the film is both dated and contemporary. The issue satirised is essentially one that remains untouched in the modern colour-film world too. The arms-race antagonism is gone to some extent but the weapons remain. It’s always impressive when a film-maker seems to create a dramatic and fantastic world and yet remind you that everything shown has a real truth in the world you lived in – Beasts of the Southern Wild and Hotel Rwanda both achieved that for me, and Strangelove did too.
The modern film it reminded me of most closely in tone was Four Lions (2010) which took a similar approach to the spectre of home grown terrorism in the UK. In Four Lions, the terrorists are simultaneously heartless killers and bungling idiots. The same can be said of Strangelove’s world leaders and generals. Strangelove wants you to feel uneasy. It wants to derive grim humour and present great elites as gutter fools.
The almost complete lack of female characters underlines that last point. In Strangelove, the missiles are Freudian penises. Several of the male leaders are debauched and Strangelove sells his plan to the president when he explains that the country’s leaders and brightest must go into nuclear bunkers at a ratio of one man to ten women to ensure effective breeding of a new society. With the recent General Petraeus scandal, this reality seems as accurate as ever (as does Ripper’s ridiculous fear of fluoridisation in light of the recent anti-flouride movement in Portland, Oregon). It seems to be that Hollywood either wants to tell us that War is Heroic or War is Hell. Strangelove tells us that war is juvenile and stupid and in that vein there are very few other movies.
Seller’s performances are surprising in that of the three characters he plays only one (the eponymous Strangelove) is actually played for humour. The President has some excellent lines that satirise the one-upmanship between the USA and Russia but is played straight. Major Mandrake is somewhat clownish (a stiff-lipped Englishman of the most unruffled kind that seems like an Alan Moore caricature) but again played straight, especially during a sequence when he talks poignantly about what it was like being tortured in the pacific war. By and large the majority of the humour is left to the mad ravings of Jack Ripper and the cowboy idiocy of Turgidson. In this way the structure works quite well, probably much better than if Sellers himself set out to get every laugh in every scene but it’s the opposite of what you might expect before you have seen it. In a way it seems quite masterly for a great comic actor to let more straight-laced actors around him play for the laughs.
Some of the humour is somewhat dated and flat (Strangelove trying to stop himself from involuntarily giving the nazi salute when excited, Guano getting squirted in the eye) but the tone is so unique, the film powers through any doubt in its audience through the uniqueness of its voice. It is the uniqueness of the film’s voice that means it will remain an icon of film-making, standing out in a medium that more than any other tends to fit too easily into genre categories and tropes, and probably continuing to stand out for many years to come.