Well, it’s Sunday, therefore Monday tomorrow, and therefore as good a time as any to be thinking about the end of the world. And, I ask you, has it ever been more brilliantly characterized and satirized than by Stanley Kubrick, with his Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)? I think not and, if you will allow me, I’ll tell you why.
Well, it was based, as was Sidney Lumet‘s excellent Fail-Safe (1964) (to a certain extent, which was sufficient for the producers of Strangelove to threaten legal action at the time) on Peter George’s Cold War thriller novel Red Alert, which was also known as Two Hours to Doom.
However, Kubrick’s approach differed completely from that adopted by Lumet and his screenwriters Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler – how black would it be if the end of the world were played for laughs? For belly laughs, in fact? Well, the answer is jet black and, while Fail-Safe is more than worth a view, it is Kubrick’s film that is peerless in its depiction of the insanity of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), which kept the world tottering on the brink of destruction for decades, and how easily things could have gone very, very wrong.
We join the end at the beginning – Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), a Royal Air Force exchange officer serving on Burpelson Air Force Base, is more than a little disturbed to be told by base commander US Air Force Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) that America is now in ‘a shooting war’ with the USSR, then even more disturbed to find, by slow degrees, that Ripper has in fact given the orders to attack Russia on his own initiative, because, well, he has gone a few bombs short of a full pay-load.
Specifically, Ripper is convinced that the USSR is committed to ‘sapping and impurifying’ his ‘precious bodily fluids’. Right. As the situation develops, General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) has to brief President Merkin Muffley (Sellers, again) in the ‘War Room’ as to what can be done to pull the planes back from the brink. Listening in the shadow is the mysterious, wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove (Sellars, brilliant, again), who seems to know a great deal more about what’s going on than anyone else…
This works so brilliantly because of the terrifying hilarity at the set-up’s core – the exchanges between Sellars and Hayden are among the funniest committed to film, period, and the contrast between the laughs and the darkness lurking at the edge of everything make for an unparalleled trip to doom.
Again, if you haven’t yet seen this film and are about to, I envy you.