Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, which has won wide and continued acceptance from the time of its release, has come to be considered one of the screen’s great masterpieces of black comedy. Yet Kubrick had originally planned the film as a serious adaptation of Peter George’s Red Alert, a novel concerned with the demented General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) and his decision to order a group of B-52 bombers to launch an attack inside Russia. Gradually Kubrick’s attitude toward his material changed: “My idea of doing it as a nightmare comedy came in the early weeks of working on the screenplay. I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question.”
Kubrick remembers that he kept revising the script right through the production period. “During shooting many substantial changes were made in the script, sometimes together with the cast during improvisations. Some of the best dialogue was created by Peter Sellers himself.” Sellers played not only the title role of the eccentric scientist, but also the president of the United States and Captain Mandrake, a British officer who fails to dissuade General Ripper from his set purpose.
General Ripper’s mad motivation for initiating a nuclear attack is his paranoid conviction that the explanation of his diminishing sexual potency can be traced to an international Communist conspiracy to taint the drinking water. Kubrick subtly reminds us of the general’s obsession by a series of suggestive metaphors that occur in the course of the film. The very opening image of the film shows a nuclear bomber being refueled in mid-flight by another aircraft, with “Try a Little Tenderness” appropriately playing on the sound track to accompany their symbolic coupling. As Ripper describes to Mandrake his concern about preserving his potency, which he refers to as his “precious bodily essence,” Kubrick photographs him in close-up from below, with a huge phallic cigar jutting from between his lips while he is talking. Later, when the skipper of a B-52 bomber (Slim Pickens) manages to dislodge a bomb that has been stuck in its chamber and unleash it on its Russian target, he sits astride this mighty symbol of potency clamped between his flanks, as it hurtles toward the earth.
Black ironies abound throughout the picture. During an emergency conference called by President Muffley, a disagreement between General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and the Russian ambassador (Peter Bull) threatens to turn into a brawl, and the president intervenes by reminding them, “Please, gentlemen, you can’t fight here; this is the War Room!” Later, when Mandrake tries to reach the president in order to warn him about the imminent attack on Russia, he finds that he lacks the correct change for the pay telephone he is using, and that the White House will not accept a collect call. He then demands that Colonel Bat Guano (Keenan Wynn) fire into a Coca-Cola machine in order to obtain the necessary coins. Guano reluctantly agrees, ruefully reminding Mandrake that it is he who will have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company. Guano blasts the machine, bends down to scoop up the silver – and is squirted full in the face with Coca-Cola by the vindictive machine.
Kubrick had originally included a scene in which the Russians and the Americans in the War Room engage in a free-for-all with custard pies, but deleted it from the final print of the film when he decided that “it was too farcical, and not consistent with the satiric tone of the rest of the film.” Very much in keeping with the satiric, dark humor of the picture is the figure of Dr. Strangelove himself, Kubrick’s grim vision of man’s final capitulation to the machine: he is more a robot than a human being, with his mechanical arm spontaneously saluting Hitler, his former employer, and his mechanical hand, gloved in black, at one point trying to strangle the flesh and blood still left in him.
In the end a single U.S. plane reaches its Russian target, setting off the Russian’s retaliatory Doomsday machine. There follows a series of blinding explosions, while on the sound track we hear a popular song which Kubrick resurrected from World War II: “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when.” (Kubrick used the original World War II recording by Vera Lynn, which brought popularity back not only to the song but to Ms. Lynn as well.)