It’s the end of the world as we know it – fifty-five years after the controversial release of Stanley Kubrick’s Black Comedy Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the film has lost none of its ability to shock and chill, and nor has its resemblance to reality faded. For fans of the auteur’s work, known for his extensive research on the subject matter of his films, there are several scenes and characters that will most likely immediately come to mind at the mention of that name.
Kubrick and Terry Southern took the Peter George book Red Alert, a paranoid novel about nuclear armageddon, and skewered it, leaning heavily on irony in their screenplay. Combined with an iconic Peter Sellers performance, the maestro taking on three roles; British toff Colonel Mandrake is like a failed David Niven hero, while President Muffley is played so straight that he’s almost dead behind the eyes, his cold attempts at diplomacy saying everything about American imperialism. And then there’s Dr Strangelove himself, the wheelchair-bound, ex-Nazi scientist who favours ‘mutually assured destruction’. Sellers’ comic gravitas, squeezing in bizarre comedic moments to an otherwise dramatic and tense film, tips us off as to Kubrick’s real tonal intentions. Those three distinctive roles are a misdirect from the larger problem that we are all facing. With every comedic moment, we are lulled into forgetting about the bomb.
Kubrick’s exacting style – he came from a photographer’s background – allowed him to fill Strangelove with gorgeous black and white images that recall the stock footage that Director Matt Wells uses in his short film Stanley Kubrick Considers the Bomb, which will play exclusively in cinemas this month before screenings of Dr Strangelove. ‘The stuff I used was mostly Civil Defence material, nominally aimed at telling the public what to do in the event of a nuclear strike… in reality, much of the guidance being offered would have no real safety value.’
Speaking of the material distributed to reassure people that their government was prepared for nuclear war, Wells is reminded of the meaning behind Kubrick’s full film title, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb. ‘We have this amazing capacity for self-destruction. And in nuclear policy, our attempts to mitigate that have often just made it seem all the more likely. To my mind, that’s the heart of the movie, and I know it was a big part of Kubrick’s interest in the subject.’
This illusion of safety covers up a terrible, and painfully funny, failure to communicate. The constant miscommunication in Strangelove is probably what leads to the end of the world. And between invasive technology, an unflinching military-industrial complex, and the sweep of populism, it’s hard not to see Strangelove’s pertinence to our current anxious global state. Considers the Bomb focuses on this threat and Kubrick’s growing interest in it. Wells again, ‘The impression you get is that he understood the logic behind nuclear policy and followed it through to a logical but extreme conclusion in his movie… we know from documents declassified in the 1990s that he was right about certain important parts of the US nuclear policy that hadn’t been made public.’
That chilling, supremacist defence by Jack D. Ripper of ‘Our precious bodily fluids’ has another echo in time, to the sitting president’s rousing notions of nationalistic excellence as a way of masking sexual insecurity. Whether or not we’re still in the realm of the accidental H Bomb is up to you, but Dr Strangelove will still leave you mad, paranoid, and desperate to recapture all the jokes you missed the last time around.
The inevitability of the self-destruction in Dr Strangelove is perhaps best summarised in one of its most iconic images, the airman Maj. ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens), riding an atom bomb as it falls out of his plane and down to oblivion. This image has been parodied and referenced throughout pop culture, from The Simpsons to Metal Gear Solid, to the animated Israeli film The Congress. Maj. ‘King’ Kong, falling to his certain death, represents the very title of the film. He’s stopped worrying about the bomb, coming to love it and the destruction it will cause. Kubrick is zen, it’s his way of telling us to accept the inevitable. As relevant as it was back when the film was released as it is now, Kubrick still wants us to stop worrying and enjoy the film.