Some of my favorite childhood memories are of staying up late watching movies with my father. He and I shared a love of movies, especially comedies.
My own son and I have continued that tradition. On the weekends he is here, we'll pick out a movie to watch. A couple of weeks ago, we watched the original version of "The Producers," which he loved. Last weekend, we watched "Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb."
One of the dangers of a movie like Dr. Strangelove is that it was pretty topical-- its setting is the Cold War. There is the danger that the jokes won't translate well into our times. I'm happy to report that a 12-year-old who, granted, has a pretty good knowledge of history and the Cold War, loved it.
The movie's story, from a Terry Southern script, is set in motion by the orders of General Jack D. Ripper, who, after an incident of, well, equipment malfunction during the "physical act of love," as he puts it, comes to see and blame a worldwide communist conspiracy of flouridation of water for his "profound sense of fatigue," and uses a little-known nuclear contingency plan to launch an attack by Strategic Air Command bombers on the Soviet Union.
The general is played to perfection by Sterling Hayden, who usually performed in cowboy movies. You may remember him in the Godfather-- he was the corrupt New York police captain who got whacked by Michael Corleone.
The movie, in fact, is filled with marvelous performances, including a then-little-known James Earl Jones.
Peter Sellers plays no fewer than three roles: One is Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, who is a British officer, working through a NATO officer exchange program, and is trying to stop Gen. Ripper in his mad scheme. He plays this role to understated perfection, responding, when Gen. Ripper tells him that there is a full-blown nuclear war going on, "Oh hell."
His second role is as the effeminate U.S. President Merkin Muffley, whom I've always assumed to be a thinly-veiled Adlai Stevenson. The third, of course, is the title role of Dr. Strangelove, a former Nazi scientist working for the United States.
In each of his roles, he has brilliant lines. In one scene, in which he has to call a drunken Soviet leader to politely tell him that a mad general has launched an attack on his country, Muffley, trying to calm him down, says "I understand how upset you are. How do you think I feel?" In another scene, the Soviet ambassador and Gen. Buck Turgidson, played by George C. Scott, in a tour de force performance, are fighting, when the ambassador tries to take serrepticious pictures of the War Room, Sellers, as Muffley, shouts at them "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!"
One of the most famous performances in the movie was a last-minute substitution. Peter Sellars was supposed to play a fourth role, that of the pilot of the B-52 bomber that the movie follows. Sellars, who was 39, and had just married a then-21-year-old Britt Eklund, suffered a heart attack (hmmmmm) and another actor, cowboy movie veteran Slim Pickens, was hired to play the part, and played it to perfection.
This is a movie that bears repeated viewing for details. While the camera is focused at one of its characteristically odd angles, if you look closely, one of the books Gen. Turgidson has in front of him as he advises President Muffley is entitled "World Targets in Megadeaths." (the band Megadeath supposedly took their name from this) In another scene, after Pickens, as Major Kong, is given his orders to attack Russia. He solemnly goes to the safe of his B-52, opens it up and takes out not secret codes, but his cowboy hat.
The interactions between Sellars, as President Muffley, and George C. Scott as the abrasive, brash, macho General Turgidson are brilliant. At one point, Muffley angrily informs Turgidson that to his knowledge, he, the President, was the only person who had the authority to launch a nuclear attack. General Turgidson politely states, in a masterwork of understatement, "...although I hate to judge before all the facts are in, it's beginning to look like General Ripper exceeded his authority."
One comic scene that has become legendary, has a note of tragedy in it. There's a scene in which Pickens, as Major Kong, is having his men check and inventory their emergency survival kits, a contingency in case they have to bail out over the Soviet Union. There are practical items, such as a pistol and a combination Bible and Russian phrase book, mixed with things that would be presumably be to bribe one's way out of the country, such as dollars, rubles, gold, condoms, lipstick and nylons. Pickens stops and says "Shoot, a guy could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff." Next time you watch the movie, watch Pickens' lips-- he's not saying "Vegas," but "Dallas" in the original script. The movie was already in the can, was released only a few months after John Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, and the producers hurriedly went back and dubbed in "Vegas." That line me makes more sense to me anyway.
Dr. Strangelove was released the same year as a serious film with the same theme was realeased, "Fail-Safe." I've put that one on my Netflix queue (I own the letterboxed collector's editon of Dr. Strangelove). I have a feeling it will not have aged as well.
For many years it was assumed that Dr. Strangelove, who is handicapped, and in a wheelchair, was supposed to be Henry Kissinger (in the book Fail-Safe, which the movie is based on, the analogous character Professor Groeteschele, was definitely Kissinger). It's actually likely supposed to be "doom and gloom" theorist Herman Kahn, who was not handicapped, but morbidly obese.
The verdict? "Dr. Strangelove" is still great. The jokes translate well to our time, the performances are still stellar, and with the current yin-yang as President, someone who believes that God is on the side of the United States, the message is still important.