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EMPIRE ESSAY: Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb Review

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U.S. Air Force Colonel Jack Ripper goes completely and utterly mad, and sends his bomber wing to destroy the U.S.S.R. He suspects that the communists are conspiring to pollute the "precious bodily fluids" of the American people. The U.S. president meets with his advisors, where the Soviet ambassador tells him that if the U.S.S.R. is hit by nuclear weapons, it will trigger a "Doomsday Machine" which will destroy all plant and animal life on Earth. Peter Sellers portrays the three men who might av

★★★★★

2001: A Space Odyssey is usually cited as Stanley Kubrick's sole contribution to science fiction. Wrong. Dr. Strangelove is a black comedy. It's a savage, surreal political satire. It's a cautionary Cold War tale. It's a suspense farce. And it is also science fiction. Sci-fi is not confined to stories of space exploration, the future, or extra-terrestrial life. Science fiction is speculative fiction about human beings exploring themselves and their possibilities.

Crucially — and this is the science bit — it often does this by dealing with humans dealing with technology. Technology running away with us is the basis of Dr. Strangelove. When a fanatical U.S. general launches a nuclear attack on the U.S.S.R. the president has his hands full recalling bombers, calming Russians, contending with his advisors and a twisted scientist. The thriller plot comes from a serious novel by RAF officer Peter George, published in the US as Red Alert, in the UK as Two Hours To Doom under the pseudonym Peter Bryant.

Kubrick loved it but thought people were so overwhelmed by the threat of annihilation that they were in denial, apathetic to nuclear documentary or drama. His goal — brilliantly realised — was to surprise audiences into reacting to the very real prospect of global extermination. His means was the cinematic equivalent of a political cartoon, outrageously funny and deceptively provocative. It was in Kubrick's nature to disdain leaders as madmen. Co-writer Terry Southern was a satirist with a penchant for sexual mania. Together they contrived a cast of caricatures whose grotesque concerns and absurd fixations, by their very incongruity, play up the harsh, precise realism in which they are set.

The opening narration of the film, about intelligence of a doomsday device, is factual. The Strategic Air Command operations: fact. The interior of the B-52 bomber: accurate; the responses of its crew: out of the flight manual. The computers that take the situation beyond human intervention: more capable of doing just that with every passing year. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

The action is confined to three locations, each stricken by a failure to communicate. At Burpelson Air Force Base Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), obsessed with bodily fluids and commie conspiracy, circumvents Fail-Safe protocol and orders a bomber wing to nuke the "Russkies". An RAF gallant on an exchange programme, Group-Capt. Lionel Mandrake (a moustachioed, spit-and-polish Peter Sellers) is held captive by this genocidal maniac, then has to convince his hostile "rescuer", Col. "Bat" Guano (Keenan Wynn) and a disbelieving telephone operator that he has to speak to the president.

Aboard the B-52, code named "Leper Colony", moronic but dogged Maj. T.J. "King" Kong (SlimPickens) and his crew (including James Earl Jones making his screen debut as Lt. Luther Zogg, Bombardier) experience radio failure and are oblivious to frantic efforts to recall them. In the War Room at The Pentagon (" Gentlemen, you can't fight in here. This is the War Room!"), sane but ineffectual President Merkin Muffley (bald, bespectacled Sellers), rampant, gum-chomping Gen. Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), Soviet Ambassador de Sadesky (Peter Bull) and demented Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick's nod to Metropolis' mad scientist Rotwang, complete with mechanical arm, with Sellers parodying Werner Von Braun and Edward Teller) are gathered in a desperate, futile attempt to stop the machinery of an automatic Armageddon being activated.

After paying Sellers a million dollars ("I got three for the price of six," Kubrick quipped) The director still had enough for production designer Ken Adam to create an awesome, nightmare set for Gilbert Taylor's superior black-and-white cinematography. Sellers' side-splitting, three-way display is legend but the ensemble is a wow of exaggerated, perfectly-timed, acutely-shot posturing. While two images are never forgotten — Kong astride the hydrogen bomb, yee-hawing all the way down, and Strangelove, unable to control his mechanical arm flying into the Nazi salute and throttling himself.

Every viewing is a reminder that the film is stuffed with sparkling dialogue: Kong taking inventory of the B-52 survival kits, which include money, chewing gum, nylon stockings, lipsticks and condoms, exclaiming "Shoot, a fella can have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff!"; Guano, sizing up Mandrake as a "Deviated pervert", Muffley breaking it to Soviet Premier Kissoff that one of his base commanders "Went and did a silly thing" in a classic Sellers monologue; Strangelove, so aroused by mass slaughter he rises from his wheelchair shrieking "Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!"

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Kubrick would elaborate on the menace of computer dependence in 2001, on institutional and political violence in A Clockwork Orange, on the madness of war in Full Metal Jacket. But he never made us laugh so hard again.

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