“You can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!” Still probably the most quoted line from Dr Strangelove, and still probably the one that raises the most laughs. Even Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward – the man who broke the Watergate scandal, as documented in ‘All The President’s Men’ – remembers it as such in one of a clutch of documentaries stuffed on to this new Blu-ray.
It succinctly sums up everything that Stanley Kubrick’s pitch-black satire – which posits the end of the world as a terrifyingly real probability, not possibility – represents. He shames the ludicrous position that the global superpowers found themselves in at the height of the Cold War, and equally demonstrates that at the heart of such human tragedy at the hands of warmongers lies a source of bleak humour. Glasnost may have taken the edge off the set-up, but it’s still a marvellous send-up of retaliatory politics and tooling up in a bid to bring peace.
Kubrick had become obsessed with thermonuclear engagement, actually becoming something of an expert, and his extensive reading led him to ‘Red Alert’ (released as ‘Two Hours To Doom’ in the UK), a novel by Peter George that tells the story of a rogue US general unleashing a full-scale nuclear attack on Russia. He bought the rights for a few thousand dollars and got to work with partner James Harris on ‘Edge Of Doom’, a taut political thriller about a nation with one finger hovering over the big red button.
As the pair worked intensively on the project they discussed some of the more ludicrous points of the mechanism of war but of course, this didn’t find its way into the script until after Harris had moved on, parting company with Kubrick to pursue his own directing projects. Kubrick eventually decided all he could really do about this end-of-the-world stuff was to have a laugh, so he began to work on it as a comedy. “Leave Stanley alone for 10 minutes and he’ll ruin his career,” Harris says of the direction the script took after his departure. In came hipster satirist Terry Southern to squeeze the humour from every single beat, with Kubrick’s instruction to push everything to the absolute point of plausibility.
There is another vital component in the success of this picture, and that’s the incomparable Peter Sellers, playing no less than three roles, with a fourth, that of Major Kong, only scuppered by the broken leg Sellers suffered on set. Each and every performance is sensational. Given licence to run roughshod over the scripted dialogue by Kubrick, it is Sellers who often crafts, and delivers, the best lines in the movie. He’s utterly convincing at all times, whether as the dome-headed voice of reason President Merkin Muffley, desperately negotiating the fate of the human race; as the unerringly polite Group Captain Lionel Mandrake; or, his greatest creation, former Nazi turned government advisor Dr Strangelove.
Of course, the support isn’t half-bad either. Stirling Hayden came out of retirement to play the crazed, cigar-chomping Brigadier General Jack D Ripper, obsessed with fluoridation and bodily fluids, who exploits a hole in US defence strategy to launch an attack on the Soviet Union. The president assembles his leading chiefs of staff to avert the crisis, including George C Scott’s wild-eyed General Turgidson, a performance that, despite Scott’s reluctance, remains delightfully over the top and just as Kubrick intended.
They soon discover that not only can the attack not be stopped, but that the Russians have actually created their very own nuclear deterrent: a doomsday device that will bring on a nuclear holocaust if the nation comes under fire. Realising there’s no failsafe, what follows is a fraught scramble to avert disaster, with each solution seemingly collapsing under the weight of the collective madness.
It’s a brave, beautiful movie, arriving at a time when the nuclear threat was very real, but still relevant in today’s climate of fear, paranoia and constant state of alert, replacing the red menace for out-and-out terror. Kubrick’s eloquent directing style gives each of the three main sets – the B52 bomber, Ripper’s office and the infamous war room – it’s own unique visual grammar, with each lending a new perspective through which to view the story.
The Blu-ray indulges this, of course, and although the detail is lacking (but still good enough to see the matte painting and the bombers imposed on some admittedly impressive aerial footage), the transfer is credible. If you own the CE you’ll already have seen the fantastic documentaries and featurettes included here. What’s new, though, and justifies this purchase of ‘Strangelove’, is the PiP Cold War trivia track with a collection of some of modern warfare’s top-thinkers, including presidential advisors and university professors.
A satirical masterpiece that’s more frightening than it is funny (and it is very funny), possibly the saddest indictment of modern times is that ‘Dr Strangelove’ remains so relevant in them.
A classic movie, a reasonable transfer and a bit extra in the special features is plenty to justify a Blu-ray upgrade.