Dr Strangelove (1964)

The Cold War classic satire Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is re-released in the Stanley Kubrick season prefaced with a new short documentary Stanley Kubrick Considers The Bomb.

Apocalypse Then

by Alexa Dalby

Dr Strangelove

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Stanley Kubrick’s black-and-white masterpiece Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb has been restored in 4K and re-released.

Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a manic dark comedy set during the Cold War, when Russia and America where in a taut nuclear standoff. At the time, they were the only two nations capable of causing global extinction, either deliberately or accidentally, but these days there are many more likely culprits – America is still one of the usual suspects but outsiders such as North Korea have come through strongly, together with various countries in the Middle East and Asia. But though the principals in the race to Armageddon may have changed since Kubrick’s time, his film is still as effective a piece of satire as ever.

A computer malfunction accidentally triggers an alert code that Russia has attacked America. It’s transmitted to the crew of an American B-52 fighter plane permanently circling Russia, whose orders are to drop a retaliatory nuclear bomb on Russia if that should ever happen.

But once the order is issued, even though it’s in error, it proves impossible for anyone in authority to countermand it. The only general (Sterling Hayden) who has the recall codes has gone rogue and has seized on this opportunity to do what he wanted to do all along – bomb the ‘Russkies’.

With only hours to save the world, the President of the United States calls an urgent war cabinet and tries to speak on the phone with the drunk Russian Prime Minister – “Dimitri, we have a little problem” – but is steamrollered by another general’s (George C. Scott) military bombast. The Russians doomsday machine is set in motion and they can’t stop that either. While politicians are impotent to prevent it, the planet teeters on the brink of nuclear annihilation, its future in the hands of a bomber crew whooping like cowboys and out of all contact with the outside world.

AA well as the scary craziness of the imminent destruction of the entire planet, the film is notable for the three roles played by the chameleon Peter Sellers. As the brains behind the scheme he’s the sinister Dr Strangelove, an ex-Nazi nuclear scientist; the hapless President who is helpless to recall the bombers; and Captain Mandrake, the terribly British secondee to the US military, who seems to be the only man who can stop the madness – if he can find enough coins for the phone box to call the White House.

Stanley Kubrick Considers The Bomb, a new short film produced and directed by Matt Wells, will be screened in cinemas as a prelude to Kubrick’s feature. With contributions from those who knew Kubrick best, including his daughter Katharina Kubrick, Jan Harlan (Kubrick’s executive producer and brother-in-law) and journalist and author Eric Schlosser, the film considers how Kubrick responded to society’s widespread concern about nuclear war and transformed it into his irreverent comic masterpiece.

Dr Strangelove won Bafta’s Best Film 1965 and was Oscar® nominated. It’s still spine-chilling, absurd and very, very funny. And probably true. The Cold War ended decades ago but the film is still an object lesson in the dangers of relying on computers with no human input and in how easily a supposedly sophisticated society can find itself unable to stop heading down a catastrophic path nobody wants. Referendum, Brexit, anybody?

Dr Strangelove is re-released on 17 May 2019 in the UK, including an extended run at the BFI Southbank as part of a special Kubrick season.

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