I really believe the most underutilized genre in film is satire. It really blows my mind that with everything that has happened politically in the last decade, more filmmakers haven’t taken advantage of the inherent comedy goldmine happening all around us. The 60s were a time of great political turmoil, and the Cold War stripped everyone of reason, with children hiding under their desks to protect themselves from THE BOMB. Dr. Strangelove does an excellent job of highlighting the ridiculousness of the era while showing what could happen as a result of such silliness, by using real Cold War conspiracies.
Peter Sellers plays three roles in the film: the British Captain Lionel Mandrake, the American President Merkin Muffley, and the German Dr. Strangelove. He was also originally supposed to play Major “King” Kong but struggled with the Southern accent, so the role ultimately went to Slim Pickens. Columbia Pictures originally agreed to finance the film on the condition that Sellers play at least four parts, crediting Lolita’s success on Sellers, which is odd considering some now find him to be a distraction in Lolita. Sellers routinely making everyone on the set laugh, including Kubrick, as he improvised most of his dialogue. Sellers was not a fan of Kubrick’s directing policy of multiple takes. He didn’t see the point of doing the same thing over and over, even as Kubrick insured him that his performance improved with each take. The character of President Muffley changed dramatically as filming progressed. In the script, he is described as having a bad cold, which Sellers originally played up so much, the cast couldn’t stop themselves from cracking up. He was also played as very effeminate. However, Kubrick decided in the middle of filming, to reshoot all of the president’s scenes and have him be the straight man, surrounded by everyone else’s craziness.
While Sellers is great in all his roles, the film’s highlight for me is George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson. He is the epitome of the war loving manchild, who has all the power and can’t wait to use it. He is Cold War paranoia in the flesh, and can’t bring himself to trust the Russkies, even when the fate of the world depended on it. Scott was not happy with his performance at first, resenting Kubrick for encouraging him to act so over the top, but he eventually grew to appreciate it and considered it one of his favorite roles.
One thing that is decidedly not funny about the film, is how much of the over the top stuff was based on real life. While General Ripper worrying about fluoridated water poisoning out bodily fluids sounds preposterous, many actually believed that fluoride in our water was a Communist conspiracy. There was also a real doomsday device, which would be activated if Russia was under threat of immediate attack and could not be reversed. However, the film led to policy changes to ensure the film’s apocalyptic climax could not become a reality. And isn’t that the goal of film as a medium, to display what is wrong in the world and inspire change?
General “Buck” Turgidson: Sir, you can’t let him in here. He’ll see everything. He’ll see the big board!