5 out of 5 stars

From the opening shot of Stanley Kubrick’s comedy classic Dr. Strangelove, you know you’re entering a beautifully daft film. A stern voiceover lays out the stakes: a doomsday device, hidden and potent enough to reduce the entire planet to a heap of smouldering ash. But then, in a cheeky wink to the audience, Kubrick cuts to a dreamlike sequence that wouldn’t be out of place in a soothing airline commercial: footage of a fighter pilot soars with melodic music and a wacky, irreverent font. Here, in the face of total annihilation, everything feels perversely funny.

The Cold War anxieties explored in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb were undoubtedly fresh in American minds in 1964. The deployment of US fighter jets armed with 50-megaton nuclear bombs—each 16x more powerful than all the explosives detonated in World War II combined—to attack the USSR hinged on a single, paranoid general’s unauthorised act, bypassing the chain of command and potentially triggering World War III. President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), desperate to avert annihilation, scrambles with his generals to find a peaceful solution. What ensues is a narrative almost as farcical as the real-life events that inspired it.

Dr. Strangelove remains a scathing—albeit, hilarious—critique of Machiavellian politics, our insidious and relentless distrust of others, and our self-destructive impulses, all of which unfold on a global stage. The film draws us in with the infectious marching-tune of “Two by Two,” and we laugh uncontrollably at the witty writing and utter absurdity on display. However, what makes Dr. Strangelove such a memorable film—indeed, a classic that’s only become more poignant with age—is the wealth of ideas we are left to ponder.

Stanley Kubrick explored every genre throughout his career, and in addition to this artistic diversity, he never truly made a bad film. Therefore, his filmography resembles a dazzling jewel box, containing an emerald, a sapphire, and a diamond—each one distinct, yet all sharing a recognisable Kubrickian glow. Perhaps it’s the wry, dark humour. Or maybe it’s the long takes, with exquisite framing and precise composition that reveal his years spent as a photographer. It could be his fascination with bathrooms, or the cryptic recurrence of the number ‘114’ in four of his films. Whatever it is that infuses his work with an otherworldly mystique, a dark, enigmatic charm, and a peculiar sense of the transcendental, Dr. Strangelove possesses it in spades.

Much like the majority of Kubrick’s oeuvreDr. Strangelove is an adaptation of a novel. Red Alert, a Cold War thriller published in 1958, provided the film’s plot foundation. However, in adapting the book, Kubrick famously found the story oddly humorous—little wonder, when you consider the history of the Cold War as a decades-long pissing contest. It’s difficult, amidst this bemused disbelief, not to crack a smile. The film tackles this question in detail, often through humour, with us humans and our inexplicably puerile antics serving as the punchline.

Kubrick’s film could be described as a comedy of errors, but not in the traditional sense. While this genre usually features mistaken identities and chaotic misunderstandings, Dr. Strangelove finds humour in the inordinate number of mistakes that a government makes in both their foreign and domestic policies.

As President Muffley grapples with his overruled authority, General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) reminds him that the protocol he supposedly violated was actually authorised. In the event of the POTUS’s incapacitation by foreign powers, a lower-ranked general could launch retaliatory nuclear strikes. It’s presented as a logical, rational deterrent against invasion. Unfortunately, President Muffley and his subordinates overlook the fact that humans aren’t always as predictable as their machines. As General Turgidson later laments, “The human element seems to have failed us here…”

The film’s plot hinges on the inherent, seemingly constant fallibility of the human condition. Notably, one source of dark humour for Kubrick is how the elaborate methods governments utilise to protect themselves ironically bring them ever closer to self-destruction. The meticulously designed procedures, intended to make the US untouchable, prove frustratingly difficult, if not impossible, to navigate in a crisis. This vulnerability becomes starkly evident when the tables are turned and Muffley and his team desperately scramble to thwart the nuclear winter they’ve inadvertently set in motion.

Despite our capacity for incredible innovation, the film offers a biting commentary on the often baffling choices that underpin some of history’s most pivotal moments. We craft sophisticated technology, yet so frequently wield it for the bleakest of purposes: destruction. This bitter irony, where our imaginative ingenuity fuels ever more efficient means of ruination, acts as a MacGuffin. The escalating absurdity of each superpower’s attempt to outdo the other ensures the plot is never dull and often hilarious in its absurdity.

However, Kubrick doesn’t rely solely on farce to get laughs. For a director never known for comedy, he showcases an impressive understanding of sight gags. These include a giant billboard in the background of two US forces shooting at each other which reads: “Peace is our Profession.” Slim Pickens wearing his ten-gallon hat in the cockpit appears to be a tacit nod to how much bigger our weapons have become through the years: he’s a cowboy with a 50-megaton pistol. Also on the airship, a Holy Bible and Russian phrase book being combined into a booklet no bigger than the brigadier’s thumb also garners a mystified chuckle; it’s something just ridiculous enough to be a real thing. In addition to this, there’s something darkly amusing about cataclysmic information being imparted to a flirtatious, half-naked secretary working on her tan. All of these are much subtler and less ridiculous than the sight gags that appear in spoofs from years later, like those in Airplane! (1980) and Naked Gun (1988).

This last example kicks off the series of absurd phone calls in Dr. Strangelove. Muffley’s tense conversation with the Soviet Premier, where they argue over who’s sorrier about the imminent apocalypse, is comedy gold. Later, Colonel Mandrake’s quest to reach the President through payphones short on change becomes an exercise in bureaucratic absurdity. General Buck Turgidson relays the nonsensical ramblings of the aptly named psychotic Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), bemoaning the fact that neither he nor anyone else understands what the Brigadier General means by “fluids”, further amplifies the communication breakdown. Notably, Kubrick only ever shows us one side of these frustrating conversations. This stylistic choice could be interpreted as a way to lampoon the lack of reliable communication when it is needed most, highlighting the delicacy of these exchanges and the potentially catastrophic consequences of misunderstandings.

Of course, all the gags are worthless without the talented onscreen performers. First and foremost comes Peter Sellers, who delivers another career-defining performance. Fresh off The Pink Panther (1963), Sellers excels in three roles, each one stands out in its own way. His uptight Lionel Mandrake, a British RAF exchange officer, draws on his own time in the Royal Air Force during WWII. His performance as President Merkin Muffley took on many forms, including a version of a very effeminate leader with a terrible cold. This version proved so funny that not one actor could keep a straight face, rendering the takes unusable.

It’s undeniably Peter Sellers’ iconic Dr. Strangelove who steals the show, despite having the least screen time among the major characters. This Nazi scientist turned naturalised American has become cinematic legend, thanks to his unforgettable quirks. His alien hand syndrome, erupting into a Nazi salute right as Dr. Strangelove launches into a lecture on eugenics, is as unsettling as it is uproarious. While he wrestles with his right hand to keep it in place, the surrounding cast wrestle to supress their laughter, some less successfully than others (Peter Bull can be seen cracking up in what Kubrick considered to be the only acceptable take).

Equally amusing, George C. Scott’s performance as General Buck Turgidson arguably stands as the crowning achievement of his career. His constant gum chewing, buffoonish smile, and unwarranted self-assurance in his military strategies provide an ample source of laughter. Undoubtedly modeled on the warmongering General MacArthur, Turgidson proposes a Schrödinger’s cat approach to war: they must open the Pandora’s box of nuclear weapons and hope for the best outcome. He infamously declares: “Now, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I am saying no more than 10 to 20 million killed—tops! Depending on the breaks…” Although he won the ‘Best Actor’ Academy Award for his portrayal of General Patton, his work as Turgidson remains, in my opinion, the more deserving performance.

The film boasts a stellar supporting cast who light up the screen, ensuring there’s not a dull moment. Slim Pickens is hilarious in everything he does, perhaps because he was blissfully unaware he was acting in a comedy. His deadpan delivery stems from Kubrick’s masterstroke of telling him they were making a thriller and only providing him with his lines. Sterling Hayden’s performance is equally unsettling and amusing; the casual emergence of a light machine gun from his golf bag, paired with cigar-chomping expletives (“The redcoats are coming!”), is endlessly funny. Yet, it’s also deeply ironic that Hayden, a former member of the Communist Party in America, plays this role so convincingly.

Arguably, the most unsung performance of any in the film is that of Tracy Reed, who plays Ms Scott. Her coquettish portrayal of a secretary with tremendous people skills only lasts one scene of three minutes, but it’s played to perfection. Her convincing showing also provides fertile ground for the underlying theme of the story: sexual frustration. Indeed, the mere fact she’s the only woman in the entire film lends itself to the reading that men should not be left by themselves without intervention for too long. 

While present from the outset, the symbolic parallels between sexual virility (or lack thereof) and military posturing become progressively more pronounced as the film unfolds. Early on, we see Major Kong helming a warship, yet absorbed in a Playboy magazine, his focus diverted from his command. Later, Jack D. Ripper confides in Mandrake that he came to his conclusions on the global communist conspiracy after the physical act of love: “A profound sense of fatigue… a feeling of emptiness followed. Luckily I was able to interpret these feelings correctly. Loss of essence.” The absurdity of a single man’s impotence potentially triggering global annihilation is both comical and, perhaps, too close to home.

However, this leitmotif reaches its most poignant dramatisation when President Muffley and his men plan for the Earth’s repopulation. Turgidson’s immediate panic rises, not to radiation or starvation, but to the Soviets outbreeding them from their mineshaft shelters in 93 years. “We must be increasingly on the alert,” he urges, “to prevent them taking over other mineshaft space, in order to breed more prodigiously than we do! Mr President, we must prevent the mine-shaft gap!” The men’s constant concern about a gap in size is hysterical, despite it being a touch on the nose. The world seems small when seen through the eyes of small men, no matter how puffed up and self-important they consider themselves to be.

Kubrick’s ending lingers in ambiguity, leaving us unsure of the intended emotional resonance. While not as cryptic as some of his other films, it still provokes a bout of head-scratching. As Vera Lynn’s hopeful “We’ll Meet Again” clashes with the ominous spectacle of detonating atomic bombs, we’re confronted with a stark existential query: where do we go from here? The apocalypse has been triggered, not by fate or cosmic forces, but by the folly of imbeciles with too much power, scrambling to cover their big board like children caught peeking at the answer sheet. Sobbing or despair might be instinctive reactions, but perhaps Kubrick suggests a more defiant response. Maybe, amidst the mushroom cloud’s ominous reddish-brown glow, laughter—however bleak—becomes our only weapon against the absurdity of our self-inflicted doom.

Kubrick masterfully captures the chilling surrealism of Cold War tensions in Dr. Strangelove. By doing so, he influenced a generation of filmmakers. The satirical works of Armando Iannucci, particularly his film The Death of Stalin (2017), showcase this clear affinity. Kubrick’s film conveys how technological advancements breed new anxieties, prompting ever-escalating responses. In their strategic decisions, driven by fear and national pride, reason and logic crumble. It’s like watching a game of chess being played by baboons, their paranoia fixated on contingencies that won’t be relevant for nearly another century.

Watching our leaders strategise against an unknown enemy in a future they won’t experience is reminiscent of the Greek proverb: “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.” Of course, Kubrick suggests that our society will never grow great, as our trees have been scorched by a nuclear winter. It’s a sad, pessimistic message, but one that still bears repeating. Now more than ever, the world should watch Dr. Strangelove.

UK • USA | 1964 | 94 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH

frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: Stanley Kubrick
writers: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern & Peter George (based on ‘Red Alert’ by Peter George).
starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Peter Bull, Slim Pickens, Tracy Reed & James Earl Jones