The premise of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 unassailable Cold War satire, Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is deceptively simple: Russia and the US, deadlocked in the threat of mutually-assured- destruction, are a hair’s breadth away from obliterating each other in a nuclear holocaust.
What could possibly go wrong? The answer lies in the brilliantly insane Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) who, his mind addled with conspiracy theories of Russians (and women) stealing his precious bodily fluids, has decided unilaterally to kick off World War III by sending orders to attack Russia. Peter Sellers is undoubtedly the star of the show, variously playing US President Merkin – “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!” – the despairing and sympathetic Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and Dr Strangelove himself, cool and collected in the face of Armageddon, save for a single gloved, Nazi-possessed hand.
These three men are relatively the most rational and sane characters in the film, yet even they are not untroubled by bouts of absurdity, with President Merkin’s awkward phone call with the Russian premier as they bicker over social niceties in the face of annihilation proving a chillingly comedic highlight. Indeed, it is the sheer scale of the catastrophe that makes it impossible to understand, effectively rendering it meaningless for those with the power to stop it. The clueless soldier, for example, reluctant to break into a vending machine to get change for a world-saving phone call perversely reminds one of Father Ted’s Dougal struggling to understand the relationship between the perceived size of cows and their distance from him, a comic trope rendered horrifying in its destructive potential.
The most tragic example of innocent ignorance is the plane crew who are ordered to bomb Russia. Cut off from command by a busted radio, the crew (a young James Earl Jones numbered among them) have no immediate wish to kill anyone, but the reason that they must not let their humanistic feelings get in the way of letting down the folks back home, who they reasonably assume must be under attack. Consummate professionals willing to die to protect their country and lied to by an unhinged chain of command, they are lambs to the slaughter, representative of the billions of innocents blissfully ignorant of their own imminent destruction. That oft-cited image of Major ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens) riding the nuclear bomb to earth, taken out of context, belies both the heroic sacrifice of his actions and the complexity of his and his crewmates’ characters; horrifying and noble in the same instant.
The pre-eminent satire of Cold War paranoia, Dr Strangelove is a hilarious and harrowing fable of systemised madness, a cautionary lament whose warnings are increasingly poignant amongst the instability and demagoguery of contemporary politics. Dr Strangelove‘s power is in its capacity to induce guffaws of laughter and sobs of despair in equal measure; Peter Sellers’ triumvirate performance and the climactic image of a hollering lunatic riding an H-bomb may well be icons of comedy, but make no mistake, this is satire in its angriest, most absurdly Juvenalian mode.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell