Top 100 Movie Review: No. 028 – Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Ranked 028 on the IMDb Top 100 Movie List (as at May 2017). Watched movie during June 2020.

Cast: Peter Sellers (Captain Lionel Mandrake / President Merkin Muffley / Dr. Strangelove), George C. Scott (Gen. ‘Buck’ Turgidson), Sterling Hayden (Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper), Keenan Wynn (Col. ‘Bat’ Guano), Slim Pickens (Maj. ‘King’ Kong), Peter Bull (Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky), James Earl Jones (Lt. Lothar Zogg), Tracy Reed (Miss Scott)
Director:  Stanley Kubrick
My rating: 8.5 / 10

Full Movie Title: Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

United States Air Force Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) is commander of Burpelson Air Force Base, which houses the Strategic Air Command (SAC) 843rd Bomb Wing, flying B-52 bombers armed with hydrogen bombs. The 843rd Wing is flying on airborne alert, two hours from their targets inside the USSR.

General Ripper orders his executive officer, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) of the UK Royal Air Force, to put the base on alert, and to issue “Wing Attack Plan R” to the patrolling aircraft, one of which is commanded by Major T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens). All of the aircraft commence an attack flight on the USSR and set their radios to allow communications only through their CRM 114 radios, which was designed to accept only communications preceded by a secret three-letter code known only to General Ripper. Mandrake discovers that no war order has been issued by the Pentagon and that the US is not under attack so he tries to stop Ripper, who locks them both in his office. Ripper tells Mandrake that he believes the Soviets have been using fluoridation of the American water supplies to pollute the “precious bodily fluids” of Americans and that he doesn’t trust politicians. Mandrake realises that Ripper has gone insane.

In the War Room at the Pentagon, General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) briefs President Merkin Muffley and other officers about how Plan R enables a senior officer to launch a strike against the Soviets if all superiors have been killed in a first strike on the United States. The President  is incredulous about how this can happen but Turgidson states for the most part the system works.  Turgidson reports that his men are trying every possible three-letter CRM code to issue the stand-down order, but that could take over two days and the planes are due to reach their targets in a couple of hours. Muffley orders the U.S. Army to storm the base and arrest General Ripper. Turgidson then attempts to convince Muffley to let the attack continue as the Soviets will be destroyed and will only be able to kill around 10% of US citizens, but Muffley refuses to be party to a nuclear first strike. Instead, he brings Soviet ambassador Alexei de Sadeski (Peter Bull) into the War Room to telephone Soviet Premier Dimitri Kissov on the “hot line”. Muffley warns the Premier of the impending attack and reveals the positions of the bombers and targets so that the Soviets can protect themselves.

After a heated discussion in Russian with the Premier, the ambassador informs President Muffley that the Soviet Union has created a doomsday machine, which consists of many buried bombs jacketed with “cobalt-thorium G” connected to a computer network set to detonate them automatically should any nuclear attack strike the country. Within two months after detonation, the cobalt-thorium G would encircle the planet in a radioactive “doomsday shroud”, wiping out all human and animal life, rendering the surface of the Earth uninhabitable for about 93 years. The device cannot be dismantled or “untriggered”, as it is programmed to explode if any such attempt is made. When the President’s wheelchair-bound scientific advisor, the former Nazi German Dr. Strangelove, points out that such a doomsday machine would only be an effective deterrent if everyone knew about it, the ambassador replies that the Soviet Premier had planned to reveal its existence to the world the following week.

Meanwhile, U.S. Army troops arrive at Burpelson, still sealed by Ripper’s order, to take over the base after a heated firefight with Air Force security policemen. General Ripper then shoots and kills himself, while Mandrake identifies Ripper’s CRM code from his desk blotter (“OPE,” a variant of both Peace on Earth and Purity of Essence) and relays this code to the Pentagon. Using the recall code, SAC successfully recalls all of the bombers but one. Unfortunately a Soviet surface-to-air missile had earlier damaged the fuel tanks of that plane and destroyed its radio equipment, making it impossible to recall this particular plane even with the correct recall code.

Muffley discloses the plane’s target to help the Soviets find it, but its commanding officer, Major Kong, with his fuel dwindling, has switched to a closer backup target instead. As the plane approaches the new target, the crew is unable to open the damaged bomb bay doors. Kong enters the bomb bay and repairs the broken electrical wiring while sitting on the H-bomb, whereupon the doors open and the bomb is dropped. With Kong straddling it as a cowboy would a bucking bull, the bomb falls and detonates over a Soviet ICBM site.

Back in the War Room, Dr. Strangelove, resisting the urge to fall into Nazi habits of saluting and referring to the President as “Mein Führer”, recommends that the President gather several hundred thousand people to live in deep underground mines where the radiation will not penetrate. He suggests a 10:1 female-to-male ratio for a breeding program to repopulate the Earth once the radiation has subsided. Turgidson and the other Generals seem happy with this arrangement but they are worried that the Soviets will do the same and might even breed faster then the US and therefore create a “mineshaft gap” over the USA. Dr. Strangelove declares he has a plan, but then rises from his wheelchair and announces “Mein Führer, I can walk!” as the Doomsday Machine activates. The film ends with a montage of many nuclear explosions, accompanied by Vera Lynn’s version of the popular World War II song “We’ll Meet Again”.

What’s to Like
The acting, the surreal dark comedy that you can almost imagine occurring.

What’s not to Like

A satirical look at the military complex and how paranoid could easily lead to nuclear war.  The USA military are so paranoid of Russia doing a successful first strike they design a ‘fail safe’ system that allows one General to start a nuclear war.  The Russians design a deterrent but don’t tell anyone as their Premier wants a big announcement.  Even with the human race about to be killed off the Generals are worried about the Russians re-populating the world better than the USA. 

This was the same thinking that had General Turgidson willing to sacrifice millions of Americans.  The USA paranoid also has then hiring ex-Nazis so they can beat the Russian Communists.  It’s not about humanity surviving it’s about the USA ‘winning’ even if that means almost everyone is dead.

Peter Seller is amazing in three main roles.  The subject matter is very heavy so it’s surprising how often you end up laughing.  Maybe that’s the only way to really shoot a movie about the madness of a nuclear world war.

Academy Awards

  • Best Picture – nominee
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role (Peter Sellers) – nominee
  • Best Director (Stanley Kubrick) – nominee
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium – nominee

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries (76 by June 2023) in this amazing world.
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