Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, released exactly fifty years ago today, is my favourite movie—has been for a long time. My dad and I quote its best lines back to each other at the dinner table. “Can you turn the music down, Dimitri?” “I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed!” “The string in my leg’s gone.” “Listen, Colonel Bat Guano— if that really is your name.”
We’re Peter Sellers fanboys—we do the same routine with the Pink Panther movies. For us, there’s little difference between Dr. Strangelove and A Shot in the Dark. They’re both funny films.
It’s strange and bracing, then, to read the original New York Times review of Strangelove. It acknowledges that the movie was laced with humour, but the author, Bosley Crowther, seems deeply disturbed by what he’s just seen. “Stanley Kubrick's new film, called Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” he begins, “is beyond any question the most shattering sick joke I've ever come across.”
The revulsion builds from there. Crowther describes George C. Scott’s character, General Buck Turgidson, speaking with “a snarling and rasping volubility that makes your blood run cold.” Of the final mushroom cloud montage, Crowther writes, “Somehow, to me, it isn't funny. It is malefic and sick.”
Crowther wasn’t some lone hysteric, either. Other reviewers called the film “evil,” and compared it to Soviet agitprop. Military officials scrambled to discredit the film’s basic premise—that a rogue general could launch a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union without permission from the President.
The dead-earnestness of the response seems hilariously overwrought fifty years after the fact. I’ve never found anything in Dr. Strangelove malefic and sick, nor have any of its characters’ voices made my blood run cold. I’ve never even particularly understood its classification as a “black comedy.” Sideways is a black comedy—it involves plausible, genuinely depressing real-world situations. Strangelove seems like a Grimm’s fairy tale by comparison—dark, sure, but so otherworldly that it fails to really instill any emotion but whimsy.
Of course, considering what was going on with the world’s arsenal of atomic weapons in 1964, the response to a comedy about nuclear war wasn’t overwrought at all. The Cuban missile crisis had happened just a year and half earlier; the spectre of nuclear war was a constant, terrifying presence. In October 1962, when the Soviets had their missiles pointed at Miami, my father and a group of his friends huddled in one of their basements and said a tearful, heart-felt goodbye to each other. For a couple of days there, it really seemed like the world was going to end.
I mean, imagine if David O. Russell made a slapstick comedy full of silly accents, punning names (Merkin Muffley, anyone?), sex jokes and pratfalls about a successful airplane hijacking targeting a skyscraper. People would be upset, right?
The huge discrepancy between how the movie was originally intended and originally received, and how I enjoy it now, occasionally gives me pause. It seems odd, even a little disappointing, that I can’t appreciate such an integral part of the movie—a movie, no less, that I claim to like better than any other.
But satire—and that’s what Strangelove was—never stays fresh; it hardly even stays satiric. For a comedic attack to land as both comedy and attack, there has to be a target in sight. The folly of the American military establishment in its handling of the country’s nuclear weapons was Strangelove’s target. Rightly or wrongly, that isn’t something that concerns people much these days.
So it’s an extraordinary testament to Kubrick’s brilliance—and the brilliance of Terry Southern, the co-screenwriter, and Peter Sellers, the star—that Strangelove works at all on its fiftieth anniversary. If the movie was just “incisive”—a word that writers seem to use almost reflexively when they’re describing satire—it would be a relic, a fossil.
Strangelove has had a different fate. It hasn’t fossilized, it’s just mutated, become a different beast. Its jokes burn less acidly, less biliously, now that their victims are gone from the stage— it’s a film that makes its impact on the belly rather than the liver.