Saturday, 25 September 2010


"Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room"
There are certain ways to enjoy comedies whether they be slapstick e.g. AIRPLANE (1980) or intelligent e.g. IN THE LOOP but with the latter, it is a case of how to interpret the comedy with its darkish humour. That is what brings me to Stanley Kubrick's war satire and one of his more memorable films; DR STRANGELOVE OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964) which over the years has developed itself as a well written farcical achievement from Kubrick. However my interpretation of the film (which as usual is discussed later on) is that I believe it lacks the humour and is sometimes confusing to understand and hating to say it like this but I consider it one of THE most overrated films I've watched which hopefully will lead to debate after giving it a second viewing (I had previously watched the film at university but needed another viewing to gain more depth about it). The focus of making fun of the nuclear arms race is understandable but there are many aspects which let the film down through questionable statements or stereotype characters. It is still possible though for me to like parts of it which have led to its mass popularity with audiences over the past 45 years and 'overrated' is still a word I like to associate it with.

Set in the midst of the Cold War, United States general Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders plan R into operation as he sets his plane on an irrecoverable bombing run into Russia. One of the planes led by farmer Major King Kong (Slim Pickens), sets its course right and from the start to the finish it looks clear that nothing could stop this plane. Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers) tries to convince Ripper to give him the code but the pair end up locked in the generals office with the military sent by President Muffley (Sellers again) to try and retrieve the code from Ripper. Powerless to stop them with the relevant three letter access code the President and his advisers plan to warn Russia as best they can to prevent as many of the planes reaching their targets as possible. However when the Russian Ambassador warns of the doomsday machine – a machine that will destroy all life on earth in response to a nuclear attack things become desperate although General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) shows his fascist attitude towards the Russian believing that he is giving representatives of his country some information about America. Another suspicious dwells on former Nazi politician Dr Strangelove (Seller's third character) who gives his opinion about how the world could change if this bomb does go off. The main aim though is stop the attack and although Mandrake succeeds in getting the code to alert the fleet to abort their mission, the one plane that has been focused on in the film is making a desperate run to it's target which makes things look bleak for the world.

Though this film frustrated me, I would like to discuss the highlights of it from my perspective. The symbolistic values of the film plays its part to bizarre detail but adds to its quirkiness. The great black joke of "Dr. Strangelove", is that nuclear stalemate is a kind of sexual frustration (or strange love) to the evolved male and that there are strong, dangerous drives conspiring to launch the ultimate attack. The film is awash with sexual imagery, from the saucy references on the aircraft in the first scene, to the atomic ejaculation in the final scene. Guns, cigars, swimsuits, playboy centrefolds and sexually dysfunctional wheelchair bound degenerates, the film's entire language is a consistent ballet of creation (sex) and destruction (war). The final scene, while played for laughs, is actually a frightening image of a communist future. The final moments are frightening in their truth leading one to put themselves in a position of the characters. For the acting though my praise for Sellers is talked about later (though also a bit of hate for one of his characters). Sterling Hayden is great as General Ripper – he delivers his madness with a straight face throughout and is assisted well by Seller's first character in the film. However for me the standout is George C. Scott – not exactly a comedy actor but he is frantic and over the top with his communist paranoia and the debut of James Earl Jones is also definitely worth mentioning.

Now the problems....the plot itself is the weak point of the film: it's irrelevant to us today although there is also the boring factor. The movie is an hour and a half, but it felt more like five. Scenes drag on to the point of ridiculousness, trying to flesh out the paper-thin plot. It basically fizzled out at the end, not knowing quite where to go and instead just stopping. The comic relief in this so-called masterpiece consists of caricatures and other sight gags, rather than clever dialogue. The jokes are blunt, and the puns and names that may have been considered daring or risqué once upon a time now just seem like the worst kind of childishness. Sellers plays his roles very well, a tough performance to ask for with playing three different characters. Mandrake is giving snootiness and wit and is a very well made character with his nervous fear for Ripper's sanity, and as the President he does his job well with giving the character some steel and a bit of hilarity e.g. the phone conversation but as Dr Strangelove this is the one that annoys me. What relevance does a defecting Nazi in a wheelchair, with a hand that acts on its own accord, have to the plot? None. Slim Pickens in particular made me roll my eyes in annoyance too with his stereotypical role as a redneck commander is something you wouldn't really see nowadays because of how irritating his role is, ironic though that he was involved in one of film's most memorable scenes (see below). Overall, Dr Strangelove certainly has its lovers and its critics and sadly I call myself a critic of this film, I am a huge fan of Kubrick's work but Dr Strangelove is one of those dark comedies that lacks the 'comedy' and this makes it a frustrating watch but it has its moments. If you want to enjoy a political satire for the modern generation, watch In the Loop instead, a much more hilarious and significant film for the time but never rule out the oldies.


At 1 November 2010 at 12:58 , Blogger Fits said...

Marvelous blog, with a valuable perspective.

The thing with Kubrick was his uncanny manner of being brilliant one moment and embarrassingly clunky the next. His tendency to evoke caricature from his actors can be taken many ways by different people, but from Jack Nicholson's "Here's Johnny", to Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket, and culminating with the cannot watch with a straight face "Eyes Wide Shut", is proof positive that at times the man simply could not wrench the personae he wanted from one character or another and settled for slapstick.

We are left wondering if he truly knew the difference.


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