How could we possibly appreciate the Mona Lisa if Leonardo [Leonardo Da Vinci] had written at the bottom of the canvas, ‘The lady is smiling because she is hiding a secret from her lover’? This would shackle the viewer to reality, and I don`t want this to happen to 2001.- Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick is one of those directors, who strongly believe in the cinema being a visual medium, and let the audience interpret it. Not for Kubrick, the method of spoon feeding the audience, at every moment, and every scene, making it way too obvious. When i first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, while the opening sequence was brilliant, especially the shot of the apes throwing the bone and that cutting into a spaceship, to the strains of Thus Spake Zarathustra, the rest of the movie was a blur to me. Yes it was visually brilliant, but i was not really in the right frame of mind to understand the complexities. Subsequent viewings later on, and then me understanding about cinema being a visual medium, and what Kubrick essentially intended. Throw the images at the audience and let them figure it out. Its like a piece of stone, can mean different things to a philosopher and a shepherd, yet both are right in their own way. Kubrick’s movies are essentially open ended, layered, and deciphering them can be frustrating at the best of times. It is not that Kubrick can’t make a movie with a straight forward conventional narrative, he did it with Spartacus and the first of his celebrated anti war trilogy- Paths of Glory, which showcased the hollow and exploitative nature of the military set up, as the French officers cover up their own strategic failures and blunders by choosing to make scapegoats of 3 subordinate soldiers.
From the trenches of Europe during WW1, Kubrick’s next movie in his anti war trilogy, was a searing black comedy satire of the Cold War military establishment. It is quite an irony though that the character immortalized through this movie, was not a part of the original novel Red Alert, on which the movie was based. It was Kubrick and screenplay writer Terry Southern, who created the memorable character of Dr. Strangelove, just for the movie alone. Futurist Herman Kahn, mathematician John Von Neumann, rocket scientist Werner Von Braun and the father of the Hydrogen Bomb, Dr. Edward Teller, were the inspirations for one of cinema’s most iconic screen villains. Neummann of course one of my idols being a die hard techie, and both Werner Von Braun , Edward Teller get my respect for being some of the most brilliant scientists of the time. Dr. Strangelove came at a time, when the Cold War was it’s highest intensity level, Bay of Pigs had bought the US and USSR close to confrontation point, the nuclear arms race was hotting up with Cuba being the pawn in the chess piece out here, and Castro merrily mocking the US, and then in 1963 JFK was assassinated, leading to a wide range of conspiracy theories ranging from the FBI to the Mafia to the KGB, which to date has not been really resolved. In a strange way the 60′s was a time of irony, while the US and the USSR continued their Tu Tu Main Main, threatening to go to war, but fortunately never did, on the other side, flower power, counter culture, pacifist , anti nuclear movements were breaking out.
Stanley Kubrick’s primary motivation though was satirizing the MAD( Mutual Assured Destruction) policy, that in a way actually prevented the US and USSR from indulging in a full scale armed conflict. As Kubrick himself explained later
My idea of doing it as a nightmare comedy came in the early weeks of working on the screenplay. I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question.
The reason for Herman Kahn being one of the influences behind the character of Dr. Strangelove was due to the fact that Kahn was one of the persons who formulated the entire idea of MAD. He came out with the doomsday scenario of no winners in a nuke war.
The satirical anti nuclear message is conveyed in the very opening shot, the camera tracking a cloud cover from the top, no music, just the sound of the air whizzing around, some peaks of the Rockies sticking out. No human beings around, and the narrator’s VO about a secret Doomsday machine being constructed in one of the Arctic wastelands.
What they were building, or why it should be located in such a remote and desolate place, no one could say.
The cloud formation metaphorically conveying the idea of the mushroom cloud after a nuke explosion, and the fact that humans are virtually eliminated during a nuke exploration. Here i feel Kubrick was straight away using the visual leit motif to drive home the point of desolation and devastation that usually accompanies a nuclear war. The opening credits flash across the screen, in the form of scrawled, hand drawn letters, across the image of a B 52 Nuclear bomber being refueled in the air. While many critics, have drawn out sexual references in the scene, to me they come much later in the movie. I feel the sexual love thingy was maybe because of the romantic Try a Little Tenderness soundtrack that plays somewhere in the background.
The B 52 bomber now alights on the Burpelson Air Field, where we come across the command room. The irony is shown with a sign reading “PEACE IS OUR PROFESSION” and then the shot of machines spewing out endless sheets of paper, whose contents we know nothing about. And that is when we come across the first set of characters, Grp. Captain Lionel Mandrake ( the first of the 3 roles Peter Sellers plays) and his neurotic supervisor SAC( Strategic Air Command) General Jack. D. Ripper( Sterling Hayden). Mandrake is the satire of the archetypal stiff, upper lipped, honorable British army officer, a satire on Alec Guiness character in Bridge on the River Kwai. Ripper is the neurotic, paranoid supervisor, who is living under the constant fear of a Russian sneak attack, and has a Plan R in place to deal with it. Honestly though when the motivations of Plan R are revealed much later in the movie, the entire futility of it all is underscored. The sparse looking Air Force base room is one of the 3 settings in which the narration keeps switching back and forth.
The black and white camera work, the sparse setting, the claustrophobia inducing nature of the settings, all in a way de glamorizing the war. What Kubrick is essentially doing here is to strip away all the glory, mysterious romance associated with the military, and show case it as is, a drab, dull, bureaucratic place, filled with boredom and meaninglessness most of the time. The fact is underscored by the second setting of the movie, the interior of a B 52 bomber, one of the many deployed by the US Govt, which is around 2 hrs from Russia. The paranoia of the Govt however does not seem to be shared by the rather bored crew sitting in the bomber, the commander Maj T.J. “King” Kong
, a dim witted, brutish looking Texan who is more interested in the Playboy magazine than anything else. One of the crew members Radio Lt Godie Goldberg
, is munching sandwiches, while another just shuffles some cards along. This is one of the best scenes in the movie. King Kong receives the Plan R orders, and he initially feels its just another joke by his bored crew members. And then Kong shifts from his bored demeanor, satirizing the style of heroes in Hollywood war movies, as it pokes fun at one of the most used cliches in Hollywood war movies, the hero giving the patriotic speech to his men, before the war.
Now look, boys. I ain’t much of a hand at makin’ speeches. But I got a pretty fair idea that somethin’ doggoned important’s going on back there. And I got a fair idea of the kind of personal emotions that some of you fellas may be thinkin’. Heck, I reckon you wouldn’t even be human beins if you didn’t have some pretty strong personal feelings about nuclear combat. But I want you to remember one thing – the folks back home is a countin’ on ya, and by golly, we ain’t about to let ‘em down. Tell ya somethin’ else – this thing turns out to be half as important as I figure it just might be, I’d say that you’re all in line for some important promotions an’ personal citations when this thing’s over with. That goes for every last one of ya, regardless of your race, color, or your creed. Now, let’s get this thing on the hump. We got some flyin’ to do.
As King Kong delivers his “inspirational speech”, the camera now immediately cuts to the hotel suite of Gen “Buck” Turgidson( George C Scott), the hawkish, pleasure loving general, having a jaunt with his pretty, brunette secretary Ms. Scott( Tracy Reed), also doubling up as his mistress. Turgidson gets the call about Plan R, and that’s where you get to hear on the movie’s many sexual innuendoes.
I know how it is, baby. Tell you what you do. You just start your countdown, and old Bucky’ll be back here before you can say…Blast Off!
Again the traditional Hollywood cliche of the hero addressing his men, alerting them is satirized here, as Buck creates the military state like environment among his people.
Your commie has no regard for human life, not even his own. And for this reason, men, I want to impress upon you the need for extreme watchfulness. The enemy may come individually, or he may come in strength. He may even come in the uniform of our own troops. But however he comes, we must stop him. We must not allow him to gain entrance to this base.
Basically Buck is sort of adopting a 3 rules of extreme paranoia, Trust no one, anything approaching close to be fired upon, and finally shoot first, ask later. Typical of the Cold War paranoia, when reasoning and logic were given the go by, it was more like “You not with us, you are against us”. Things have not changed much, considering what George Bush had done, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Mandrake is the lone sensible voice in the madness prevailing around, he is convinced that the whole thing is a set up, as evident from the standard civilian stuff being played on the radio. As also his superior Ripper’s attitude of not “questioning orders”, which indeed convinces him that “we don’t want to start a nuclear war unless we really have to, do we?”. Jack. D. Ripper is as much of a psychotic as his more famous namesake. He is crazed, seeing enemies everywhere, delusional, i guess this was pretty much satirizing John Wayne’s Gung ho war hero persona.
I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.
And that is where the movie jumps to the main setting of the movie, the President’s War Room. Excellent camera work here, panning from the top, the lights illuminating the President and also Commander in Chief, Merkin Muffey( Peter Sellers again), poring over the Big Board, a huge display, strategic map that shows the positions of the bombers, with his advisers huddled around it. Again pretty much satirizing most of the standard Cold War conspiracy thriller movies, as also some of the 007 flicks. But the important issue comes out right here, the fact is the unilateral decision taken by Buck and Ripper about Plan R is now threatening to turn out into a full fledged nuclear conflict, that would actually wipe out half of the nation. As stated, there are no winners in a nuclear war. Bringing us to one of the best scenes ever, the President now realizing that a massive fuck up has occured, something which could potentially devastate the entire nation. Buck realizing he has been caught pants down, trying to convince the President that they would ultimately benefit. The President however is convinced that Ripper is clearly psychotic, questioning the efficiency of the tests, Buck trying to counter him. Ripper does not really care what the Prez thinks, he lives in his own delusional world. When finally Buck finds that the President is not amused with his strategy, he falls back on rhetoric.
Mr. President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth…Now, truth is not always a pleasant thing, but it is necessary now to make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless, distinguishable post-war environments. One, where you got 20 million people killed, and the other where you got 150 million people killed.
Or what you call the “greater common good” or collateral damage stuff. What happens next, has to be watched on the screen, as the narration keeps switching between the 3 major points- the bomber, the air force base and the War room.
Dr. Strangelove was what made me a die hard Kubrick fan. The satire is brilliant, witty and hits straight at the gut. Be it the sexual innuendoes in the names( King Kong, Buck, Jack D Ripper, Mandrake) or the take offs on real life Cold War persona, the Russian president is called Dmitri Kissof, the biting satire in the dialogues, the exagerated mannerisms of the characters, the writing is of the highest quality. Each and every character is brilliantly etched out, not just Peter Seller’s 3 roles, but even those of Buck, Ripper, King Kong. Watch out for the scene, where the US President has a direct hot line call with the Russian Premier, George Scott’s expressions as he watches him trying to placate his Soviet counterpart, just brilliant. In fact the conversation on the hot line between Prez Merkin Muffey and the Russian Premier, pretty much echoes the way our India Pakistan leaders discuss issues. And yes the last 15 minutes of the film, is unadulterated chaos. This is one of the best cult movies ever, to be watched and enjoyed, for it’s ironic take on the Cold War MAD theory, and of course for Peter Sellers.