Much has been written about the great Stanley Kubrick since his death last month, and apart from a quote from Harlan Ellison in the L.A. Times, almost none of the articles have proved even modestly perceptive about his filmmaking. Sure, he was a visionary who, among other things, invented the modern science fiction film with
2001: a Space Odyssey, but he was also a satirist of considerable ability whose entire filmography is soaked with corrosive social satire for which Kubrick is rarely credited. Granted, it’s a bit daunting to show people
A Clockwork Orange and expect them to respond to it as satire, but that’s exactly what it is. It’s pitch-black comedy built on the hypocrisy of modernity and technology, the de-humanizing effect on us all by a society that rarely treats anyone in human terms. You may not think films like
The Shining and
Full Metal Jacket function as satire. See them again. Vicious? Yes, but satire nonetheless.
Kubrick’s greatest, most perfect satire, and the finest black comedy ever produced – Dr. Strangelove – has become such a part of popular film culture that it’s difficult to believe that anyone even half-way serious about film doesn’t know the film inside and out. It’s one of those rare comic films that actually gets funnier with repeated viewings, and although the comedy might have seemed edgier when the film was released a few years after the Cuban missile crisis, it remains remarkably fresh, and, startlingly, even more plausible in its depiction of the possible end of the world.
Sterling Hayden plays Air Force general Jack D. Ripper, a psychotic who believes his “precious bodily fluids” are being infiltrated by communism via fluoridation of water and thus launches a nuclear air strike on Russia. Ripper’s Executive Officer, Royal Air Force Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers in three roles here) sees that Ripper is absolutely “mad as a bloody March hare,” but must humor him to obtain the secret code to recall planes back to base. Meanwhile, President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again), a liberal Adlai Stevenson-like president, calls the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Pentagon’s war room. General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott) advises a full nuclear strike since things have already begun to spin towards annihilation. Turgidson tells the president “I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed, by I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed tops – depending on the breaks.” Meanwhile. Major T.J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens in a role originally planned as Seller’s fourth role) guides his B-52 under Soviet radar, ready and willing to drop its nuclear payload while Muffley tries to help a drunk Premier Dmitiri Kissoff – in a classic phone call – shoot down all the planes.
There’s much more: Peter Bull as the Russian ambassador DeSadesky, taking useless photos of the war room’s big board right up to the end; Keenan Wynn’s legendary cameo as Colonel “Bat” Guano, who accuses Mandrake of being a “deviated pre-vert”; and Sellers again as the title character, an ex-Nazi scientist patterned after Werner von Braun, whose crippled hand comes to life in a Nazi salute, and tries to strangle its host.
The script by Kubrick, the late, great Terry Southern and Peter George (upon whose 1958 novel
Red Alert this film is based) is alchemy, the photography by Gilbert Taylor peerless, and the acting never less than astonishing. Hayden is absolutely chilling as Ripper, the lunatic General convinced of the incipient communist takeover by fluoridation in water and ice cream – “Ice cream, Mandrake. Children’s ice cream!” “Good Lord, Jack!” Mandrake replies, fully understanding how insane Ripper is and how serious the situation. This is priceless, essential stuff, and seeing it after Kubrick’s death only affirms how much we have lost.