The hypothetical prospect of total nuclear annihilation provided the satirical content of Stanley Kubrick’s jet-black comedy.
The question asked by the movie (based on a Peter George novel called Red Alert) was, what would happen if an insane Communist-hating US Army General – fearful that the Reds are fluoridating US drinking water in order to pollute American bodily fluids – initiated a B-52 attack on the Soviet Union?
And what would happen if the General committed suicide before deciphering the code that could recall the bombers?
Furthermore, what would happen if the Russians themselves had their own Doomsday device – a weapon with the power to eliminate the entire planet?
In an attempt to arrive at the inevitable answers, Kubrick created a frighteningly comic gallery of grotesque incompetents whose titanic ineptitude tickled the funny bone while, at the same time, tingling the spine and raising the hair on the back of your neck.
A monumental sick joke whose tone was best illustrated by having Vera Lynn sing We’ll Meet Again as the bomb finally drops on Russia, it was (and remains) the most chilling anti-nuclear statement ever made.
In his portrayal of the bald President Muffley of the USA, his technical expert (the metal-clawed ex-Nazi Dr Strangelove) and the sensible British Officer, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, Peter Sellers contributed three more brilliant characterisations to his collection.
“I’m sorry too Dimitri . . . I’m very sorry . . . Alright, you’re sorrier than I am, but I am sorry as well . . . I am as sorry as you are, Dimitri! Don’t say that you’re more sorry than I am, because I’m capable of being just as sorry as you are . . . so we’re both sorry, alright?! . . . Alright.”
Sellers was originally cast in four roles but had trouble with the Texas accent for Major ‘King’ Kong, the redneck pilot, and told Stanley Kubrick that he would be unable to play the part.
After Sellers broke his leg while getting out of his car, Kubrick had no choice but to find a replacement for him in the role.
Remembering him from the 1961 Western One Eyed Jacks, Kubrick cast former rodeo rider Slim Pickens as Kong.
Pickens was never told the movie was a black comedy – he was acting as if he was in a serious drama – and provided the film with its most memorable image when in the climactic final moments, he hurtles to his destruction straddling the atomic bomb.
George C Scott was scarifying as Air Force General Buck Turgidson, while Sterling Hayden (as the lunatic USAF General Jack D. Ripper whose obsession brings the world to an end) found just the right balance between caricature and credibility.
Group Captain Lionel Mandrake/President Merkin Muffley/Dr Strangelove
General “Buck” Turgidson
George C Scott
General Jack D Ripper
Colonel “Bat” Guano
Major TJ “King” Kong
Ambassador de Sadesky
Lieutenant Lothar Zogg
James Earl Jones
Lieutenant H R Dietrich
Lieutenant W D Kivel
Captain G A “Ace” Owens
Lieutenant B Goldberg