Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, James Earl Jones

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Expectations: High. I adore Kubrick and I’d only seen this once before.


Stanley Kubrick is one of my favorite directors, but this film has always been something of an enigma to me. I only saw it once, about 10 years ago or so, and at the time I enjoyed it but I just didn’t think it was as amazing as everyone else seemed to think it was. It had been built up as one of the great screen comedies, but for me it didn’t deliver at that level. I got the satire, but it’s more of a slight smile throughout kind of movie, instead of a raucous laughter kind of movie. I was really into Billy Wilder comedies at the time so I guess subconsciously I went in expecting something in that vein. This time around, obviously, I knew what I was getting myself into. That helped quite a bit and my second viewing of Dr. Strangelove was a much more pleasant experience.

The plot follows three separate but connected stories. There’s the story of Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) who orders his planes to commence “Wing Attack Plan R.” There’s also the story of the B-52 Bomber crew on their run towards their target inside Communist Russia. Finally, we have the War Room, where the President and many top advisors, including Gen. Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) argue the fate of the world. The plots are skillfully intertwined and perfectly play off of one another. Sterling Hayden is fantastic and reminds me a lot of Clint Eastwood in this cigar-chompin’ role. I’ve always felt that he is one of the great actors that doesn’t get enough credit these days and his performance in Dr. Strangelove is one of his best.

Peter Sellers plays three roles in the film. First is Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, an RAF officer stationed at Gen. Ripper’s base. Next is President Merkin Muffley, who has his scenes entirely in the War Room. The last role is the title character, Dr. Strangelove, a wheelchair-bound, former Nazi scientist. Each role is distinct and fun to watch, but my favorite is probably the mild-mannered President. His hilarious phone call with the Soviet premier was one of my favorite scenes in the film. The meek nature of the character also plays incredibly well off of George C. Scott’s exaggerated, wild performance. I read that Kubrick had to tell Scott that they were filming warm-up takes to get him to go so over-the-top. Scott felt disrespected and vowed never to work with Kubrick again, but the performance stands near the top of his career and it’s one of my favorite parts about the film.

The satire present in the film still resonates in the current global climate, which is an achievement for a 46-year-old film, but in the real world we should see this as decidedly less than an achievement. 46 years is long enough for times to have changed and moved on, problems resolved, wounds healed. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case, and is at least in part responsible for the continued success of Kubrick’s film.

As I think about each element of the film, I am realizing that I like the film a lot more than was first apparent. All of the performances are great and the three-story nature of the film keeps it endlessly interesting. And it would be wrong of me not to mention how awesome Slim Pickens is in his role as the bomber pilot. Originally, Peter Sellers was to play this role also, but I’m so glad it didn’t work out. Pickens is perfect and lends a realistic credibility to the film. He’s pretty much the only one in it that plays their part straight, without any hint of the comedic. This was the character I latched onto when I first saw the film and his final moments on-screen, riding the bomb, are among the most famous in film history.

It’s one of the great satires and I feel that after watching it a second time I have peeled back another layer of its onion-like structure. I can see myself enjoying this more and more every time I watch it. It’s not my favorite Kubrick movie, but it’s still damn good.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgd_aJBBRfs

11 comments to Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

  • Fantastic–I was just thinking about this movie myself for a review. After Kubrick made Eyes Wide Shut, almost all confidence in him was lost except this film kept him hanging on by a thread. I think Sellers should have gotten the Oscar he was always chasing before he died for his roles as Mandrake and Dr. Strange Love with his performance in this movie.

    • I like Eyes Wide Shut. It’s a bit long, but I attribute that to Kubrick’s death. He would’ve tightened it up a bit. But it’s still an excellent film, amazing lighting and cinematography work. I agree that Sellers should have gotten an Oscar, but that year was My Fair Lady’s so it was not to be. I think in hindsight most people would give it to him though.

  • Sellers should have gotten in this one or at a minimum for Being There well. You liked Eyes Wide Shut? The only thing I really like about it was that we got to see Ryan O’Neal in a decent film again after he took some sort of hiatus we also saw him in Less Than Zero but–anyways I am getting off topic.

    • Yeah I like Eyes Wide Shut a lot. I’ve seen it a number of times and I still love it. Ryan O’Neal isn’t in EWS as far as I’m aware though. You might be thinking of Barry Lyndon? Love that one too. Kubrick’s at the top of my list.

  • You are right I always get those two mixed up.

  • I didn’t die laughing when watching this movie. However, I got the satire most of the time, and it made me chuckle a couple of times.

  • I still feel the same way you did the first time you watched this. Got the satire, but it was more just thinking “that’s kind of clever” for each joke rather than actually laughing out loud. Still haven’t been able to enjoy this movie (which some of my friends consider blasphemous). It’s literally the only Kubrick film I don’t like.

    • Yeah it’s still not a laugh out loud movie for me either, I was just able to lock in a lot better than I had the first time. Comedy isn’t Kubrick’s strong suit, but the film is incredibly shot and the performances are great. Minor Kubrick is better than no Kubrick. I’m glad I re-evaluated it, so good luck to you on liking it some day. Thanks for coming by and commenting!

  • JP

    I agree to the extent it was not laugh out funny, but there are some scenes like when the president is talking to Russian premier and arguing over who is more sorry that I find to be just a riot.

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