Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, Peter George
Based on the book 'Red Alert' by: Peter George
Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens
Country: USA, UK
Running Time: 95 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
The Cold War, Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Wall... the context of Dr Strangelove is well known. And the genius of the film is well known.
My few paltry words of praise won't add much to the encomium the film has rightly received. The best bits have wormed their way well into popular culture, so I can quite safely write 'no fighting in the war room' without outraged cries of 'spoilers.'
So, rather than add to the deserving reams of praise, I thought I would focus on the extras on this Criterion release.
The ‘Inside Dr. Strangelove’ documentary is a good starting point. Snippets of enlightenment pop up regularly, and often reinforced the positive views I have about the film and its production. For example, in preparation, Kubrick apparently read more than 50 books on the subject. The 1958 novel ‘Red Alert’ was originally earmarked to be given a serious film treatment, to be called ‘Edge of Doom’. But comedy was agreed upon as a better vehicle to deliver the messages therein.
The facts were just too incredible to be considered as anything other than satirical. Nuclear gamesmanship is better portrayed in a 'nightmare comedy.' These revelations came from an interview with the wife and son of the screenwriter Terry Southern, who was described as an existential hipster, a cross between the beat generation and Hollywood. It was at this point it struck me that the voice-over has an amusingly 'American earnest' tone. It sounds like a spoof – it isn’t – but be prepared.
Lots of people gave their time to flesh out the processes and thinking behind the film: James Earl Jones, various producers, wardrobe folks, designers and more. There are fascinating glimpses of support material, such as the initial sketches for the war room set. And lots of trivia: for example, the central table in the war room was 22 feet in diameter - maybe useful if you need a pub quiz question.
Better known information is also covered, such as the controversies around the accuracy of the B-52 interior. Even Kubrick was concerned that the sources of research were legitimate, and checked on that with his designer.
The flying shots are taken from green screening real flights across Greenland and the Arctic, where the crew even encountered the actual US Air force.
An insight into Peter Sellers' improvisation, and his dropping out (almost literally) from the B-52 captain role, is also very engaging. This led to the employment, and subsequent renowned performance, of Slim Pickens who, we learn, had never previously even left the US.
A rival production, 'Fail Safe', was threatened by Kubrick and Columbia Pictures with legal action on the less than solid ground that its source book plagiarised the Strangelove source. They succeeded in delaying its opening till after Dr Strangelove.
Another interesting aspect covered here is sexual imagery that many seem to miss. The ‘fornicating planes’ with background music 'Try a Little Tenderness,' for example. And look out for the titular spelling error.
In an amazing synchronicity alert, Nov 22 1963 was the original screening date. This becomes even more relevant when the film finally did open in the scene where, going through the emergency pack on the plane Slim Pickens is heard to say: 'A fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas'. However, his lips clearly shape out 'Dallas'.
Other short extras cover Peter Sellers' performance; several promotional interviews from 1963 - interesting to watch with the later revelation that George C Scott's performances were selected by Kubrick to show up his more extreme silly performances – and a few trailers. The trailers are interesting period pieces with the fast edit theatrical trailer a particular curiosity, almost like a little jazz performance in itself.
There are a couple of items especially produced for the Criterion release: an interview with the son of novelist Pete George, who wrote the book upon which Dr Strangelove is based; and an interview with Rodney Hill on the archetypes in the film.
This release is excellent – it starts with a great film, of course – but also gives an insight into the working practices of at least two geniuses and is an interesting social document on the tensions of the time. Enjoy!
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is released on Blu-Ray on 25th July in the UK by The Criterion Collection. The label doesn't disappoint in its world renowned reputation for treating titles with the respect they deserve, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio and providing a print which looks great.
Here is the full list of special features:
• New interviews with Stanley Kubrick scholars Mick Broderick (19:14) and Rodney Hill (17:25); archivist Richard Daniels (14:15); cinematographer and camera innovator Joe Dunton; camera operator Kelvin Pike (12:13); and David George, son of Peter George, on whose novel Red Alert the film is based (10:57)
• The Art of Stanley Kubrick (13:50)
• Inside Dr. Strangelove (46:04)
• No Fighting in the War Room (30:04)
• Best Sellers (18:28)
• Excerpts from a 1965 audio interview with Kubrick, conducted by physicist and author Jeremy Bernstein (3:06)
• Four short documentaries, about the making of the film, the sociopolitical climate of the period, the work of actor Peter Sellers, and the artistry of Kubrick
• Interviews from 1963 with Sellers and actor George C. Scott (7:16)
• Excerpt from a 1980 interview with Sellers from NBC’s Today show (4:23)
• PLUS: An essay by scholar David Bromwich and a 1962 article by screenwriter Terry Southern on the making of the film