WAR ON FILM – Dr Strangelove

12 mins read

Taylor Downing delves into the weird world of Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War black comedy.

Columbia Pictures insisted that Peter Sellers appeared in the movie due to the success of the previous Kubrick/Sellers team-up film Lolita. He ended up playing three characters in total, including the bizarre and insane Dr Strangelove.
Columbia Pictures insisted that Peter Sellers appeared in the movie due to the success of the previous Kubrick/Sellers team-up film Lolita. He ended up playing three characters in total, including the bizarre and insane Dr Strangelove.

After making his First World War epic Paths of Glory (see MHM 40), Stanley Kubrick directed two movies, Spartacus (1960) again with Kirk Douglas and Lolita with Peter Sellers (finished in 1961). Then, during the early 1960s, he became fascinated by the escalating tension of the Cold War.

In the spring of 1960 the Russians shot down an American U2 spy plane and captured its pilot and all his cameras. In the Presidential election of that year the Cold War loomed large, as the Americans (wrongly) feared a ‘missile gap’ in which the Soviets had more nuclear missiles than they did.

In 1961, a CIA supported invasion of Cuba backfired and the ultimate Cold War symbol, the Berlin Wall, was built. Behind this growing tension was the macabre shadow of the thousands of nuclear weapons accumulated by the Soviets and the Americans and the possibility that they would one day be used, possibly by accident, resulting in nuclear Armageddon.

By the early 1960s the Americans kept 12 B-52 bombers fully armed with nuclear weapons constantly airborne on patrol ready to strike at targets within the Soviet Union, in an operation known as Chrome Dome. Kubrick read avidly about the mechanics of the nuclear threat and subscribed to journals and magazines about military weapons. Then he read a novel by a British writer, Peter George, who had been a Flight Lieutenant in the RAF but who had become thoroughly disillusioned with the whole concept of nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction.

The novel Two Hours to Doom (Red Alert in the US) imagined a scenario in which a commander of an American air base became depressed after being diagnosed with a fatal illness and ordered his B-52 bombers to attack targets inside the Soviet Union. The commander sealed his base knowing that an attacking force would soon arrive to try to discover the recall code that only he knew.

In the War Room under the Pentagon, the American President and his chiefs of staff eventually decided to help the Russians shoot down the B-52 bombers but agreed with the Soviets that if a Russian city was bombed, Strategic Air Command would itself bomb Atlantic City. In the end the only bomb that got through the Russian defences landed in open country and there was no need to nuke Atlantic City. The book ended on an optimistic note, with the American and Russian leaders agreeing they must avoid such risks in the future.

Preparing to film

Kubrick purchased the film rights to the book for the laughably low sum of $3,500. Peter George flew to New York where he started to work with Kubrick on writing a screenplay based on his scenario. The script remained totally serious but Kubrick began to think that maybe a subject as awesome as global nuclear destruction needed a different approach and perhaps the only way to treat something on this scale was through humour.

Kubrick started to prepare for filming and began casting just as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded bringing the real possibility of a nuclear conflagration into the headlines. At this point Kubrick met Terry Southern, a freelance Texan writer with a penchant for surreal black comedy. Kubrick decided to ask him to work on the script and with Kubrick he transformed the film into a nightmarish comedy satire.

The film could not be made in the United States so Kubrick decided to film in London at Shepperton Studios. Columbia Pictures provided the finance but were convinced that the success of Lolita was largely down to Peter Sellers so they made it a condition of their involvement that Sellers not only star in the film but play several roles in it.

Kubrick and Southern decided to turn this to their advantage and cast Sellers in four roles: an RAF liaison officer, the melancholy American President, his sinister German security adviser, and as the gung-ho Texan pilot of a B-52. In the end Sellers found the multiple roles too demanding and could not or would not master the Texan accent so an American rodeo cowboy named Slim Pickens was cast as the B-52 captain.

Unable or unwilling to master the Texan accent, Sellers’ potential fourth role was snapped up by the character actor and star of a number of Westerns, Slim Pickens. He brought to the role the Stetson wearing, gung-ho cowboy attitude Kubrick was after.
Unable or unwilling to master the Texan accent, Sellers’ potential fourth role was snapped up by the character actor and star of a number of Westerns, Slim Pickens. He brought to the role the Stetson wearing, gung-ho cowboy attitude Kubrick was after.

There are three principal sets for the film: the air base, the B-52 interior, and the War Room. Kubrick chose as his set designer the German-born Ken Adam who had just designed the magnificent sets for the first James Bond movie Dr No. In particular Kubrick loved the set of the evil scientist’s laboratory and asked Adam to expand on this for the War Room, the central location where American President Merkin Muffley would meet with his chiefs of staff.

Adam’s set had at its centre a huge round table lit from above by a circuit of hanging lights creating a sinister glow over the proceedings. On the walls were giant maps of the Soviet Union with flashing lights to represent the path of American aircraft. Steven Spielberg later described it as the best set ever designed.

Accuracy meets humour

The US Air Force provided no assistance to the film of any sort and so Kubrick and Adam had to invent what the interior of a B-52 cockpit looked like by using technical manuals. They managed this with such accuracy that bomber crews later thought they had somehow infiltrated an American B-52 base. It is this combination of total realism and grotesque humour that gives Dr Strangelove much of its haunting appeal.

The film opens with footage of B-52s flying over the Arctic icecaps and refuelling in mid air cut to the song Try a Little Tenderness. At Burpleson Air base, RAF liaison Group Captain Lionel Mandrake is quietly checking the station computers when the story unravels. The base commander, General Ripper, played by Sterling Hayden with superb paranoia, believes that the Soviets have tried to add fluoridisation to the water supply and have polluted the ‘precious bodily essences’ of the American people. So he has sent the ‘go codes’ to his B-52s on airborne alert to attack targets in the Soviet Union.

In the next main location, the cabin of a B-52, the crew are listlessly whiling away the long, tedious hours on patrol. The captain, Major ‘King’ Kong, reads Playboy while the radio operator plays with a deck of cards like a Mississippi gambler. As the radio bursts into life it sends the code that tells the crew that they must now set their course for a target inside the Soviet Union.

As they slowly convince themselves this is for real they head off for Russia and nuclear annihilation to the tune of When Johnny Comes Marching Home. The imbecilic Major Kong puts on his Stetson and tells the crew ‘There’ll be some important promotions an’ citations when we come through this.’

The film now comes to its third and final principal setting. General Buck Turgidson, played beautifully by George C Scott, is the chief of the US Air Force, and is loosely based on the legendary, bullish commander General Curtis Le May. Kubrick later said that if you confront a man in his office with a nuclear alarm, you will have a documentary. Confront him in his living room and you have a drama. But if he is in the lavatory, you have a comedy.

So when the call comes through that a squadron of B-52s are en route for the Soviet Union, Turgidson is emerging from the ‘john’. His mistress played by Tracy Reed is tanning herself in a bikini under a sun lamp. Reluctantly, Turgidson announces he has to leave her to report to the War Room. Then we are introduced to the central Ken Adam set which contains enough to make it feel real and enough to make it look like a surreal fantasy.

No fighting in the War Room

The War Room provides the final principal setting for the film. Here, the characters fight and talk to the drunk Russian premier, Dmitri.
The War Room provides the final principal setting for the film. Here, the characters fight and talk to the drunk Russian premier, Dmitri.

The staff gathered in the War Room are told what has happened and debate what to do. General Ripper suggests the launch of the B-52s offers an opportunity to destroy the Soviet Union at last. The risk to America will only be ‘10 to 20 million people killed, tops’. The bald headed President Muffley, played by Sellers, refuses. He emerges as the sanest person present in a War Room filled with insanity. The Russian ambassador is called in.

This figure, played by Peter Bull, is based on Anatoly Dobrynin, the long-standing Soviet ambassador in Washington who had provided Kennedy with secret back door access to the Kremlin during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Turgidson spots the ambassador taking photographs of the War Room with a camera hidden in a match box and physically tackles him leading to one of the most exquisite lines in the film, when the President approaches them and says emphatically, ‘Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room.’

The action moves forward rapidly. The US army is tasked with capturing the sealed off air base where General Ripper shoots himself rather than reveal the recall codes. From Ripper’s doodlings, Mandrake calculates what the recall code is but only has access to a public phone box to communicate the vital code. As no one has any cash for the phone, a sceptical Colonel Bat Guano played by Keenan Wynn, has to shoot open a Coke machine. As the world faces nuclear annihilation Guano tells Mandrake ‘You’ll have to answer to the Coca Cola company for this.’

Meanwhile, in the War Room, President Muffley has the most surreal conversation of all when he calls the Russian premier on the hot line. There had been a hot line between London and Washington in the Second World War but a direct phone link between Washington and the Kremlin had only been installed after the Cuban Missile Crisis. With everyone listening in, the President talks calmly with the premier, Dmitri, who it turns out to be drunk and takes some time to understand what’s happening. As though talking to a child, Muffley tries to make it clear, ‘Now, Dmitri, you know we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the Bomb…The BOMB, Dmitri, the hydrogen bomb…’

They try to shoot down the B-52 force but only one missile connects and merely puts out the radio system of Major Kong’s aircraft. As the recall code suggested by Manddrake is used, the B-52s turn about except for Kong’s plane which is unable to receive the signal and carries on.


The Soviet leader makes it clear that they have just installed a Doomsday Machine that automatically launches a full nuclear retaliation if the Soviet Union comes under attack. No human intervention can prevent this. This was an idea Kubrick picked up from a book by Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War.

 Kubrick and Ken Adam recreated the inside of a B-52 so accurately that the US Air Force bomber crews were later convinced that they had managed to infiltrate an American B-52 base.
Kubrick and Ken Adam recreated the inside of a B-52 so accurately that the US Air Force bomber crews were later convinced that they had managed to infiltrate an American B-52 base.

The film now introduces the most bizarre and absurd character of all. Partly based on Edward Teller, the man behind the hydrogen bomb, and partly on Werner von Braun, Hitler’s rocket scientist who had gone to the States to lead the American race to the moon, but mostly the invention of Kubrick and Terry Southern, Dr Strangelove is played with mad intensity by Sellers.

In a wheelchair, he has a gloved right arm that functions uncontrollably and repeatedly goes into a rigid Heil Hitler salute. He even refers to the President as ‘Mein Führer’. The weird doctor calls for a selection of men and some of the most beautiful and fertile women to be sent underground to re-people the earth once the nuclear Armageddon has passed.

Meanwhile, Major Kong finds his hydrogen bomb has stuck in the bomb bay of his B-52. Ken Adams had a problem with this scene as no one knew what a hydrogen bomb looked like. He imagined it like a large, sleek Second World War bomb which Kong goes on to set it free and ride to earth shrieking as though on a rocking bronco.

Kubrick had scripted and shot an entire sequence in the War Room in which everyone engages in an elaborate custard pie fight. He agonised whether to leave this in or not but eventually edited it out.

The final shots of the film are of the ultimate image of the Bomb, one mushroom cloud after another as the Doomsday Machine automatically ignites a nuclear holocaust. On the soundtrack we hear Vera Lynn singing We’ll Meet Again.

The US Air Force asked the film to state that such a sequence of events could never happen. We know, of course, that in the Cold War there was no nuclear accident. Although we are only now coming to realise quite how close the world came. But Dr Strangelove is the ultimate black comedy detailing how human systems can suffer from human failings, and how, when nuclear weapons are at stake, the endgame is extinction. That surely is still relevant more than twenty years after the end of the Cold War.


In the 1950s the US estimated that they would have between four and six hours notice of the approach of Soviet bombers. With the advent of missile technology at the end of the decade this was reduced to a matter of minutes. So an entirely new defensive structure was created.

The US built a new Ballistic Missile Early Warning System with three linked radar tracking stations at Thule in Greenland, Clear in Alaska, and at Fylingdales Moor on the east coast of England. The signals picked up on these three radars were sent back to a giant computer system that would plot any incoming missile and predict its incoming trajectory and impact point.

This was co-ordinated by the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado Springs who would instantly inform the Strategic Air Command (SAC) in their command bunker at Omaha, Nebraska. From 1961, SAC kept at least 12 giant B-52 bombers constantly airborne on patrol, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to be able to strike at targets inside the Soviet Union with only a few minutes’ notice. This was known as Operation Chrome Dome.

Each bomber refuelled in mid air and flew on 24 hour patrols either on a northern route around the Arctic or a southern route around the Mediterranean, within easy striking distance of the Soviet border. Each B-52 was armed with three or four thermonuclear weapons and carried a series of codes with pre-assigned targets across the Soviet Union.

Only a tiny number of people had access to the ‘go-codes’ as they were known but President Eisenhower at the end of his presidency authorised B-52 station commanders to use the ‘go-codes’ in the event of some sort of decapitation strike that had knocked out Washington or the political leadership.

The B-52 that appears in Dr Strangelove was flying one of these 24 hour patrols circling over the Arctic. The purpose of Chrome Dome was to signify to the Soviets that if they launched a missile attack against the United States then massive nuclear retaliation would be immediate and this fact alone would deter the Soviets from ever launching an attack. The system was known as Mutual Assured Destruction – abbreviated to MAD.


In the Second World War, Curtis Le May commanded a B-17 Flying Fortress unit flying bombing missions over Germany from England and he helped to shape the policy of strategic bombing. In 1944 he transferred to the Pacific where he directed the American B-29 Superfortress night bombing campaign against 67 Japanese cities which resulted in fire storms and some of the highest casualties of any wartime bombing.

His policy was summed up as ‘Bombs Away with Curt Le May’. In 1948 Le May took charge of Strategic Air Command (SAC), the US Air Force’s nuclear strike force. He transformed SAC into a well trained force of men who felt themselves to be an elite within the American military.

By 1952, SAC had identified 6,000 targets within the Soviet Union, ranging from military bases to nuclear installations, oil fields, and communication centres. This kept up the need for more and more nuclear weapons and the stockpile rose from 298 atomic bombs in 1950 to 27,100 thermonuclear bombs by 1962.

Throughout the 1950s approximately 40% of all American defence expenditure went on the air force. At the end of the decade, Le May set up Operation Chrome Dome with B-52s on constant airborne alert. In 1961, Le May became Chief of Staff of the US Air Force and as such adopted a consistently belligerent line. In the Cuban Missile Crisis he urged President Kennedy to bomb the Soviet missile sites on the island. Kennedy resisted his pressure and Le May concluded the President was a coward.

In the mid-1960s he advocated the heavy bombing of North Vietnam which President Johnson agreed to. He retired in 1965 and in the presidential election of 1968 stood as the running mate of right wing candidate Governor George Wallace. Le May was usually guarded in his public comments but was accused of having said that the US ‘should bomb the Soviet Union back into the Stone Age’. He denied this.

The character of General Turgidson in Dr Strangelove who argues that the President should let the B-52 bombers attack the Soviet Union and risk a few million American casualties is loosely based on Curtis Le May.

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