Stanley Kubrick’s chilling black comedy satirized fanatical cold war militarism. In the hands of the titular character, an ex-nazi scientist loosely based on Werner Von Braun, the theory of Mutual Assured Destruction was truly MAD and a virtual guarantee of mutual assured destruction.
In Dr. Strangelove, the team of Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter Sellers sharpens the humanitarian message of such works as On the Beach and Fail-Safe by subjecting the bomb-induced paranoia of our era to ironic laughter. Irony is a very tricky implement for operating on the mass mind, and it remains to be seen whether in sharpening their position they may not also have narrowed it. In any case, they have made from Peter George’s novel Red Alert a picture that is hideously funny, in the full meaning of the adverb.
The events and personnel of Dr. Strangelove are the familiar ingredients of a considerable anti-annihilation literature–the air force general who decides on his own that the hour to strike has struck, the safety device that fails to operate, the indoctrinated bomber crew that commits total murder with the trustfulness of good children, the anachronistic staff officer who sees himself charging the foe with the ghost of Patton at his elbow, the decent, mediocre American President who reasons desperately on the phone with a hysterical Russian premier, the heavily accented mathematical logician who plays doomsday chess–none of these is a fresh invention in the prophetic journalism of the day. But as anyone who has read Flash and Filigree or The Magic Christian would expect, Terry Southern has keyed the script to a ghastly slapstick and an unblinking nihilism that are new in the counteroffensive to brinkmanship.
His SAC general (Sterling Hayden) is not only irrational on the subject of Russia: he has lost his reason entirely and launches mankind’s farewell war to protect the purity of his bodily fluids. And the bomber pilot (Slim Pickens), when the “go” signal reaches him at his patrol station, exchanges his crash helmet for a Texas cowhand’s Stetson and takes off after the target with the ribald exuberance of a sheriff’s posse.
The third officer in this lunatic triangle is a Pentagon staff general (George C. Scott) who is preserved in innocence by an impenetrable vulgarity. He cannot distinguish between nuclear war and the Rose Bowl game, he sees world tensions only in terms of what guys we can beat (never mind how we beat them). The spectacle of George Scott salivating over the prospect of destroying every human being east of the Danube at the cost of only a few million American lives is a tour de force in nausea. It is matched in this film only by the shots of American soldiers killing one another for possession of an air force base somewhere in the Southwest.