On January 30, 1964, with the Cuban Missile Crisis a recent memory, Stanley Kubrick took a diversionary approach to Cold War tensions by releasing Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It was the first time an American film director had dared to cloak a serious political statement in black comedy. Kubrick said that he had set out to make an earnest movie but decided that the nuclear destruction scenarios he had studied were too absurd to be played as anything but grim farce.
Kubrick’s daring vision convulsed audiences and most critics, who were also impressed with the film’s authentic details. The B-52 bomber’s interior was so convincing that U.S. Air Force officials demanded to know how Kubrick had managed to replicate it. He hadn’t: The offending set was a brilliant speculation, culled from aviation books and magazines. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther led a small, vocal backlash, admiring some of the performances but calling the finale — in which a Russian nuclear device incinerates the earth’s surface — ”malefic and sick.”
Strangelove production designer Ken Adam, 69, wonders what such naysayers would have made of the original ending. ”We filmed a gigantic pie fight in the War Room,” he says, ”with George C. Scott swinging from that lighting fixture.” But by the time Kubrick began previews, President Kennedy had been shot, and a closing scene ”with the President sitting on the floor covered in custard” simply wouldn’t fly, says Adam. Another key revision came when Peter Sellers — originally cast to play not only President Merkin Muffley, Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake, and the title role, but also the bomb-riding Major T.J. ”King” Kong — broke an ankle a week into filming his cockpit scenes. ”That,” says Adam, ”was the official reason Peter lost the (Kong) role.” In fact, according to Adam, Kubrick didn’t like Sellers’ characterization and was secretly relieved when the injury provided an excuse to hire Slim Pickens instead.
The threat of nuclear war remains an overriding concern for Kubrick. He recently told Entertainment Weekly, ”The nightmare themes portrayed in Dr. Strangelove will be with us as long as we have nuclear weapons. Many experts believe the most likely nuclear war might arise from accident, miscalculation, or madness, which might then go quickly out of control due to the problems of authenticating what each side is saying or doing, and the sudden failure of communications, probably caused by the radiation effects of nuclear explosions.”
Ironically, Kubrick’s cautionary movie itself came close to annihilation. Even as recent critical surveys were ranking Strangelove among the greatest American films, Kubrick discovered, after a two-year search for the original negative, that Columbia Studios had lost virtually all of it (only one mutilated reel remained). He has since created duplicate negatives using a fine-grain master positive, thus insuring that his masterpiece will be around for future generations.
TIME CAPSULE JAN. 30, 1964
Dwight Eisenhower’s Mandate for Change and John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage top the best-seller list; The Beatles ride high on the pop charts with ”I Want to Hold Your Hand,” in its fourth week at No. 1; and The Beverly Hillbillies is the most watched TV show.