In the early 1960s, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was wrestling with a screenplay about an accidental nuclear strike.
He was resisting the urge to turn it into a comedy.
His screenplay was an adaptation of the 1958 novel Red Alert by Peter George, a grim story about a mentally-unstable general who orders a nuclear strike on Russia.
“I started work on the screenplay with every intention of making the film a serious treatment of the problem of accidental nuclear war,” said Kubrick. “As I kept trying to imagine the way in which things would really happen, ideas kept coming to me which I would discard because they were so ludicrous. I kept saying to myself: I can’t do this. People will laugh.”¹
Kubrick had dilemma because the early 1960s were a particularly tense time during the cold war. As if day-to-day East-West tensions weren’t bad enough, the U.S. launched the ill-fated Bay of Pigs Invasion on newly-communist Cuba in 1961. Then there was the Russian-American showdown, the Cuban Missile Crisis, in October, 1962.
You can understand Kubrick’s reluctance to parody cold war relations.
However, he realized the script worked best as satire. “The only way to tell the story was as a black comedy,” he said, “or, better, a nightmare comedy, where the things you laugh at most are really the heart of paradoxical postures that make a nuclear war possible…” (ibid).
The screenplay became Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).
Naturally, with such a radical film, casting would be crucial, and Kubrick made clever choices in Sterling Hayden, George C. Scott and Keenan Wynn.
Peter Sellers, who would play three different characters in the film, wasn’t on Kubrick’s casting list. However, Columbia Pictures wanted Sellers and would finance the film only if he played multiple roles.
It would prove to be an ingenious decision.
We are first introduced to Sellers as Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake, an officer on “loan” from the British Government. Mandrake has the misfortune of visiting the military base under the command of paranoid Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden).
In this role, Sellers is a pleasant, mustachioed British gentlemen who sprinkles his conversation with “Jolly good,” and “I say, old boy.” We sense he doesn’t like Ripper – who does? – but he’s a professional making the best of it.
Yet, Sellers’ Mandrake has depth and, as we discover, the stuff that makes a hero. He also helps us see how unhinged Ripper really is. Through Mandrake’s eyes, Ripper moves from laughable caricature to credible nightmare.
Meanwhile, Sellers’ second role is that of U.S. President Merkin Muffley, a balding, unassuming man with a flat, midwestern American accent.
There’s no winking at the audience through Muffley, and there’s certainly no irony. Sellers’ Muffley is a plain-speaking, serious man who allows others to play larger-than life characters. (We’re looking at you, George C. Scott.)
But Muffley is nothing if not a diplomat, and he has a desperate time of it, dealing with Ripper and his men, negotiating with the Russian ambassador, and trying to intercept a bomber with a nuclear warhead.
This is the least colourful of Sellers’ roles, but it’s his restrained performance that, we feel, makes it the most remarkable of the three.
Then there’s Dr. Strangelove himself.
We are introduced to him casually, almost by accident, towards the end of the film.
Strangelove, a former Nazi-scientist-turned-presidential-scientific-advisor, uses a wheelchair and speaks with a forced, tight smile. He is a bizarre man in dark glasses and a suit covered in cigarette ashes.
He suffers from alien hand syndrome, which is “[t]he feeling that one’s hand is possessed by a force outside of one’s control” (medicinenet.com). In Strangelove’s case, his hand* continually wants to give the Nazi salute.
This is the over-the-top Sellers playing an absurd but hypnotic character. (If you’ve seen the film, do you even notice anyone else in these scenes?)
If you haven’t yet experienced this Cold War classic, or if you’ve always wondered why Peter Sellers was a big deal, we urge you to see this film.
¹From “Strangelove’s Durability: In Kubrick’s Words” by Richard Tanne, published with 45th Anniversary Special Edition Blu-ray. (Emphasis theirs.)
*Strangelove’s rogue right hand wears a glove, a tribute to the mad but brilliant scientist Rotwang in 1927’s Metropolis.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Written by Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, Peter George. Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1964, B&W, 95 mins.
This post is part of the Dual Roles Blogathon hosted by Christina Wehner and yours truly. Click HERE to see today’s fab entries.