Comedy · War

Peter Sellers presents: The Cold War

Slim Pickens in one of the best gifs ever. Source: Giphy
Slim Pickens in the best gif ever. Source: Giphy

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.

Peter Sellers as upper-crust Lionel Mandrake. Image: Giphy
Peter Sellers as upper-crust Lionel Mandrake. Image: Giphy

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.

Sellers as Muffley. Image: Giphy
Sellers as President Merkin Muffley. Image: Giphy

Meanwhile, Sellers’ second role is that of U.S. President Merkin Muffley, a balding, unassuming man with a flat, midwestern American accent.

They say Sellers based this character on Adlai Stevenson, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. (You can watch a short video of Stevenson speaking to the U.N. here.)

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.

Sellers as the strange Dr Strangelove. Image: Giphy
Sellers as the strange Dr Strangelove. Image: Giphy

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?)

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was one of the first films to be chosen for the National Film Registry, and is #3 on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs list.

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.

One of the film's most iconic lines. Image: Giphy
The film’s most iconic line. Image: Giphy

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.

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38 thoughts on “Peter Sellers presents: The Cold War

  1. After hearing so much about this film, I finally checked it out a few years ago. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I didn’t get it. At all. I found Sellers funny, but for the most part, I felt underwhelmed. No one else seems to share this opinion, though, and I’ve been meaning to give it another watch. I don’t know if it’s the political aspect of it or because it’s Stanley Kubrick, a filmmaker I respect but I’m not super fond of. I’m growing to appreciate Sellers much more, however, so I think I owe it to him to give the movie a second chance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The first time I watched this film I was rather lukewarm, too. But I watched it again a few years later and liked it much better. However, I’m not saying that would be the case with you, should you decide to watch it again. I can see how it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

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  2. It’s funny that, so much does Sellers permeate this movie, I was initially incredulous when you said he played just three roles.

    Author Peter George committed suicide not so long after the movie was made, and persistent rumor has it that this was because what Kubrick had done to his Dire Warning novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sellers does shine, indeed! I can’t think of another actor who could have matched his performances in this film.

      I never thought of the Henry Kissinger angle when writing this post. I’m going to look up Kissinger videos on YouTube and compare them to Sellers’ character.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That is interesting how Kubrick set out to make a serious film and it turned into a comedy – . that sometimes the best way to say something serious is with humor. He seems to have succeeded brilliantly! I’m definitely going to have to follow your advice and see this one.

    So far, my experience with Peter Sellers has been largely limited to his role as Inspector Clouseau. I didn’t even know he was a British actor for the longest (most embarrassing) time! I somehow assumed he was an American (very embarrassing).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed – it’s interesting that Kubrick ended up parodying the cold war, but still made a thought-provoking film.

      Have you seen Failsafe with Henry Fonda? It was released shortly after Strangelove, and deals with the exact same cold war situation, but it’s done as a drama. And it’s a good drama – Fonda is fabulous in it – but it doesn’t have the same impact as Strangelove.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve not seen that one – that is fascinating, though, that it doesn’t make the same impact. Do you think some things are simply too terrible or too vast for us to take in, that only humor allows us to grasp it in some way?

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      1. I saw it on the big screen too, not I think during the first London run but a little after — there was a cinema on Oxford Street that tended to revive movies a while after their first run. To be honest, at the time I preferred Fail Safe. I was a serious adolescent.

        Still am . . .

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Pretty minimal, as I recall. Some laughter, but the house was never brought down. To repeat, this is just as I recall it — I may be wrong. It was a long time ago, young whippersnapper.

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  4. A great critique of a truly wonderful film, made all the better by Peter Sellers. It’s fascinates me how satire can be used to bring some very dire situations to light. Sure, we laugh throughout the film but, once the final credits have rolled and the laughter ends, who hasn’t thought, “But what if … “.

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    1. I love the scene where Slim Pickens receives “The Orders”, and he gives an inspirational speech to the crew on the B-52. It’s well done and somewhat moving. It’s one of my fave scenes in the movie.

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  5. Well, I have a funny story of how I decided to watch Dr Strangelove instead of going to college… I’ll tell it someday.
    Sellers is fantastic, and was already fantastic in his three roles in The mouse that Roared. In Strangelove he gives a bigger impression, and I agree with you that you can’t notice anyone else on the screen when Strangelove is talking.
    Thanks for co-hosting this great event! It was double the usual fun!
    Kisses!
    Le

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