The Set of 400: #1 – My Favorite Combination Russian Phrasebook and Bible

Today! Because you can’t fight in here, this is the war room –

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick (x7)

Starring Peter Sellers (x5), George C. Scott (x3), Sterling Hayden (x3), Slim Pickens (x3), Keenan Wynn (x2), Peter Bull (x2), James Earl Jones (x8), Shane Rimmer (x3), Tracy Reed

Folks, you may have never expected us to reach the end of this journey – God knows, I didn’t – but nonetheless, here we are! 400 posts, 265,000 words, and a lot more praise for Teen Wolf than the average person could muster, and we’ve finally come to the grand conclusion! My favorite movie of all-time, at least 70% of the time, Stanley Kubrick’s darkly comedic apocalyptic global thermonuclear satire, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Featuring a triple performance from the unparalleled Peter Sellers and an unhinged, over-the-top turn from George C. Scott as war monger Buck Turgidson (the role that kicked off my long affection for Scott’s work), Strangelove shares a fair number of similarities with my other favorite movie, yesterday’s Duck Soup, as they both poke fun at international politics, jingoistic armed conflict negotiation, and gloriously inflated government egos. The difference, obviously, is that the fate of the entire world is at stake in Strangelove, due to one rogue lunatic, where nuclear weapons were still some years away when Duck Soup went before the cameras in 1933.

And this is not even the rogue lunatic in question

Strangelove also began the stretch of Kubrick’s career that came to define him – if such a thing was really possible. Prior to 1964, Kubrick had put together three very different, complicated pictures – the somber war film Paths of Glory, a non-traditional Hollywood epic in Spartacus, and the insane degree of difficulty adaptation of Lolita. All are triumphs, but feel very much like other hands were deeply involved in the constructions. Starting with Strangelove, Kubrick becomes the main figure in everything he makes – the shoots take longer, the attention to detail is wildly enhanced, and the reputation/legend grows exponentially. In the following decades, despite only directing seven movies, Kubrick manages to helm one of the greatest sci-fi films (2001), post-apocalyptic fantasies (Clockwork Orange), horror movies (The Shining), war pictures (Full Metal Jacket), comedies (Strangelove), period costume painting come to life (Barry Lyndon), and Tom Cruise sex flicks (Eyes Wide Shut) ever made. I think sometimes people are reticent to automatically name Kubrick the greatest director ever because his output was so low, but considering how he mastered so many different genres and made (relatively) few non-exemplary films, I have a tough time placing anyone ahead of him.

The famous twists and turns producing Strangelove are also fascinating – maybe more than any other Kubrick film. It began as a drama, a straight adaptation of Peter George’s novel Red Alert, only transitioning to comedy once the appeal of the inherent absurdity grew. Sellers was originally to perform four characters, adding bomber pilot Major Kong to his work as President Merkin Muffley, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and Dr. Strangelove himself, before dropping the good ol’ boy character due to accent difficulties/an injury preventing navigation of the cockpit set (stories vary). Slim Pickens is tremendous picking up this role, by the way.

They did start filming, though, and those are weird pictures to see

The movie’s release was delayed and the ending changed, both due (to some degree) to the Kennedy assassination in November of 1963. The first very directly – they felt it was inappropriate to release this scathing government satire with the world in mourning (which I guess I understand?), the second less so – in the famed original pie fight ending, Sellers’ president is pummeled with the flying pastries, and a line of dialogue refers to the president being cut down in his prime. Now, I suspect this whole sequence would’ve been excised either way – Kubrick claimed everyone appeared to be having too much fun – and it does read like a pretty crazy finale to a movie – while somewhat eccentric – that’s not overly zany. Still, I’ve never seen it – few outside of serious film scholars have, it seems – so it’s hard to say for sure.

Considering the scene is never shown, there are an extraordinary number of pictures available of the pie fight

Although, I can tell you one of the reasons I first fell madly in love with this movie is the existing ending – the last war room scene does feel like it’s cut short, but it still leads well into the global devastation montage, set to the tune of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again” (an idea allegedly proposed by Sellers’ Goon Show pal Spike Milligan). It’s a left-field, discordant choice that closes the movie brilliantly – there are so many oddball little choices like this in the film that feel knife-edge tricky in tone and execution, and yet totally come off. From Keenan Wynn’s by-the-book Colonel Bat Guano arguing with Mandrake over the Coca Cola machine to Jack D. Ripper’s complete insanity about bodily fluids to the entire Turgidson character – allegedly a complete triumph of editing, as Kubrick took Scott’s wildest takes to compose his scenes, against Scott’s wishes – the movie always feels like it could tip over into utter madness, and yet it delivers scene after scene, hilariously and incisively.

Like many of the all-time classics I first discovered years before I could possibly understand them, I have no particular recollection of the first time I saw Dr. Strangelove. I was aware of it for a long time – that title is something that sticks with you – but it was certainly down the list of Kubrick movies I got into, behind Clockwork and Full Metal Jacket for sure, and maybe others. But sometime in college my interest in dark satire took root, and Strangelove emerged as the movie I’d most often refer to as my favorite. It’s such an automatic now that even in putting this list together, while I had Duck Soup first on the chart for a little while, ultimately I came back around and swapped them. When am I ever going to share 400 of my favorite movies to the public again? Shouldn’t it then be a more comprehensive look at my life’s viewing than some temporary whim? And deep down, don’t I actually prefer this movie to all others most often? So here we are, at the end of the long road, with a #1 movie that should come as little surprise to anyone who has known me even casually over the past two decades. Now doesn’t this seem like a solid way to spend 18 months?

Kubrick is only the fourth Seven-Timer director on the list, joining Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and Steven Spielberg, with Strangelove joining #15 Clockwork Orange, #93 2001, #245 Lolita, #95 Full Metal Jacket, #121 The Shining, and #178 The Killing. The furthest advancing (and last surviving, as of this writing) cast member of the film is the great James Earl Jones, joining the Eights after his three Vaders (#25 Star Wars, #53 Empire, #86 Jedi, two glorified cameos (#339 The Sandlot, #378 Sneakers), one Mufasa (#391 The Lion King), and, er, #175 Patriot Games. This is, of course, if you don’t count soundtrack champion Vera Lynn, as of right now still alive and all of 102! Hopefully this is still true when this publishes next year!

I might put together an additional, stat heavy post about this whole enterprise, but right now this represents the end of nearly eight and a half months of almost daily writing, and nearly eleven months including the list construction. Now finally I can get on with something else! Thanks for reading, folks! I appreciate it!

Now are you ready to start it all over again? Probably, right? Shoot right back to the beginning and take another magical trip through the Set of 400!

#356 Rocky III


Filed under Movies

2 responses to “The Set of 400: #1 – My Favorite Combination Russian Phrasebook and Bible

  1. shortgirlnation

    Well done ☺️ Happy Birthday, Slick.

  2. Pingback: The Set of 400: #2 – My Favorite Doghouse Tattoo | Knowingly Undersold

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