Mad About the '60s ... Wild Dr. Strangelove at 50 Reassures That Irrationality Is in the Past (Or Does It?)

(Note: This is one in a series of occasional pieces in the run-up to the series finale of Mad Men with cultural relevance to the period of the show and today.)

General "Buck" Turgidson: Mr. President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth both for ourselves as human beings and for the life of our nation. Now, truth is not always a pleasant thing. But it is necessary now to make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless *distinguishable*, postwar environments: one where you got twenty million people killed, and the other where you got a hundred and fifty million people killed.

President Merkin Muffley: You're talking about mass murder, General, not war!

General "Buck" Turgidson: Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.

One of the wildest black comedies ever made, 1964's Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb still stands today for its daring send-up of military and governmental leaders who take American us into nuclear war. It's hard to see anyone in the post-9/11 era doing anything so outrageous, not to mention outrageously entertaining. Spoilers, needless to say, follow.

I don't think legendary director Stanley Kubrick -- 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange - was ever better. Of course, he had some brilliant help, not the least of which was the great comic actor Peter Aellers in not one but three key roles, including the title character. Co-writer Terry Southern, author of the late '50s landmark satirical hard-core erotic novel Candy as well as the late '60s counter-culture classic Easy Rider, was instrumental in helping Kubrick turn the melodramatic source material for Strangelove into wicked satire.

The studio had wanted Sellers, who was also the mild-mannered American president and an ever so concerned Royal Air Force liaison officer in addition to the good doctor, to play a fourth character. That was the commander of the bomber which fights its way through Russian air defenses to deliver its nuclear payload. But Sellers wasn't convinced he could pull off a Texan, to seized on a sprained ankle to beg off the role.

General Jack D. Ripper discloses his rationale for launching a nuclear attack on Russia.

That led to the inspired casting of Slim Pickens to play Major Kong. Like the rest of the bomber crew, including the young James Earl Jones, Pickens, an antic character to begin with, plays the script straight, which only adds to the impact when he goes into the bomb bay to deal with a stuck mechanism.

"Where the hell's Major Kong?" asks the bombardier as the plane roars up on its target. Then we see one of the most notorious scenes in cinema, Pickens riding the big one down to its target, heehawing all the way as his fate, and the world's, is suddenly set.

While the Air Force bomber crew plays it straight, stoically fighting its way through Russian air defenses -- Kong: "Boys, we're heading into nukular combat with the Rooskies!" -- even the inherently over-the-top Pickens, who reportedly was not informed that the picture is a black comedy, other key players decidedly do play to the comedy. That includes Sterling Hayden, in a career role as Air Force General Jack D. Ripper, chief of a big Strategic Air Command base.

Convinced that his sexual impotence is the result of the Communist plot to fluoridate public water supplies, General Ripper affirms his meta-potency by launching an all-out nuclear attack on the Soviet Union to avenge the contamination of his "precious bodily fluids."

As Ripper's superior and commander of the Air Force, General Buck Turgidson, George C. Scott exhibits the antithesis of sexual malfunction. All this hardware and talk of megatonnage makes him, well, hard, as we see in the byplay with his sultry assistant. And the prospect of Armageddon is even more of a turn-on for Turgidson, who urges the mild-mannered Adlai Stevenson-like president to take advantage of Ripper's act of insubordinate madness by launching an all-out preemptive nuclear assault on Russia.

Scott, who later won the Oscar for his indelible performance in Patton, reportedly said after the fact that Kubrick conned him into delivering his hilariously manic performance by urging him to play it loosey-goosey in supposed "warm-up" takes. Well, maybe. But the performance was perfect for the film, as the very intelligent Scott must have known. Just as he knew that he, like Hayden, was playing off the persona of one of the most powerful generals in American history, four-star Air Force General Curtis LeMay, the driving force behind strategic bombing in the US and establisher of the nation's nuclear plan of attack.

LeMay, then the real-life commander of the US Air Force and architect of the firebombing of Japanese and German cities which killed well over a million civilians in World War II, controlled the nuclear war plan against the Soviet Union. So powerful was he that he took his time in letting Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara see the plan after John F. Kennedy became president. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, he demanded that JFK invade Cuba and denounced him in a National Security Council meeting during the stand-off as an "appeaser of the Communists" when he refused. After LeMay retired, he ran for vice president on the ticket of right-wing racist Alabama Governor George Wallace in 1968.

Dr. Strangelove discusses the world of Armageddon and raises the fear of a "mineshaft gap."

As both Group Captain Mandrake and the American President, Peter Sellers works reactively and amusingly opposite the two LeMay alter egos, trying to calm and restrain them. But as the title character, Sellers does something far more delicious and, yes, strange.

"Mein Fuehrer, I can walk!"

Sellers creates an amalgam of a couple of critical archetypes very much in vogue during the rise of the national security state in the 1950s and 1960s -- European emigre style intellectuals and technologists to light the path in the bizarre brave new world of the nuclear age. The intellectuals to devise strategic constructs, the technologists to help come up with the weapons. Granted seer status, they were frequently simply full of it. But it was brilliant BS.

In creating Strangelove, Sellers draws on supposed thermonuclear strategist Herman Kahn, the think tanker author of Thinking the Unthinkable (a guide to successfully fighting nuclear war), political scientist Henry Kissinger (then chief advisor to hawkish liberal Republican New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, soon to devise to Richard Nixon's "secret plan to end the the Vietnam War" through accelerated and expanded bombing), and Werner von Braun (head of Nazi Germany's strategic rocket program and key player in American missile development). Then Sellers takes these already strange elements and gives them the twist of his comedic genius.

As Strangelove, Sellers delivers some of the weirdest and most hilarious little speeches ever heard in a major American film. What makes them particularly great is that they are just twisted versions of what was then the accepted logic of nuclear warfighting strategy.

Indeed, as this New Yorker article makes clear , Dr. Strangelove is at only a slight remove from the real practices of the time.

Fortunately, even though secrecy is more prevalent now than it was 50 years ago, things are much more rational now. Right?

Facebook comments are closed on this article.