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The Essentials -- April 2004
Remind Me


The Big Idea Behind DR. STRANGELOVE

The nuclear arms race was a subject that intrigued Kubrick for several years before Dr. Strangelove (1964). According to Norman Kagan in his book The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick (Continuum, 1989), he had read more than 70 books on the subject and subscribed to Aviation Week and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In the course of his reading, he came upon Peter George's novel Red Alert and purchased the screen rights to make what he planned to be a serious film about the possibility of accidental war. As he started to work on the screenplay, however, he began to see the absurdity and humor in many of the scenes and decided to write instead a "nightmare comedy." "After all, what could be more absurd than the very idea of two mega powers willing to wipe out all human life because of an accident, spiced up by political differences that will seem as meaningless to people a hundred years from now as the theological conflicts of the Middle Ages appear to us today?" So he brought in satirist Terry Southern to punch up the humor and flesh out the comically grotesque characters.

"My idea of doing it as a nightmare comedy came in the early weeks of working on the screenplay," Kubrick later said. "I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes more fully, one had to keep leaving things out which were either absurd or paradoxical in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question."

In Stanley Kubrick Directs (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), Alexander Walker writes that Kubrick once said, "Confront a man in his office with a nuclear alarm, and you have a documentary. If the news reaches him in his living room, you have a drama. If it catches him in the lavatory, the result is comedy." In the film, Kubrick gives a perfect example of this, bringing the dire message to General Buck Turgidson in the john.

By Rob Nixon