Steve G 🟨🟥’s review published on Letterboxd:
I know that, by now, it is widely believed that Stanley Kubrick was anti-war but I think there was more to his beliefs than that.
Although the four films he made that are directly about war - Full Metal Jacket, Fear And Desire, Paths Of Glory and Dr. Strangelove - all have very strong anti-war themes in them, they also show an innate fascination with conflict and how it affects very different people.
I don't think he was completely anti-war. Sure, he was interested in the insanity that goes hand-in-hand with conflict, on both an individual basis and a wider scale, but he was also interested in the seemingly positive qualities that it seemed to bring to the surface in people. While it might be easy to scoff at Slim Pickens and what would seem to be a completely thoughtless obeying of the rules that have been set before him as he goes out of his way to ensure that he bombs a target in Russia, I think we are also meant to admire just how committed to his orders he is.
I don't believe Kubrick is criticising such commitment here. He doesn't just blindly ignore that Pickens and his crew might not want to do this. But once they have exhausted every avenue of questioning what else could be going on here, they, quite rightly, busy themselves with the task in hand. He even shows the positive in George C. Scott.
Scott might quickly become a blithering anti-Communist pro-war fool, but his knowledge of protocol and procedure is admirable. Keenan Wynn's encounter with Peter Sellers in his Capt. Mandrake guise also shows his character to be principled and guarded. Kubrick seems to want to say that at the heart of all this lunacy, there are professional and committed people who might even deserve our utmost respect.
So why does he wrap this all up in some very silly things indeed? Why have a mad scientist Nazi defector fighting his own sentient arm? Or Scott falling arse over tit and seeming to be extremely concerned about the "big board"? Or Pickens' rifling through the emergency provisions that he and his crew have in their possession? What does this all mean when put up against the serious messages?
Well, simply put, he's not saying that some aspects of war aren't very stupid indeed and that there aren't some very silly people behind it all. Having Sellers fighting it out with his own limb is completely ludicrous, of course it is. But it's not as if real life occurrences or plans related to war were not ludicrous as well. Allied forces once allegedly almost carried out a plan to dump tonnes of glue on Nazi forces to make them immobile.
In all seriousness, Kubrick exaggerates it all (just look at the character names as well) but he has to, just like he exaggerates how principled some of the men in his film are. He wants a balanced film but perhaps he is also asking just how far this type of thing could possibly go. You do have to remember when this film was released, whilst the Cuban Missile Crisis was still fresh in the minds of the world. If one general goes slightly mad.....
Quite whether he meant to create a film that was as funny as this is something that I doubt, however. I think he wanted it to be absurd but I don't know if he meant it to be as frequently hilarious as it is. Sellers' (as President Muffley) conversation with the Russian president is a bloody riot but wouldn't be nearly as funny if you could hear both sides of the conversation. Lines such as "I might mosey on over to the war room for a few minutes." Sellers' increasing exasperation with Scott is marked by his subtly increased emphasis on 'Turgidson' each time he questions his general.
I think these all sort of slipped under the net and that perhaps they were funnier than Kubrick thought they would be. Also, how on earth did he miss Peter Bull's corpsing over Sellers and his arm - twice? Yeah, I spotted it. You know what that means? I'm better than Kubrick. Get Jon Ronson round to my house, I've got some boxes to show him as well. The Grzesiak Estate has them in good order, I'll tell you.
It is a VERY funny film, of course it is. The aforementioned Sellers / Scott pow-wow is completely brilliant. It's the perfect example of a steadily escalating comedy scene that only truly great actors can pace. It's never played for laughs - it's played deadly serious. Why would you expect anything different from these two? In fact, I enjoyed Sellers as Muffley far more than I did him in his Dr. Strangelove guise. He gets far more to work with and he is given much more to explore.
So much has been written and said about Sellers and his abilities and brilliance that it hardly seems as though there is much more that could be contributed on that front. It strikes me, though, that in this you have two of his three characters playing things deadly serious and requiring him to give a high quality dramatic performance. It's perhaps not in his odd few serious films where people should look at his dramatic acting qualities but maybe in his greatest comedy film. His performance in trying to persuade Wynn as to what is going on is simply marvellous.
There is so very much going on in Dr. Strangelove that even an arse-numbingly long review such as this has left me frustrated that I probably haven't got to the core of most of what I wanted to see about the film. Such is its depth and outstanding quality, many of its qualities will probably still evade me on future viewings. I'm looking forward to at least trying to track them down, having said that.