Doctor's Orders

How a dead serious novel became the nightmare satire of Strangelove
by Bilge Ebiri  posted May 26, 2009
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There seemed to be a tacit agreement the story would not be at all funny. Not now.
—Peter George, Two Hours to Doom (aka Red Alert)

Dated November 4, 1961, the letter addressed to the novelist Peter George seemed decidedly odd coming from a man who had already directed the likes of Laurence Olivier, Kirk Douglas, and James Mason. It was handwritten, for starters—no secretary had typed it up—and it evinced, in the words of George’s son, a certain “touching modesty”: “First off let me tell you who I am,” it began. “I am a film director (‘Paths of Glory,’ ‘Spartacus,’ ‘Lolita’). I’ve been in England for over a year and returned to New York only last week expecting to contact you here.” Stanley Kubrick then went on to explain that he had become interested in “the nuclear situation” and was searching for the right material to adapt for a film: “I am earnestly looking for a story in those areas and your book came VERY CLOSE,” he told George. Being Kubrick, however, he also couldn’t help offering some criticisms of the book that he felt made it “unusable.” One of these, ironically, was George’s plot point about a cluster of Russian “hydrogen devices” hidden in the Urals, designed to automatically detonate should the USSR become the victim of a nuclear attack—what would so memorably become “the Doomsday Device” in Kubrick’s 1964 masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Less than two months after that letter, George and Kubrick were working on the screenplay for a film.

It is by now a legendary anecdote: Stanley Kubrick began adapting George’s dead-serious nuclear thriller Two Hours to Doom (released as Red Alert in the U.S.) and, suddenly struck by the ridiculousness of it all, transformed it into his seminal nightmare satire. So it may come as a surprise to anyone reading George’s novel today to discover just how much it actually resembles Dr. Strangelove—how much of the structure, incident, and character of the book has survived in the film. The similarities—and, naturally, the differences—offer a telling look at why Strangelove, currently playing (in a restored print) at Film Forum in New York, refuses to age, why its ability to provoke simultaneous laughter and terror remains undiminished, 45 years after its initial release.

Kubrick’s film closely follows George’s intercutting between the Pentagon, the Air Force base where the fighters originated, and the one plane that manages to finally make it through the Soviet defenses. In the novel, Brigadier General Quinten (Jack D. Ripper in the film), claiming that the U.S. is in a “shooting war,” seals off the Sonora Strategic Air Command base and orders his bombers to their targets in the USSR. In the Pentagon, the commander of SAC, General Franklin (Col. Buck Turgidson in the film), humiliated by this unexplained decision by one of his officers, has to confront the president about what has happened. As he does so, however, the other generals begin to think that the best course of action may be to follow up Quinten’s offensive with full force. The president, worried both about the morality of this action and the fact that the Soviets may have a Doomsday Device, decides to invite the Russian ambassador into the War Room and to get the Soviet premier on the phone, to try and convince him that the attack was unintentional, and to work together to either recall or shoot down the incoming U.S. planes. Back at Sonora, Quinten’s exec, Major Paul Howard (Mandrake in the film), confronts Quinten over his actions and tries to get the recall code (which is later revealed, as in the film, to be a combination of the first letters of “Peace On Earth") to stop the fighters—as the U.S. military attacks the base. Meanwhile, the crew of the Alabama Angel (Leper Colony in the film), convinced that the U.S. has been the victim of a horrifying nuclear attack, go about the business of getting past Russian air defenses to deliver their grim payload. Needless to say, the novel doesn’t end with Dr. Strangelove passionately talking about filling up mineshafts with desirable females to help re-populate the earth, nor does it feature a cowboy riding a nuke. Instead, the badly damaged Alabama Angel misses its target and winds up bombing an uninhabited stretch of land, but not before the president offers up Atlantic City as a sacrificial lamb to the Soviets to make up for the presumed loss of life on the other side.

The acute tension of the novel is almost unbearable, and Kubrick knew good story structure when he saw it. But while George, himself a former RAF officer, presents a military apparatus that is functioning relatively smoothly, Kubrick seems interested in the exact opposite, highlighting the ways in which communication breaks down and causes chaos. Much of the humor of Strangelove is built around nearly abortive phone calls—from the one that informs Turgidson of Ripper’s nuclear offensive during a bathroom break to President Muffley’s disastrous attempts to talk to a drunken Russian premier (“Hello, Dmitri? Listen, I can't hear too well, do you suppose you could turn the music down just a little?”) to Mandrake’s inability to find some loose change for a frantic, planet-saving call to the White House. As Robert Kolker has observed in his study of American film, A Cinema of Loneliness:

There is no interrelationship between these locations, no communication. Each operates on its own. Even within these areas, no one speaks to another, only to himself. No one listens, no one responds…In fact [Strangelove] is a film about language that creates its own destruction, its own death, and the death of the world.

Kubrick had always been fascinated by communication breakdown (his next film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, would explore it further). But he was also fascinated by the paradoxes of language itself. Indeed, it was in part the language of modern warfare that prompted him to take the comedic route in his film.


“Almost Impossible to Take It Seriously”

After their initial drafts, Kubrick and his producing partner James B. Harris, with whom he had made The Killing, Paths of Glory, and Lolita, workshopped the script (then called The Delicate Balance of Terror) in New York. “They’d stay up late into the night cracking up over it, overcome by their impulse towards gallows humor,” says Mick Broderick, the author of Nuclear Movies and an extensive forthcoming study of Strangelove. Harris would soon leave to forge his own directorial career (his admirably tense 1965 directorial debut, The Bedford Incident, concerns a confrontation between an American destroyer and a Soviet submarine). But when Kubrick later called his former partner to tell him that he had decided to turn Delicate Balance into an actual comedy, Harris was skeptical, to say the least. “He thought, ‘The kid’s gonna destroy his career!’” says Broderick.

The absurd hilarity of the situation had never quite stopped haunting the director, as he and George continued to work on the film. It wasn’t so much the premise of the Red Alert story as everything Kubrick was learning about the thinking behind thermonuclear strategy. The director, even then notorious for thorough research, had become friendly with a number of scientists and thinkers on the subject, some with George’s help, including the notorious RAND strategist Herman Kahn, who would talk with a straight face about “megadeaths,” a word he had coined in the 1950s to describe one million deaths. As Kubrick told Joseph Heller:

Incongruity is certainly one of the sources of laughter—the incongruity of sitting in a room talking to somebody who has a big chart on the wall that says “tragic but distinguishable postwar environments” and that says “one to ten million killed.” …There is something so absurd and unreal about what you’re talking about that it’s almost impossible to take it seriously.

But perhaps Terry Southern put it best. In a never published article he wrote for Esquire at the time, the American novelist who would become Kubrick’s next collaborator on the project wrote:

Sophisticated nuclear strategists also speak a language all their own. They are gradually evolving a terminology which is free of moral, or even human, connotation. They do not, for example, use any form of the word attack, but use instead the term preempt—which of course sounds like something in a bridge game rather than what it is.

A pioneer of New Journalism and an inspiration for the Beats, Southern was an expert in the alienating ways of language. (A memoir of the Strangelove production he wrote for Grand Street in 1994 is full of hilarious instances of communication breakdown, most notably in its portrait of a newly arrived Slim Pickens and the film’s British production manager Victor Lyndon being unable to understand each other.) He was also familiar with the dialogue required in all of the film’s various environments: As a native-born Texan, he could write for Pickens’s character Captain “King” Kong; as a veteran of WWII, he understood not only military-speak, but also the curious interservice rivalries in the U.S. armed forces. He could even write some spot-on stiff-upper-lip RAF dialogue, thanks to his familiarity with the world of British intellectuals. “The film had become all about employing paradoxes, inconsistencies about postures and rhetoric,” Broderick says. “It was Kubrick’s genius to take that leap of faith, but neither he nor Peter George had the craft to make it work. They had to take something that was moderately amusing into side-splitting hilarity. That’s where Terry Southern came in.”

Southern was hired when the cameras were already rolling, and worked on the script for a relatively brief period (he was technically employed only from November 16 to December 28, 1962), often working in the back of Kubrick’s Bentley, which had been outfitted with fold-out writing desks and lamps, during the hourlong drive to the film’s Shepperton Studios set. His contributions turned what had been a blunt-edged comedy into something far more polished and specific. “Terry had a refined sense of humor,” recalls his son, Nile Southern. “He was well practiced at playing it straight.…He understood that in comedy, you had to keep things credible, otherwise the whole thing falls apart.”


“The See-Saw of Emotion”

Indeed, on the page, Strangelove’s humor is surprisingly subtle. Throughout the first half of the film, most scenes dance teasingly on the edge of comedy, with overtly funny elements only appearing briefly. Amazingly, one can see the embryonic hints of this approach even in Red Alert itself. Consider this scene, when Howard, having heard normal local broadcasting on the radio and become convinced that the attack on the USSR is not a retaliatory strike, marches into the office of Quinten, who has just launched World War III:

“We’ve learned a lot about Communism and its adherents [Quinten says]. We also know we are liable to be attacked at any time. Alright, suppose a sudden attack knocked out all our bases except for this one. Suppose someone in high places knows the general code group of the day. Someone who is a Communist, or a fellow traveler.”
“That isn’t even a possibility,” Howard said angrily.
“You’re wrong, Paul. It
is a possibility. In a world which can construct an H-bomb and put up its own artificial moons, even contemplate a break-out into space, nothing is impossible. Nothing. Oh, I agree the possibility is very slight, but it exists. Anyway, suppose things happened as I said.”

There’s a natural opportunity for comedy there at the end—one that George certainly does not take. He almost takes it two pages later, when Howard tells Quinten that “morally, we’re already in the wrong,” and his superior interrupts, “I’d argue that. But let it go for the moment.”

Such pivots were exactly what Kubrick was looking for: brief, subtle instances of humor that could send a scene spinning in a different direction. In his jettisoned Esquire article, Southern offers a quote from Kubrick that is quite telling as to how the director wanted the humor deployed throughout his film: “I think that surprise…whether it occurs in love, war, business, or what have you, produces the greatest effect of any single element. It gives the added momentum to the sort of see-saw of emotion from one position to another, and you get this extra push of thrill and discovery.…People don’t like to be told anything—I mean I don’t think they even like to be told their pants are open.”

What also helped was that Kubrick never quite abandoned the idea of making a political thriller. Strangelove stands poised between two impulses that were emerging during the late ’50s and ’60s. “American society was starting to become more self critically aware,” says Broderick. “The satirical impulse had begun to emerge, through the work of Jules Feiffer, MAD magazine, and other mainstream comics lampooning Eisenhower.” At the same time, however, political dramas and thrillers had begun confronting the nation’s sacred political institutions, in particular the military-industrial complex: Strangelove may be a comedy, but it also stands with works like Seven Days in May, The Manchurian Candidate, The Best Man, and Fail-Safe (its curious dramatic doppelgänger, based on a novel whose authors were sued by George and Kubrick for its almost absurd similarities to Red Alert).

It could be argued that Red Alert never really went away. It’s still there, hiding within the comedy of Strangelove—one could probably remove most of the comic bits from the first half of Kubrick’s film and still be left with a suspenseful drama about the nuclear age. Maybe that’s because, even as he was laughing at the nuclear age, Kubrick held on to his fears. Broderick discovered that throughout 1961 and 1962, the director, convinced that war was inevitable, had begun making plans to move his family and his work to Australia: a real-life version of Strangelove and his mineshafts. “He would cite the Jews who saw the Holocaust coming and didn’t move out of Germany,” says Broderick. “He honestly felt that he’d be able to move to Australia and continue making films there in the aftermath of a nuclear war.” After living through the Cuban Missile Crisis, however, he changed his mind, deciding that Strangelove would become his response to the absurd horrors of nuclear war. Maybe, put another way, Kubrick finally found a way to stop worrying and love the bomb. 

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Courtesy Columbia TriStar Home Video
Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove
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THE AUTHOR

Bilge Ebiri writes about film for New York magazine and Bookforum. He is also the director of the feature film New Guy (2003).

More articles by Bilge Ebiri