Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War satire DR. STRANGELOVE, which opened Jan. 29, 1964, would have arrived months earlier, but was delayed by President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
A test screening of DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB, the movie’s full title, had been set for Nov. 22, 1963, the day JFK was killed in Dallas. It would have premiered soon afterwards, but Columbia Pictures rescheduled it for late January, hoping that by then moviegoers would be back in the mood for a dark comedy.
STRANGELOVE, now a critically acclaimed classic, was a sensitive film to market because its plot is driven by a deranged U.S. Air Force general planning a nuclear sneak attack on the Soviet Union…creating a crisis destined to end in a nuclear holocaust when the Soviets respond. With little time in which to stop the General or convince the Soviets the attack wasn’t intentional, President Merkin Muffley, one of three roles played by Peter Sellers, convenes a Pentagon War Room meeting of politicians and military brass.
STRANGELOVE’s plot seemed a bit farfetched 58 years ago, but it’s unfortunately much more believable in today’s climate of political mistrust. Sterling Hayden as Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper of Burpelson Air Force Base maintains the fluoridation of our water supply is a Soviet plot to poison Americans. Ripper sets up a nuclear strike without the knowledge of the President or Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Buck Turgidson, played by George C. Scott. Ripper alone knows the code that can stop his B-52s.
Meanwhile, Sellers as RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake claims he can call off the bombers, but is being held on the base under Ripper’s orders. In the War Room, Muffley and Turgidson are asking nuclear scientist Dr. Strangelove, Sellers’ third role, how to keep this from mushrooming into a full-scale nuclear war.
That War Room was to have been the setting for the film’s final scene — a massive pie fight, which was filmed but ultimately scrapped. Kubrick, who went on to make 1968 classic 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, said it just wasn’t consistent with the film’s satiric tone. Others counter that after Kennedy’s assassination Columbia was nervous about the scene in which Muffley is hit in the face by a cream pie and the General declares, “Gentlemen! Our gallant young president has been struck down in his prime!” Kubrick, however, insisted he cut the scene while editing for the November 22nd test screening.
“Film directing, I think, is a misnomer for anybody that seriously wants to make films, because directing the film is only 1/3 of the process…. Writing the film, directing the film, and then editing the film is the whole job… But, if you really want to do it right, you must do it yourself, piece by piece.”
– Stanley Kubrick