“The Essence of War”

An in depth analysis of

Stanley Kubrick’s



Chapter four
Response and legacy

Kubrick spent six weeks at Columbia’s offices, insisting upon a generous marketing campaign. Advertising and publicity was another of his ongoing self-education projects that would lead to him personally designing the marketing campaigns of later films. According to Vincent Lobrutto’s biography, Columbia executives were “far from enthusiastic” after seeing the yet to be released Dr Strangelove, which at that time still included the pie fight scene, despite Kubrick apparently placing friends in the audience for the purpose of “manipulating reaction to the film in his favour”. John Baxter has cited that Columbia decided against preview screenings of the film, opting instead for a very short release in New York so that it could be submitted to the Oscars for that year. The film was then withdrawn from release, while alterations were made over sensitivities regarding the assassination of John F. Kennedy – the pie fight scene depicted US President Merkin Muffley being struck down in battle with a pie. A preview screening invitation card, featured in the Stanley Kubrick Archives book (p359), is dated November 22nd 1963 at 8:30pm. At 12:30pm on the same day, just eight hours earlier, Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas. Kubrick had written on the card in red felt tip, “Never held. The day Kennedy was shot.”

Potential controversy over the Kennedy assassination may have been narrowly avoided, but the comedic treatment of nuclear war was always destined to cause a stir. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called it “beyond any question the most shattering sick joke that I’ve ever come across”. He applauded many of the films funnier moments and its encapsulation of the technically warped military mindset, but expressed revulsion at its ending, in which the insanity of both General Ripper (the apparently lone instigator of the war) and Strangelove himself (the opportunist former Nazi waiting for a new war) spreads to engulf the behaviour of everyone in the war room.

“I am troubled by the feeling, which runs all through the film, of discredit or even contempt for our whole defense establishment. … It is alright to show the General who starts this wild foray as a Communist-hating madman, … But when virtually everybody turns up stupid or insane – or, what is worse, psychopathic – I want to know what this picture proves. … The only character who seems to have much sense is a British flying officer … The ultimate touch of ghoulish humour is when we see the bomb actually going off, dropped on some point in Russia, and a jazzy soundtrack comes in with a cheerful rendition of ‘We’ll meet again some sunny day’. Somehow, to me, it isn’t funny. It is malefic and sick.”

Crowther, whose beliefs were clearly challenged by the picture, expresses awareness of his own mixed feelings, “My reaction to it is quite divided, because there is so much about it that is grand, so much that is brilliant and amusing, and much that is grave and dangerous”. This wasn’t the only time Crowther reacted with hostility to films that became considered classics. He slated Psycho, Bonnie and Clyde, The Great Escape and Lawrence of Arabia. In September of the same year as his Strangelove review, Crowther gave a comparatively positive review of Fail Safe. Though he still asserted the possibility of accidental nuclear was not possible, he cites the reasoning for his preference of Sydney Lumet’s film simply “… it does not make its characters out to be maniacs and monsters and morons. It makes them out to be intelligent men trying to use their wits and their techniques to correct an error that has occurred through overreliance on the efficiency of machines”. In a nutshell, it was the anti- military establishment message of Kubrick’s film that Crowther objected too. Historian and Philosopher Lewis Mumford responded in  writing to Crowther's negative comments of Dr Strangelove, “This film is the first break in the catatonic Cold War trance that has so long held our country in its rigid grip”.

Much more scathing was a piece in the Washington Post (not surprising) by Chalmers M. Roberts. Chalmers’ 2005 obituary in the same newspaper describes that the reporter was;

"…a retired chief diplomatic correspondent of The Washington Post and the author of books on such topics as nuclear arms control … Mr. Roberts began covering the Cold War as The Post's chief diplomatic correspondent in 1953. … During World War II, while working for the Office of War Information, he was one of two government officials assigned to escort Eleanor Roosevelt during her tour of the United Kingdom. Later in the war, he was an Army Air Forces intelligence officer and visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki to inspect the devastation caused by the atomic bombs.”

Roberts’ history of working in military intelligence, and probably his ongoing pride and loyalty to such institutions, would undoubtedly affect his experience of Kubrick’s cold war satire film. It’s also possible that he had some ongoing affiliation with the defense industry, though the obituary cites his contribution to the release of The Pentagon Papers in 1971. His article about Dr Strangelove, published Feb 21st 1964, was titled “Film With A-War Theme Creates New World Problems For U.S”. He claimed Kubrick’s film “can cause the United States as much harm as many a coup or revolution” and “Moscow gold could not have purchased a better piece of propaganda”. He concluded with a long quote from Leonard Beaton of the Institute of Strategic Studies in London, claiming the scenario envisaged in the film is impossible. Ironically, it was Alistair Buchan, also of the Institute of Strategic Studies, who had recommended the book Red Alert to Kubrick to begin with. Chalmer’s M. Roberts’ article isn’t currently available on the Washington Post’s website archives, but is featured in the 2001 documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures. One interviewee in the same documentary also recalls that a Beverley Hills newspaper had stated Kubrick “should be physically harmed” for having made the film. But the Communist Propaganda labels that were predictably cast weren’t entirely without merit. Vincent Lobrutto has cited that Communist newspapers in Europe loved the film.

Despite the mixture of extremely positive and negative reviews, Dr Strangelove was nominated for many awards, and won several. It received 4 academy award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. It received 7 BAFTA nominations and won four of them including Best Film, Best British Film and even the UN Award (Vincent Lobrutto has cited that the United Nations attempted to recruit Kubrick and a handful of other popular directors to produce films on their behalf. Fail safe was also nominated for the UN Award in 1966). Kubrick was voted Best Director by the New York Film Critics. The Society of Film and Television Arts awarded it Best Film. It won the Hugo Award for Best Sci-fi Film and the Writer’s Guild Award for Best Screenplay.

As the years have gone by since release Dr Strangelove hasn’t lost its appeal. A directors’ poll of all-time favourite films for Sight & Sound in 2002 brought the film in at No 5, just below Citizen Kane, Godfather Part 2, 8½ and Lawrence of Arabia. In 2007 it was voted 39th in the American Film Institute’s top 100 movies list. On Metacritic it has a 96/100 score among critics and a 9/10 score among audiences. On the Internet Movie Database it has an 8.6/10 score. And on the popular film website Rotten Tomatoes it is the highest rated of all comedies with a 100% score among critics and a 94% score among audiences.

Upon first viewing the film myself in approx 2006 I couldn’t stop laughing, but was also shocked at how relevant the film was to modern day politics. I showed it to a film buff friend – both of us had been disgusted at the 2003 invasion of Iraq (Stanley was staunchly against the first Iraq War according to an interview with Christiane Kubrick in The Guardian). At the sight of General Ripper firing his machine gun with the British officer Mandrake holding the ammo belt, my friend howled with laughter “It’s Bush and Blair!”

Kubrick’s avoidance in interviews of giving away too much information about his key motives was beginning to show itself.

Bernstein: “Where you surprised at the reaction to Strangelove, the fact that it was so widely discussed and widely reviewed. Did you have any feeling of what the response would be to it?”
SK: “Well I mean all films are reviewed. The discussion went beyond reviews, but it was quite obiously something that might become a controversial issue.”
Bernstein: “Well, when you got finished with it did you have some sense that it was a winner?”
SK: “Well I was very pleased with it. I was very pleased with the film. It also happened to be a very successful film commercially.”
 SK speaking to Jeremy Bernstein 1966

After the success of Dr Strangelove the Kubrick family relocated to Abbot’s Mead in England and later to Chidwickbury. Stanley would only make a handful more flights to America during the production of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Beyond this he never returned to his country of birth. The high walls, remoteness and security of his homes in the UK probably reflect the extent to which Kubrick had made political enemies with Dr Strangelove, which is a certain contender for the most openly anti-establishment film of all time.

In the 1990’s the time had come for a DVD release, but to Kubrick’s dismay, Columbia had lost the original film negative. The easy option would have been to restore the film from an inferior copy that had been made, but such was Kubrick’s desire to maintain his, still highly relevant, film for future generations he photographed every frame of a master real he’d personally archived.

Forty-six years after the film’s original release, on 11th Feb 2010, this article in The Guardian spoke of a counter-propaganda documentary produced by the US military in response to Dr Strangelove, but which was never released. The twenty minute video is called SAC Command Post and can be viewed at the National Security Archive website. Its aim, in line with that of the Washington Post article attacking Stanley, was to reassure the viewer that the film’s accidental war scenario isn’t technically possible. It may be that the film was produced for private screenings to reassure government and military personnel rather than the public. The production of SAC Command Post reveals the deep concern in political and military institutions regarding Dr Strangelove’s power, a film made by mere civilians, to influence public opinion. However, a statement from nuclear strategist Herman Kahn supports Kubrick's position:

“There is no acceptable way to protect ourselves from a psychotic Soviet decisionmaker who launches a surprise attack without making rational calculations. ” – Herman Kahn, On the Nature and Feasibility of War and Deterrence, page 40 (1960)

The fear works both ways.