“Mein Fuhrer… I can walk!”
You don’t become one of the greatest auteurs in the history of cinema without doing a few things that make people charitably describe you as being “a few reels short of a motion picture”. Seemingly every movie Kubrick made had an unbelievable anecdote or 12 to go along with it. We all know the story of Gene Kelly’s revulsion at discovering that ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ was used in A Clockwork Orange, and whole books have been written about the ways in which Kubrick drove Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall insane on the set of The Shining. But less well-known are some of the shenanigans that went into making his immortal Cold War satire Doctor Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
While researching ideas for a film on the Cold War, Kubrick was given a book called Red Alert – a thriller novel by a former RAF pilot named Peter George, about a rogue US General organising a strike on the USSR and the mad rush by American and Soviet forces to stop it. The two men started working together to adapt Red Alert for the big screen with the intention of making a straight melodrama, but Kubrick eventually turned to comedy writer Terry Southern when – in Southern’s own words – “[Kubrick] woke up and realized that nuclear war was too outrageous, too fantastic to be treated in any conventional manner. He said he could only see it now as ‘some kind of hideous joke.’” He had a point – there’s something darkly ridiculous about the idea of two huge superpowers whose only plan in the event of nuclear annihilation was to take the other side down with them.
Despite assurances from producer Mo Rothman that “New York does not see anything funny about the end of the world”, Kubrick did convince Columbia Pictures to finance the project. However, this came with one proviso. The studio felt that Kubrick’s last project, Lolita, owed much of its success to the casting of legendary British comedian Peter Sellers, so they would only let Doctor Strangelove go ahead if Sellers was cast in multiple roles. Kubrick acquiesced, and at first Sellers seemed to be a perfect fit. His time in the RAF more than adequately prepared him to play Lionel Mandrake, and he faked cold symptoms on set to make the ineffectual President Merkin Muffley seem even more pathetic. But the role of Major TJ “King” Kong proved a bridge too far, as Sellers explained in this wonderfully curt telegram:
Dear Stanley: I am so very sorry to tell you that I am having serious difficulty with the various roles. Now hear this: there is no way, repeat, no way, I can play the Texas pilot, ‘Major King Kong.’ I have a complete block against that accent. Please forgive. Peter S.
Bonanza star Dan Blocker turned down the role, but inspiration struck Kubrick when he remembered a little-known actor from his Western One-Eyed Jacks (eventually taken over by Marlon Brando) by the name of Slim Pickens. Pickens, a rodeo performer by trade, accepted the role with typical Texan wit: “Jest gimme a pair of loose-fittin’ shoes, some tight pussy, and a warm place to shit, an’ ah’ll be all right.”
Filmed in Shepperton Studios in London, Doctor Strangelove was shot mainly on two sets – the underground War Room where President Muffley and General Buck Turgidson try desperately to avert disaster, and the cockpit of the B-52 bomber whose crew are oblivious to their role in causing it. The War Room is a typical example of Kubrickian madness.
The director asked production designer Ken Adam (who had previously worked on several Bond films) to build the ceiling of the room in concrete in order to force cinematographer Gilbert Taylor to use only on-set lighting. The table, meanwhile, he insisted be covered in a specific kind of green baize to look like a poker table, in order to reinforce the metaphor that the men seated at it were gambling on the end of the world. Adam worked tirelessly to find the right material for Kubrick, who then proceeded to shoot the entire film in black and white so that nobody could see it anyway.
More problematic was the interior of the B-52. Due in no small part to the subversive nature of the screenplay, the US Air Force refused to offer Kubrick any help during production. Kubrick and Adam pressed on anyway, designing the entire set from a single photograph of a B-52’s cockpit and guessing the measurements based on the dimensions of the fuselage. Visiting Air Force officers were shocked to find that Adam’s sets were almost entirely accurate, leading many to speculate to this day whether his research methods were entirely kosher.
Thankfully, nobody from the FBI ever came knocking at Stanley Kubrick’s door, but it was that unnerving accuracy that has cemented Doctor Strangelove’s status as one of the greatest satires ever produced; a perfect snapshot of the collective hysteria that consumed the entire world as the Cold War began to heat up.