Fifty years ago today, director Stanley Kubrick unleashed upon the world his biting Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It became a giant hit, nabbing four Academy Award nominations and proving, with each passing year, one of the most durable satires of all time. But as with any Kubrick film, the production was long and complicated, with several strange detours and what-ifs; here are just a few of them.
It could’ve been a drama. The book Kubrick used as his starting point, Red Alert by Peter George (aka Peter Bryant), was not comic at all. But the filmmaker was never one to stick too close to his source material (ask Stephen King), and according to longtime collaborator Jan Harlan, he decided to make it a dark comedy in order to make it more memorable, and to make his points sharper. He brought in literary satirist Terry Southern to help create that flavor. (Kubrick even threatened a lawsuit to delay the release of Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe, which was basically a straight thriller version of the same material.)
It could’ve happened. When the film was released, it was roundly criticized — particularly by those in power — as being wildly implausible. But Kubrick wasn’t one to shoot from the hip; he read something like 50 books on nuclear war as research, consulted experts, and worked closely with Red Alert author George, a former R.A.F. pilot. According to a recent (and must-read) New Yorker post by Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, “Despite public assurances that everything was fully under control, in the winter of 1964, while ‘Dr. Strangelove’ was playing in theatres and being condemned as Soviet propaganda, there was nothing to prevent an American bomber crew or missile launch crew from using their weapons against the Soviets.”
Kubrick originally envisioned a peculiar framing device. An early draft of the script begins with aliens from outer space stumbling upon the wreckage of a destroyed earth, a fate that is then explained via the action of the narrative. Kubrick ultimately cut that wraparound, choosing instead to explore outer space in his next film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. While developing that picture with Arthur C. Clarke, the two men spotted what they thought might have been a UFO. Clarke suggested reporting it, but Kubrick joked, “After Dr. Strangelove, the Air Force doesn’t wanna hear from me.”
The sets nearly got Kubrick investigated. Though he’d made Lolita in England, Kubrick intended to shoot Dr. Strangelove in the U.S. But he was forced to relocate to England in order to accommodate Peter Sellers, who was in the middle of divorce proceedings; he ended up settling in England and shooting the rest of his films there. The giant stages of Shepparton Studios allowed production designer Ken Adam (and more than 150 workers and craftsman) to create the giant and iconic “War Room” set, which measures 130 feet long, 100 feet wide, and 30 feet high, with a center table 22 feet in diameter. (Though they were shooting in black and white, Kubrick insisted the table be covered with green felt, so that, according to Adam, they would convey that the men at the table were “involved in a gigantic poker game for the fate of the world”). Ten miles of electrical cable were required to light the “big board” of bombers, and the crew had to wear slippers to keep from scratching the black Formica floor. But it was the B-52 bomber interior that was problematic. There were no photos of such a cockpit for art director Peter Murton to draw from; he ultimately created the set by starting with the front-cover photo for a book called Strategic Air Command, and guessing at the rest. During the shoot, American Air Force personnel visited Shepparton and were panicked by the accuracy of the B-52 set — so much so that Kubrick reached out to Murton to check his sources, due to concerns that they might be investigated for acquiring classified information.
The character of Dr. Strangelove had some surprising inspirations. The German-born crime photographer Weegee became a New York legend for his stark street photography (and for his ability to show up at crime scenes and get his shots in a timely fashion, often even before the authorities arrived). He also served as a still photographer and (uncredited) special effects adviser on Dr. Strangelove, and Peter Sellers seized on his accent, which he used as the basis of Strangelove’s. He got Strangelove’s black glove from Kubrick himself, who wore those heavy black gloves on set to protect his hands while handling lights.
Peter Sellers was supposed to do even more. The versatile comic’s presence in multiple roles was part of how Kubrick secured the financing for the film. Sellers was originally cast in four roles: the three he played (Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and the title character) and Major T.J. “King” Kong. But Sellers had trouble with the Texas accent (he appealed to Terry Southern for help), and after shooting a few scenes, he had to be relieved of the role due to an ankle injury on set. Kubrick reportedly offered it to John Wayne and Dan Blocker before landing on Slim Pickens. (Sellers would receive an Oscar nomination for his work.)
His original playing of the President was far different. Sellers’ original idea for President Merkin Muffley was to play him as an ineffectual, fey bumbler with an inhaler. His first few takes were so funny that they broke up the cast and crew, but Kubrick knew that it wasn’t the right interpretation. He told Sellers that the character had to be the one person in the War Room with a level head, and that the humor would have to come from a trickier place — of calm in the middle of insanity. The laughs were tougher, but richer. Much of his dialogue was improvised, including the famed “a little funny in the head” speech, as well as the accidental Nazi salutes of Strangelove.
Kubrick devised an ingenious strategy for working with George C. Scott. General Turgidson was one of the first film roles for acclaimed stage actor Scott, who had already established a reputation as a tough, hard-drinking, prickly collaborator. But Kubrick heard that Scott fancied himself an expert chess player, so he had a chess board placed on set and invited Scott to play between takes. Kubrick had spent his New York childhood playing chess in the park, and beat Scott handily — winning the actor’s respect. His method of directing Scott was equally strategic. The actor worried that Kubrick was pushing him too far over the top, so Kubrick made him a deal: give me as many takes as you want playing the scene realistically, and just one going over the top. According to co-star James Earl Jones, that last take was invariably the one Kubrick used in the final cut.
It had a very different ending. Kubrick originally closed the film with a farcical custard-pie fight in the War Room, which the filmmaker ultimately cut due to tonal incongruities. But there was one eerie coincidence: the scene culminated with President Muffley taking a pie to the face and General Turgidson exclaiming, “Gentlemen! Our gallant young President has been struck down in his prime!” Dr. Strangelove’s first critics’ screening was originally set for November 22, 1963, the day of the Kennedy assassination. It (and the film’s release) was postponed, and while the pie fight had already been cut out, Kubrick did change Major Kong’s line, “A fella could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff,” dubbing in “Vegas” instead. (If you watch the scene closely, you can still see Pickens mouthing “Dallas.”)
There could have been a sequel. Last fall, director Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Time Bandits) revealed that, before co-writer Terry Southern’s death in 1995, Kubrick had asked Southern to work on a possible sequel to Dr. Strangelove. Southern’s proposal, which never made it to a full script, was titled Son of Strangelove and took place in an underground bunker (a notion suggested by Strangelove’s proposal at the end of the film, above). According to Gilliam, “I was told after Kubrick died — by someone who had been dealing with him — that he had been interested in trying to do another Strangelove with me directing. I never knew about that until after he died but I would have loved to.”