The acid test of great satire is whether it stands the test of time and cultural distance. From Aristophanes to Rabelais to Gilbert & Sullivan, some of our most valuable cultural heirlooms have been satirical works that still ring true today, finding cognates in contemporary society while revealing a great deal about the issues of the times in which they were written. The ethnic profile of the average person living in poverty may have shifted since Jonathan Swift’s day, for example, but we can still think of candidates for high political office who would do well to reread his Modest Proposal.
In modern times, fertile media for satirical expression have expanded beyond the stage and the printed page to encompass film, television and the Internet. And if one had to pick out a single iconic cultural marker for that transition, it would have to be Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 cinematic opus Dr. Strangelove. If you’ve never seen it on the big screen, or if it has been too long – or if even, perish the thought, you’ve never seen it, period – this weekend is your chance: The Bardavon 1869 Opera House in Poughkeepsie will be showing it this Friday, February 17 as part of its ongoing classic film series.
Listed by the American Film Institute as Number Three on its “100 Years…100 Laughs” list of the funniest movies of all time, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a savage send-up of Cold War militarism and the demented logic behind Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). A gung-ho, paranoid general named Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) initiates a preemptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union and blocks all efforts by the American high command to recall it. The US president alerts the Soviets, telling them to shoot down the incoming American bombers, only to be informed that they have installed a “Doomsday Device” – supposedly intended as a nuclear deterrent – that will ensure the destruction of the entire planet should the USSR be attacked.
One American plane manages to slip through the net, its bomb-bay doors stuck; but Major T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) undoes the catch manually and rides the H-bomb to its target, whooping like a cowboy. Doomsday is triggered and mushroom clouds unfold while Vera Lynn sings “We’ll Meet Again.” Originally the final scene of the film was supposed to be a no-holds-barred pie fight in the War Room, but that footage ended up on the cutting-room floor.
The odd thing about the movie is that the novel on which it was based, Red Alert by Peter George, was a straightforward thriller with no comedic overtones (although an early draft did reportedly involve aliens). Kubrick started off writing the screenplay in the same vein, but quickly found that the absurdity of military thinking in the nuclear age was taking over the script; so he brought in bad-boy author Terry Southern to collaborate with him.
The result was a story that makes our hair stand on end at the same time that it’s making us laugh fit to bust a gut, knowing that as ridiculous as this all sounds, it really could happen. Ripper’s deranged rants about a Communist plot to contaminate Americans’ “precious bodily fluids” with fluoridated water were based on actual conspiracy theories of the day, and are uncomfortably similar to some of the more bizarre stuff promulgated by certain talk-show hosts in our own time. At the center of the madness is General Buck Turgidson, whose coldblooded advice to the president about “acceptable” levels of collateral megadeaths – estimated at 20 million in the US alone – could come out of a modern-day military public relations manual. Turgidson is such an over-the-top character that Kubrick had to pretend to actor George C. Scott that the footage that he was shooting was merely warmup exercises, in order to get him to chew up the scenery with the gusto that the director envisioned.
Dr. Strangelove himself, the wheelchair-bound nuclear scientist whose hand has a mind of its own (and keeps wanting to give the president a Nazi salute), is played with equal mad relish by Peter Sellers. The character, who does not appear in the original novel, is based on a composite of Herman Kahn, John von Neumann, Wernher von Braun and Edward Teller (not, as popularly supposed, on Henry Kissinger – he came along later). Sellers doubles as President Merkin Muffley and triples as a British military attaché called Group Captain Mandrake. Also in the cast are Keenan Wynn as Colonel Bat Guano and, in his very first film role, James Earl Jones as the bombardier.
Come see what Roger Ebert meant when he called Dr. Strangelove “arguably the best political satire of the century.” The screening at the Bardavon starts at 7:30 p.m. this Friday evening; arrive by 7 p.m. to catch a pre-show concert featuring longtime house organist Juan Cardona, Jr. performing live on the theater’s Mighty Wurlitzer Organ. General admission tickets go for a mere $5 and are available at the Bardavon box office located at 35 Market Street in Poughkeepsie, (845) 473-2072, and the Ulster Performing Arts Center box office located at 602 Broadway in Kingston, (845) 339-6088, or via TicketMaster at (800) 745-3000 or https://www.ticketmaster.com.