Stanley Kubrick’s bleak Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb belongs to a class and genre all its own. Here’s everything you need to know about the game-changing movie on its 55th anniversary.
1. The movie was supposed to be a drama.
The international climate of the early 1960s piqued Stanley Kubrick’s interest in writing and directing a nuclear war thriller. Kubrick began consuming piles of literature on the topic until he came across former Royal Air Force office Peter George’s dramatic novel Red Alert. Columbia Pictures optioned the book, and Kubrick began translating the bulk of the novel into a script.
During the writing process, however, the director found himself struggling to escape a persistent comedic overtone because he found the vast majority of the political calamities described in the story to be inherently funny. Eventually, Kubrick abandoned the idea of fighting the adaptation’s dark sense of humor and embraced it wholeheartedly.
2. Dr. Strangelove doesn't exist in the original book.
Tone aside, the plot of Dr. Strangelove is strikingly similar to that of George’s novel. There’s one notable exception: Dr. Strangelove doesn’t appear in the novel—Kubrick and writer Terry Southern created the new character.
3. The studio demanded that Peter Sellers play multiple roles.
Columbia Pictures slapped Kubrick with a few conditions at the dawn of Dr. Strangelove’s production. The studio’s chief demand was that Peter Sellers, with whom Kubrick had worked on Lolita and who the director had planned to cast again, play multiple roles in the new movie. (Sellers played a character with a propensity for disguises in Lolita, which Columbia speculated helped fuel the movie’s success.)
4. Sellers was supposed to play Major Kong.
Originally, Sellers was cast as four characters in Dr. Strangelove: Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and the titular mad scientist (all of whom he played in the movie), as well as Major Kong. After Sellers injured his leg and had trouble with the Texas accent, Kubrick brought in Slim Pickens to play Kong.
5. Two other famous cowboys were approached to play Kong.
Before landing on Pickens, the production team sought fellow Western mainstays John Wayne and Bonanza star Dan Blocker for the part of Major Kong. Wayne never replied to Kubrick’s messages, and Blocker’s agent passed on the project. Co-writer Southern later remembered the agent sending a telegram that read, “Thanks a lot, but the material is too pinko for Dan. Or anyone else we know for that matter.”
6. Nobody told Slim Pickens they were making a satire.
Before being cast as Dr. Strangelove’s gung-ho bomber pilot Major. T. J. Kong, actor Slim Pickens had starred almost exclusively in Westerns, with nary a comedy part to his name (much less a political satire). This didn’t pose much of a problem, however, as Kubrick deemed the actor’s natural cadence and decorum to be perfect for the cowboy soldier.
Kubrick led Pickens to believe that the film was supposed to be a serious war drama, prompting him to carry himself as he might in any of his Western pictures. Furthermore, according to James Earl Jones (who made his film debut in Dr. Strangelove) and Kubrick biographer John Baxter, Pickens behaved, and dressed, identically onscreen and off … not because he was “staying in character,” but because he apparently always acted like that.
7. Kubrick lied to George C. Scott in order to get funnier takes.
Unlike Pickens, George C. Scott—who plays bombastic General Buck Turgidson—was well-aware that Dr. Strangelove was a comedy, but was nevertheless hesitant about playing his character too “big.” Kubrick coaxed Scott to deliver broad, animated performances as Buck, promising him that they were merely an exercise and would not be used in the final cut. Of course, the takes that went to print were among the actor’s wackiest. Scott felt terribly betrayed, and vowed never to work with Kubrick again. Although Dr. Strangelove remained their sole collaboration, Scott did eventually come to appreciate the film and his performance.
8. Kubrick got his way with Scott by beating him at chess.
When Kubrick wasn’t duping Scott into performing against his instincts, the two were wagering on the outcome of chess matches. Both the director and his star were expert chess players, and would settle arguments about creative differences with on-set competitions. (Kubrick often won.)
9. President Merkin Muffley originally had a cold.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, some performances were a bit too unruly for Kubrick’s tastes. In developing his part as U.S. President Merkin Muffley, a wimpy and diplomatic foil to Buck Turgidson’s vociferous “man’s man,” Sellers and Southern experimented with giving the character a bad cold. Sellers’s imitation of comically agonizing cold symptoms consistently cracked up the rest of the cast and became too much of a distraction from the film’s forward momentum.
10. Kubrick was surprised that very few people caught on to the film's many sexual innuendos.
It wasn’t until around two months after the release of Dr. Strangelove that Kubrick heard anyone mention the movie’s vast array of visual and verbal sexual euphemisms. The first person to contact him about the in-movie prevalence of double entendre was Cornell University art history professor LeGrace G. Benson; Kubrick replied two weeks later with a letter of gratitude.
11. Dr. Strangelove was based on four (not five) famous German scientists and political figures.
The movie’s wheelchair-bound namesake, an ingenious but maniacal former Nazi scientist, drew from a collection of real-life influences. The character was modeled chiefly after rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun, with traces of RAND Corporation military strategist Herman Kahn, Manhattan Project kingpin John von Neumann, and hydrogen bomb designer Edward Teller. Some later critics have claimed that Henry Kissinger also helped inspire the character. However, Sellers always denied this speculation, and as Slate notes, Kissinger was still a fairly obscure Harvard professor in 1964.
12. General Ripper's fluoridation conspiracy theory came from a real-life radical group.
General Jack Ripper’s conspiracy theory about water fluoridation, which prompts him to instigate global warfare, wasn’t Kubrick’s creation. Founded in 1958, the John Birch Society promoted an anti-fluoridation agenda throughout small-town America. In several areas of the country, water fluoridation was banned, and advocates of the practice were threatened with arrest and incarceration.
13. One line of dialogue was changed because of JFK's assassination.
Dr. Strangelove held its first test screening on November 22, 1963, the same day that John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas. Recognizing that the tone of the dark, politically charged satire might seem too abrasive for American audiences in light of the tragedy, Columbia Pictures delayed the film’s release from December 1963 to January 1964.
On top of this, Strangelove employed sensitivity by tinkering with a line spoken early on in the film by Major Kong. While rifling through a pack of military supplies that included chewing gum, lipstick, nylon stocking, and prophylactics, Kong (originally) remarked, “A fella could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all this stuff.” A sloppy lip-dub replaced the word “Dallas” with “Vegas” as not to allude callously to the site of Kennedy’s murder.
14. Kubrick opened a lawsuit against a rival film during production.
Four years after Peter George penned Red Alert, Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler came out with similarly themed but more commercially successful novel Fail Safe. Shortly after the second novel’s publication, the film was optioned for adaptation. Curiously enough, the studio in question was Columbia Pictures, the very company that was producing Dr. Strangelove at the time.
While George was engaging in his own legal battle with authors Burdick and Wheeler for alleged plagiarism of his 1958 story, Kubrick threatened the Fail Safe adaptation, directed by Sidney Lumet, with similar legal action. In truth, Kubrick only wanted to push the rival’s release back far enough that it wouldn’t interfere with the performance of his own picture. Fail Safe was ultimately released in October of 1964, nine months after Dr. Strangelove.
15. The movie was supposed to end with a pie fight.
Perhaps the most legendary deleted scene in the history of cinema, Dr. Strangelove’s original ending involved the entire war room staff engaging in a madcap pie fight. The segment in question begins with Soviet Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky, disgruntled over his mistreatment at the hands of General Turgidson, hurling a custard pie at the American officer, but missing and hitting President Muffley instead.
What comes next is a rally cry by Buck (“Gentlemen, our beloved president has been infamously struck down by a pie in the prime of his life! Are we going to let that happen? Massive retaliation!”), followed by fast-motion warfare that is ultimately halted by the yells of an infuriated Dr. Strangelove.
Conflicting rumors attribute the scrapping of the scene to the Kennedy assassination (with Turgidson’s “our beloved president” line coming off as inappropriate in the context of JFK’s death) and Kubrick’s feeling that the scene simply didn’t work creatively. The idea was scrapped following the November 22 test screening and has been shown publicly only once: at a screening of the film at London's National Film Theatre in 1999, immediately following Kubrick’s death.
16. Sellers's comedy partner allegedly suggested the somber ending.
Prior to his work on Lolita or Dr. Strangelove, Sellers was known best as one third of a British radio comedy group that led The Goon Show. Rumor has it that Sellers’s fellow Goon, Spike Milligan, paid an impromptu visit to the Strangelove set one day during production to spend time with his friend. It was during Milligan’s pop-in that he apparently suggested to Kubrick the idea of juxtaposing footage of nuclear explosions with the bittersweet melodies of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again.”
17. Dr. Strangelove inspired actual changes in international policy.
While certain critics, politicians, and military personnel alike dismissed Dr. Strangelove as farce and fallacy, the terrifying plausibility of the events at play in the movie struck a nerve with Washington D.C. Government agencies including the Pentagon’s Scientific Advisory Committee for Ballistic Missiles examined the film and Peter George’s Red Alert as a means to qualify the likelihood and prevent a Strangelove-like scenario in the real world. As early as the mid-1960s, procedure was shifted so that no one government individual would have access to the complete code needed to unlock a nuclear weapon.
By the 1970s, the Air Force began employing coded switches that would disallow the unauthorized instigation of nuclear arms, as represented by the actions of General Ripper in the film.