7 Strange But True Facts About 'Dr. Strangelove' at 50
Stanley Kubrick is probably best known for redefining the horror genre with "The Shining" (1980) and setting a new (and very high) bar for science fiction with "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968). But what's sometimes easy to forget is he's also the man behind one of the greatest comedies of all time, "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1963).
"Dr. Strangelove" seems almost like an anomaly in the career of the 'serious filmmaker' behind such grim social satires as "A Clockwork Orange" (1971) and epic character dramas like "Spartacus" (1960). But somewhere amongst the horrors of war depicted in "Paths of Glory" (1957) and "Full Metal Jacket" (1987) is a 95-minute joke about nuclear annihilation, brought on by our own incompetent governments.
And it's a damn good joke, at that. As"Dr. Strangelove" celebrates its 50th anniversary today, here are seven things you might not know about the Kubrick classic that taught us that there's no fighting in the War Room.
1. Strangelove was a man of many origins.
The character of Dr. Strangelove is a bizarre mix of several real-life figures: RAND (Research ANd Development) Corporation strategist Herman Kahn, mathematician and Manhattan Project team member John von Neumann, German rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun (who, like Strangelove, was recruited by the U.S. after the war) and Edward Teller, often referred to as "the father of the hydrogen bomb."
There was speculation that Strangelove was also based in part on political scientist and Nixon administration Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, though both Kubrick and Sellers have denied this, with the actor crediting Von Braun as the primary influence.
"Strangelove was never modeled after Kissinger — that's a popular misconception," said Sellers in Michael Seth Starr's "Peter Sellers: A Film History" (1991). "It was always Wernher Von Braun."
2. Strangelove owed "Metropolis," too.
Peter Sellers may have had many real-life historical figures to draw from in his depiction of Strangelove, but many of the more famous nuances of his performance had fictional origins. Strangelove having a single black-gloved hand -- one that apparently has a mind of its own -- came from the character of C.A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), the mad scientist of Fritz Lang's 1927 classic "Metropolis."
Strangelove's wild hairstyle and apparent political immunity were also inspired by Rotwang, though his peculiar speaking voice came from Weegee, a.k.a. Arthur Fellig, the Austrian-American photographer who served as Kubrick's special photographic effects consultant. Oh, and the glove belonged to Kubrick himself.
3. It wasn't initially intended to be a comedy.
"Dr. Strangelove" is today considered one of the greatest comedies of all time, though Kubrick & Co. certainly weren't going for laughs in the beginning. The film's origins had Kubrick interested in making a thriller about a nuclear accident, eventually setting out to adapt Peter George's 1958 novel, "Red Alert." It wasn't until Kubrick started writing the screenplay that he saw the "comedy inherent in the idea of mutual assured destruction."
"My idea of doing it as a nightmare comedy came in the early weeks of working on the screenplay," said Kubrick, according to the Macmillan International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. "I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question."
Kubrick then hired Terry Southern as his co-writer with the intent of penning a black comedy, which had the working titles of "Dr. Doomsday or: How to Start World War III Without Even Trying," "Dr. Strangelove's Secret Uses of Uranus" (which may have been the version in which aliens observe all of the action from outer space) and "Wonderful Bomb."
The hiring of Southern came upon Kubrick's reading of his novel, "The Magic Christian," which the filmmaker had received as a gift from Sellers ... and which later was adapted into a 1969 film starring the versatile actor.
4. Peter Sellers was supposed to play another character as well.
Apparently, Columbia Pictures agreed to finance the film on the condition that Peter Sellers play four major roles, which stemmed from the studio's opinion that Kubrick's "Lolita" (1962) was a hit mostly because of Sellers' creepy-funny portrayal of eccentric (and somewhat shape-shifting) perv Clare Quilty.
Sellers played the roles of Captain Lionel Mandrake of the British Royal Air Force, American President Merkin Muffley and, of course, Dr. Strangelove. He was also supposed to play the role of Major T. J. 'King' Kong, the cowboy hat-wearing commander and pilot of the B-52 Stratofortress bomber, but a sprained ankle kept him from working in the cramped cockpit set.
The role of Kong was offered to John Wayne, who immediately turned it down, and the agent of Dan Blocker of "Bonanza" apparently dismissed the script as "too pinko." The part went to Slim Pickens, whom Kubrick had admired from the Marlon Brando western, "One-Eyed Jacks" (1961).
5. This was Darth Vader's first movie.
"Dr. Strangelove" marks the film debut of James Earl Jones, the man who almost 15 years later would become a permanent fixture on the pop culture consciousness as the voice of Darth Vader in "Star Wars" (1977). Kubrick cast Jones in the role of Lt. Lothar Zogg, the B-52's bombardier, after seeing him in a stage production of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" ... a production that also featured General Turgidson himself, George C. Scott.
6. It was all supposed to end in a pie fight.
The original extended ending featured everyone in the War Room breaking into a pie fight after Dr. Strangelove gets out of his chair ... only to fall flat on his face. As the film was being edited around the infamous day of Nov. 22, 1963, the line "Our President has been struck down in his prime!" (after President Muffley is hit in the face with a pie) was considered too close to home and the ending was scrapped.
Nile Southern, son of co-screenwriter Terry Southern, claims that all of the actors smiling and laughing through the scene was another reason it was cut from the film.
[Related: 10 Great Pie Moments in Movies]
"Since they were laughing, it was unusable, because instead of having that totally black, which would have been amazing, like, this blizzard, which in a sense is metaphorical for all of the missiles that are coming, as well, you just have these guys having a good old time," said Southern in "Inside the Making of Dr. Strangelove," a documentary included with the film's 40th Anniversary Special Edition DVD. "So, as Kubrick later said, 'it was a disaster of Homeric proportions.'"
Unfortunately, the footage was misplaced and lost, though you can see a couple of stills from the scene at Lost Media Wiki.
7. There were plans for a sequel.
In 1995, Stanley Kubrick enlisted Terry Southern to write "Son of Strangelove," which would've seen the Doctor hiding out in an underground bunker with a group of women. The script was never completed but index cards outlining the story were found among Southern's belongings after his death in Oct. 1995.
Kubrick apparently had Terry Gilliam in mind to direct the film, which the "Brazil" director didn't know about until after Kubrick's death in 1999.
"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," said Gilliam in a 2013 interview with Twitch. "I never knew about that until after he died but I would have loved to."