Based on the Peter George novel Red Alert, Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy satirizes the theme of a nuclear scare, in particular that of mutual assured destruction, in which each side is supposed to be deterred from a nuclear war by the prospect of a global cataclysm regardless of who actually won.
When Kubrick was writing the first draft of the script he did so with the intention of making it as a serious drama however changed to a comedy when he realised that ‘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‘.
Starring Peter Sellers, Slim Pickens, and George C. Scott the story concerns a deranged US Air Force General who, unknown to his superiors, orders a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Russia. It then follows the President of the United States, Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), his advisors, and an RAF Captain, Lionel Mandrake (Sellers again), as they try to recall the bombers and avert nuclear disaster. The film separately follows the crew, including James Earl Jones in his first film role, of one of the bombers piloted by Major T.J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) as they attempt to deliver their payload.
Columbia agreed to finance the film on provision that Sellers would play at least 4 major roles, Kubrick accepted the demand but Sellers only ended up playing three of the four roles originally written for him. He was originally scripted to play the role of Kong, despite being reluctant to do so due to the workload and feeling that he wouldn’t be able to do the role justice, and the role eventually went to Picken’s after Sellers sprained his ankle and was unable to work in the cramped cockpit set. In the final version of the film Sellers played the roles of RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, US President Merkin Muffley, and the titular character Dr. Strangelove, who doesn’t actually appear in the book, an ex-nazi mad scientist who’s portrayal is an homage to the character of Rotwang from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis. General Buck Turgidson (played by George C. Scott) was an over-the-top parody of gung-ho americanism, Scott wasn’t comfortable playing Turgidson this way so Kubrick got him to play the character this way for warm up shots before doing ‘real’ takes, ultimately Kubrick used these shots which led to Scott refusing to ever work with him again.
The film was shot entirely on set at Shepperton Studios in London as Sellers was unable to travel abroad at the time as he was in the middle of divorce proceedings. There were 3 main sets, General Rippers office, the interior of the B52 Bomber, and finally the War Room which was a massive set some 40 meters long by 30 meters wide with a 35 meter high ceiling, walls covered with strategic maps, and glossy black floors – a design that was later recreated for the video for Muses single Time is Running Out in 2007.
Kubrick managed to insert elements of satire throughout the film from character names, President Merkin Muffley being a prime example (a Merkin is a pubic hair wig, the president is bald and his last name is Muffley which are both homages to a Merkin) to visual images, the soldiers fighting to take control of Burpleson Air Force Base against the backdrop of a billboard reading ‘Peace is our Profession’.