Is Dr Strangelove the best anti-war movie ever made? 

The anti-war sentiment in the 2022 remake of All Quiet on the Western Front is strong. While it is fair to assume that this production was probably in the pipeline for a long time, its release as the world seems to sliding into something approaching WWIII seems an apt response to the present mood.

Director and screenplay contributor, Edward Berger, introduces each scene of senseless slaughter with a deeply jarring leitmotif of grinding bass synths reminiscent of war sirens. This is always presented with dynamic scenes of movement. Soldiers readying and charging, and the camera perspective moving across the landscape. The participants faces showing both grim purpose and a hopeless resignation.

James Friend’s cinematography creates an oppressive atmosphere of mud-spattered corpses and cratered and smoke-filled desolation. This landscape of putrid water, skidding mud, and corpses hung on barbed wire, is haunted by charred sentinel trees.

It is a landscape reminiscent of Paul Nash’s painting ‘We Are Making a New World’.

C: Paul Nash, We Are Making a New World, Imperial War Museum / Public domain

 

Nash was a freshly discovered artist who had narrowly escaped death on the Western Front and was sent back as a war artist with a mandate to depict the heroism of the front. His return to the ghastly reality of the front did not entice him to compose propaganda images.

He wrote to his wife:

“The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease. They alone plunge overhead, tearing away the rotting tree stumps, breaking the plank roads, striking down horses and mules, annihilating, maiming, maddening, they plunge into the grave, and cast up on it the poor dead. It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.”

The focus of Berger’s film is a group of young boys fresh out of school, and this is the context of the films greatest critique; that old men entice young men to die in maniacal wars. As Rudyard Kipling said “If any question why we died, Tell them, because our fathers lied.”

In the film, the lead character, fresh-faced and innocent beyond belief, Paul Baumer, forges his father’s signature on his enlisting slip, and is warned by his friend that his father will “whip” him when he finds out.

When the boys are assembled by an elderly official at their school they are given a jingoistic and inflammatory speech extolling them to enlist for the glory of the fatherland. “You will be in Paris in weeks” says this middle aged instructor, telling what in 1917 was cruel deception. If this was August 1914 such pronouncements from an orator, caught up in the fervour of the opening days of the war, might forgivably be claimed as their sincere beliefs, but by 1917 that conceit had long been dismissed.

With these electric words ringing in their ears, the students erupt in rapturous scenes of joy.

The next scenes are the reality of trench war in Flanders, and Baumer and his friends are brought to a traumatic reality.

It sounds like a pretty standard critique of the horrors of war, but it is the parallel story and its end that make this film compelling. The armistice of 1918 is the grand narrative in which the human story of Baumer sits. It follows the moral dilemma of the German high command and what brings them to accept an armistice that was all but a total surrender. This is driven by German government official, Mattias Erzberger, who, overwhelmed by the catastrophic losses at the front, desperately seeks an immediate cessation of the war.

Behind the German lines in a stately mansion, one General Friedrichs itches for glory and the chance to live up to the legacy of his ancestors who had delivered glory and victory for the fatherland. He thunders that peace is a betrayal of the fatherland and so on the day that the armistice is signed he gathers the soldiers under his command and addresses them with a deranged plan. From his balcony, sporting a flamboyant villain moustache, he thunders that the politicians have betrayed Germany and demanded they retreat like cowards.

He will not do this, he says. You soldiers will not retreat like cowards but will finish this war with one last glorious victory for the fatherland. He orders a charge on the French lines to begin at 10 minutes before armistice.

I won’t spoil the end for you. Berger delivers with a dramatic finale to match the perverse absurdity of Friedrichs’ speech.

Friedrichs is not based on a real person and this event did not happen, though his mannerisms and enthusiasm for insane repetition of failed tactics is a pretty apt representation of the commanders in the Great War.

If Friedrichs was a caricatured stand-in for a generic glory seeking milatirist, General Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, is a pretty explicit satire of Curtis (Bombs Away) Lamay, the American General who bombed Japan and who tried to convince JFK to bomb the Cuban missile sites during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Played by George C Scott, Turgidson’s deep relish at passing “the point of no return” in an all out nuclear strike on Russia, is a comic masterpiece which caricatures the jingoistic bellicosity that lies at the heart of the Military Industrial Complex. As he sits at the war room round table with the American President and staff, and as the indicator map shows the encroaching fleet of B52 bombers converging on their Russian targets in real time, he seems to relish informing the president of all the red tape reasons that the mission cannot be called off.

Enthusiastically informing the president that it was he who signed off on all the fail-safe protocalls that would prevent failure of the bombing mission once it was initiated, he then goes on to his proposed plans to make sure the Russians could not make a counter strike.

“I have prepared a secret plan” he says, “and if we go with this plan we could annihilate up to 90% of the Russian retaliation potential”.

“I’m not saying we won’t get our hair messed up a little” he says, “but we’ll only lose 10 million people, 20 million tops”

Kubrick’s dark satire shows a deep awareness of the inner workings of the war lobby which he is not afraid of ridiculing. He portrays a host of characters of venal and jingoistic propensity embroiled deep in a psychopathic world of narcissism, corruption, and reckless paranoia.

Scott is brilliant in his role, however the show is stolen by Peter Sellers who plays 3 roles in this masterpiece. As British visiting officer at the Burpelson Air Force he portrays a stiff upper lip rational British officer to the tee and the predicament he soon finds himself in with the bass commander Jack D. Ripper is hilariously awkward. Ripper has the power to authorise “Plan R” a bombing mission to destroy Russia’s nuclear arsenal with a pre-emptive attack. Ripper it turns out is completely mad, and is convinced that the Russians have been contaminating American’s “precious bodily fluids” through water fluoridation.

Inside the Pentagon an order is given to raid the bass and call off the mission, which can only be done from Burpelton air base.

This is eventually done but there is a complication, but first back to the war room.

The president, again played by Sellers, needs to communicate with the Russian leader and has to get the Russian ambassador in to get him on the phone. Turgidson, obsessed with his military secrets, objects as the ambassador will spy on them and “will see our big flashing board”.

When the Russian ambasador arrives he informs them of a “doomsday device” which the Russians had built, as it was much cheaper than a nuclear arsenal. This is a massive automatically detonated nuclear device that is triggered upon any nuclear strike within Russia, and which covers the world in a nuclear cloud for 100 years.

At this point Sellers makes his third character appearance as Dr. Strangelove, a wheelchair bound nazi scientist – clearly a joking reference to the American space program.

Strangelove is a comic gem. His right hand, sheathed in a tight leather glove seems to have a will of its own and gives nazi salutes whenever he’s excited.

As he explains about the coming doom his enthusiasm takes command of him. His right hand acts increasing erratically and he keeps interrupting his speech to fight with it and try to pin it down with his other hand. As he describes the coming nuclear apocalypse the demented gleam in his eyes grows and something in him keeps breaking through his controlled demeanour. He keeps addressing the president as Mein Fuhrer before fighting down his inner nazi, and apologetically mumbling “I mean Mr. President.”

He proposes they retreat into a mine shaft for 100 years and explains that to ensure the survival of the human race that there has to be a proportion of “10 fertile women to every man”.

“Ten women” says Turgenson, his eyes lighting up.

As news gets through that the mission to call off the bombing mission failed and one plane got through. The war room starts discussing that mine shaft plan.

“What if the ruskies do a sneak attack on our mine shaft” says Turgenson.

Dr. Strangelove gets up from his wheelchair. “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk” he exclaims. Cue mushroom cloud and the film ends. An utter masterpiece.

 

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