Moments before human civilization is wiped from the Earth by an obscene Soviet superweapon (a catastrophe set to Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again”), the eponymous character of Dr. Strangelove delivers the film’s final line: “Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!”. As an indictment of Mutally Assured Destruction – for being absurd, for being self-absorbed, for being genocidal – it takes the same stance as the film it concludes, but whereas it is absurd in a quotable, Pyton-esque fashion, the hours of absurdity that precede it owe far more to Jonathan Swift and Joseph Heller than John Cleese.
For all the slapstick derived from fistfights between squalling diplomats, and for all the sexual innuendo derived from names such as “Merkin Muffley” and “Buck Turgidson”, this film is less keen to invoke guffaws as it is to create the kind of constant, quiet smiling – spilling over into the occasional bleak chuckle – one gets when a complex tragedy is perfectly summarized. The absurdity of Major Kong waving his cowboy hat as he rides a nuclear bomb down onto Soviet Soil is second to the absurdism of watching men attempt to fashion protocol, flattery and sexual fantasies into something able to prevent the destruction of the Earth. Punchlines in Dr. Strangelove don’t follow jokes; they follow heavy paragraphs of character establishment, and the laughter gets screwed out of the audience in trickles as, bit by bit, the character is reframed. Indeed, the dramatic sincerity with which Dr. Strangelove approaches characterization is what betrays its bleakest joke: this is not a ridiculous film. This is a stark, honest look at a period of human history too ridiculous not to laugh at.
Dr. Strangelove (1964) will be screened at The Poly on 5th Oct as part of the Poly’s Film Club. Limited tickets available, book online at thepoly.org