Recent global events have unfortunately re-raised the terrifying spectre of nuclear war. As memories of the Cold War fade, thankfully, in recent years – despite countless visions of post-apocalyptic worlds – the culture hasn’t felt it necessary to imagine, in detail, the events that could lead to world leaders actually pushing the big red button. During the Cold War period however – as nations raced to arm themselves with the most deadly weapon – the threat of a nuclear apocalypse was palpable, and the cinema, both in America and the West and also around the world, frequently envisioned the ways in which it might come about.
The principle of mutually assured destruction makes nuclear war an intrinsically illogical act, and some of the best cold-war era films find drama, horror and even black-comedy in imagining the evil, folly and sheer narcissistic incompetence necessary to provoke it. In 1955 American director Robert Aldrich applied an apocalyptic eye to Film Noir with Kiss Me Deadly as he set a bumbling, bullying private eye after a box of unstable radioactive material. Later, with 1977’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming Aldrich looked at the lengths politicians will go to in the name of ego and legacy in a film that sees a well-drilled ex-serviceman with a grudge take over a missile facility and threaten to unleash WWIII unless the president reveals his part in a Vietnam cover-up.
In a similar way, Stanley Kubrick’s 1961 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb also assesses the holes and backdoors in nuclear failsafe systems that are designed to prevent accidental war, but actually fail to account for the fragility of the human mind. Kubrick bounces absurd personalities off of one another in a plot which sees an unhinged general trigger a scheme that sets the world on a path to annihilation. It’s equal parts comedy and horror – a film which highlights just how easily society could wobble towards its explosive end, and which is also clear about who would actually suffer if the world’s political and military elite decided to start firing missiles at one another.
Kubrick does a fine job of striking terror into the thoughtful viewer but, of course, Dr. Strangelove is also one of the funniest films ever put on screen. Large credit must go to the cast, which features Peter Sellers in multiple roles (as President Merkin Muffley, Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake and the eponymous Dr. Strangelove) alongside George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden and a very memorable Slim Pickens, each of whom play varying degrees of buffoons intent upon ineffectually swinging their metaphorical dicks around. It’s ghoulish stuff, but sometimes there’s nothing to do but laugh.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is being presented at Texture by Screened/ Mcr who have invited Manchester University’s Tom Tunstall Allcock, a lecturer in American history who specialises in Cold War foreign relations and the history of the presidency to provide an extended introduction.