This was the final collaboration between Stanley Kubrick and his producing partner James B. Harris. Harris was involved in the early development stage of this production but left to begin his own directing career. It was during this stage that, according to Harris, Kubrick began to toy with the idea of turning "Strangelove" into a comedy.
The scene where Gen. Turgidson trips and falls in the War Room, and then gets back up and resumes talking as if nothing happened, really was an accident. Stanley Kubrick mistakenly thought that it was George C. Scott really in character, so he left it in the film.
Maj. Kong's comment about the survival kit was originally "A fella could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff". "Dallas" was overdubbed with "Vegas" after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Kong still mouths the word "Dallas".
George C. Scott was reputedly annoyed that Stanley Kubrick was pushing him to overact for his role. While he vowed never to work with Kubrick again, Scott eventually saw this as one of his favorite performances.
There is a great deal of editing and cutting away shots in the sequence where Dr. Strangelove gets carried away in the War Room when his out-of-control right hand makes Nazi salutes and tries to strangle him, mainly to cover up the cast around him cracking up with laughter. Despite this, Peter Bull, playing Soviet Ambassador de Sadesky, can be glimpsed trying to suppress his laughter.
The War Room contains a large table of food because Stanley Kubrick intended to end the film with a custard pie fight between the Russians and the Americans. He decided not to use the footage because he found it too farcical to fit with the satirical nature of the rest of the film. The only known public showing of the pie fight scene was at the 1999 screening of the film at London's National Film Theatre, following Kubrick's death.
Peter Sellers was not keen on multiple takes, one of Stanley Kubrick's trademarks. Kubrick felt that Sellers' performance improved with each successive take, while Sellers couldn't understand why he was being asked to keep doing the same scene over and over.
In the early 1960s the B-52 was cutting-edge technology. Access to it was a matter of national security. The Pentagon refused to lend any support to the film after they read the script. Set designers reconstructed the B-52 bomber's cockpit from a single photograph that appeared in a British flying magazine. When some American Air Force personnel were invited to view the movie's B-52 cockpit, they said it was a perfect copy. Stanley Kubrick feared that Ken Adam's production design team had used illegal methods and could be investigated by the FBI.
Dr. Strangelove apparently suffers from agonistic apraxia, also known as "alien hand syndrome". It's caused by damage to the corpus callosum, the nerve fibers that connect the brain's two hemispheres. Researchers at the University of Aberdeen who identified it named it Dr. Strangelove Syndrome. According to Prof. Sergio Della Sala, patients "slam their hand and shout 'My hand does things that I don't want it to do!'"
According to Christiane Kubrick in her 2002 book "Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures," her husband Stanley Kubrick often played chess with George C. Scott on the set between setups. Kubrick, renowned as a master-level chess player who used to hustle other players in his youth in New York City, outclassed Scott as a player and easily beat him, which had the effect of winning Scott's admiration for the director and keeping the famously volatile actor (who was only a few months younger than Kubrick) focused during the down-time.
Dr. Strangelove's glove is from Stanley Kubrick's personal collection. Peter Sellers had seen Kubrick wearing them to handle hot lights on the set, and thought they looked sinister. He wore one on his right hand (the one not under his control) to add to Strangelove's eeriness.
Gen. Ripper's paranoia about water fluoridation being a Communist plot is based on a conspiracy theory circulated by the extreme-right-wing John Birch Society in the 1950s and 1960s. The organization, which was founded in 1958, was quite influential in conservative politics at the time, and the "fluoridation is a Communist plot" theory took hold in many rural areas of the US, with some small towns going so far as to not only ban fluoridation of water but to pass ordinances requiring the arrest and jailing of anyone who advocated it.
Stanley Kubrick usually gave directions to actors without cracking a smile. However, during the shooting of this film, Kubrick was laughing a good deal of the time while Peter Sellers was performing, often so hard that he brought himself to tears.
Peter Sellers was also cast as Maj. T.J. "King" Kong, but he had trouble developing a Texas accent. When Sellers broke his ankle, Stanley Kubrick decided to cast another actor who naturally fit the role. John Wayne never responded. Bonanza (1959) star Dan Blocker, declined the role because of the script's progressive political content. Kubrick cast Slim Pickens because of his work on One-Eyed Jacks (1961). Pickens was not told that the movie was a comedy and was only shown the script for scenes he was in. As a result, Pickens played the role "straight".
Shortly after the release of the movie, Stanley Kubrick met with Arthur C. Clarke to talk about making the "proverbial good science-fiction movie". During a discussion of ideas (that eventually became 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)), the two men saw what they at first thought was a satellite moving in a polar orbit, but it abruptly changed direction. When Clarke suggested calling in a UFO report, Kubrick said, "After 'Dr. Strangelove', the Air Force doesn't want to hear from me."
According to Pablo Ferro, title designer, the opening title shots were born of remarks between himself and Stanley Kubrick wherein Ferro observed that all machines invented by men have a sexual aspect. In the context of the film, it made Kubrick think of B-52s refueling in mid-air. Originally talking about arranging for a shoot to capture that image, Ferro said he was sure the Air Force had been so proud of the technology that they had filmed the process from every conceivable angle. It didn't take long for him to bring back stock footage in which both men were delighted to see the aircraft involved in the process suggestively "bobbing," "bumping" up and down and swaying in the air as they connect, transfer fuel and then disconnect. The addition of the music instrumental on top heightened the intended effect, and knowing all this makes watching the opening titles quite a different experience. Indeed, the music actually 'punctuates' the refueling rod's eventual withdrawal from the B-52 scene.
Based on the novel "Red Alert" by Peter George, and originally conceived as a tense thriller about the possibility of accidental nuclear war. Stanley Kubrick was working on the script when he realized that many scenes he had written were actually quite funny. He then brought in Terry Southern to turn the story into a satire. Among the changes were the addition of the title character and the renaming of other characters using satirical names such as Turgidson, Kissoff, Guano, DeSadesky, and Merkin Muffley.
Filmed during the spring and summer of 1963, the first test screening was scheduled for November 22, 1963, the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The producers felt that the public would not be in a mood for a black comedy so soon after such a traumatic event, so the premiere was moved back to late January 1964.
The character of Gen. Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) was patterned after the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Curtis LeMay, who was renowned for his extreme anti-Communist views and who once stated that he would not be afraid to start a nuclear war with the Soviet Union if he was elected president. Similarly, Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) was patterned after Gen. Thomas S. Power, LeMay's protégé and successor as Chief of the Strategic Air Command. When briefed on a RAND proposal to limit U.S. nuclear strikes on Soviet cities at the beginning of a war, Power responded, "Restraint! Why are you so concerned with saving their lives? The whole idea is to kill the bastards! . . . At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win!"
For the role of Gen. Jack D. Ripper, Stanley Kubrick was able to talk Sterling Hayden into coming out of retirement to make his first film in five years. Kubrick had previously used Hayden in The Killing (1956).
Many of the characters have names which are double entendres or innuendos: Jack D. Ripper refers to the infamous London serial killer who murdered prostitutes in 1888; Merkin Muffley's names refer to female parts--a merkin is a pubic hair wig and muff is slang for women's pubic hair; Turgidson's first name is "Buck" and "turgid" is a word describing the condition of an erect penis; the Soviet premier is "Kissoff"; the Soviet ambassador is named after the Marquis de Sade (the original "sadist"); and the title character is called "Strangelove". It's also a play on words: "la puta" is Spanish slang for "prostitute."
In Terry Southern's script, Muffley has a bad cold and a slightly effeminate manner. Peter Sellers played this up so hilariously that the cast kept cracking up during filming. Stanley Kubrick decided to make him a foil for everyone else's craziness instead, and re-shot the scenes with Sellers now playing the role straight, serving as an oasis of reason amidst all the madness.
Tracy Reed, the only woman seen in the film, plays Turgidson's secretary, Miss Scott, who was billed in some early advertisements as "Miss Foreign Affairs". This was due to her also appearing as that character in the centerfold of Playboy magazine (June 1962), which is read by Maj. Kong in the cockpit. The magazine covering her butt is "Foreign Affairs".
Columbia Pictures agreed to provide financing only if Peter Sellers played at least four major roles. In the studio's eyes, Sellers playing multiple roles was one reason Lolita (1962) was so successful.
When Slim Pickens was cast as Maj. Kong, he had never traveled outside the US in his life. Production was delayed for over a month while he applied and got a passport to travel to England to film his scenes, which were the very last ones to be shot.
The Soviet ambassador describes the Doomsday Machine as an array of 100-megaton bombs covered with a special fallout-inducing material. A few years before the movie's release the Soviets produced a working 100-megaton bomb design (the "Tsar Bomba") but scaled it back to 50 megatons before testing. If the full-scale bomb were tested, it would have increased the global radioactive fallout from all nuclear detonations to that point in history by 25%. Interestingly, by removing the fallout-producing uranium third stage, the scaled-back test had the lowest fallout per kiloton of explosive power.
The character of President Merklin Muffley (Peter Sellers) was patterned after Adlai Stevenson II, who lost two presidential elections to Dwight D. Eisenhower before becoming America's ambassador to the United Nations (1961-65, dying in office), which was his position at the time this film was made.
Maj. Kong's plane's primary target is an ICBM complex at Laputa. In Jonathan Swift's 1726 novel 'Gulliver's Travels', Laputa is a place inhabited by caricatures of scientific researchers. It's also a play on words: "la puta" is Spanish slang for "prostitute."
Gen. Turgidson (George C. Scott) is a veteran of both WWII and Korea, wearing the Army Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart, among numerous campaign medals.
The score for the B-52 scenes is mostly "Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye", a traditional Irish anti-war song that tells the story of a broken, heavily mutilated soldier coming back from war. The last lines are "They're rolling out the guns again / but they'll never take my sons again." It's also the melody of the American Civil War song "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," which describes the celebrations that will happen when the soldiers return from war. "The men will cheer and the boys will shout / The ladies they will all turn out / And we'll all feel gay / When Johnny comes marching home."
In the novel by Peter George the two H-bombs are named "Hi There!" and "Lolita". Two years earlier, Stanley Kubrick directed Lolita (1962). The graffiti on the second bomb is "Dear John". Slim Pickens once owned a horse named Dear John.
There are oblique references to the Soviets' "Tsar Bomba" project in regards to the Doomsday Machine: The Ambassador laments his citizens' wanting, among other things, "more nylons" and the political difficulty this presented to defense spending. It is alleged that construction of the retardation parachute for the tested bomb's air drop disrupted the Soviet hosiery industry for months in order to secure enough material. Dr. Strangelove says, "When you only wish to bury bombs there is no limit to the size". The manufactured test bomb was so large and heavy that no early 1960s-vintage strategic bomber was capable of carrying it without substantial modifications impacting speed, range and radar-eluding capabilities. Its utility as a strategic weapon was therefore so severely limited as to render it negligible. Announcement of the Doomsday Machine was supposed to take place at a coming party conference because "the Premier loves surprises". The Tsar Bomba test took place during what was supposed to be a several-year nuclear test suspension between the US and USSR.
A visitor to the set observed Stanley Kubrick's total control over every aspect of the process, which, she said, the crew regarded with awe and respect rather than hostility. She noted there was an overall atmosphere of dedication and good humour although no prankishness was evident. The happiest moments, the ones that inspired outright laughter on the set, were when a difficult shot was achieved.
Peter Sellers based the voice of Dr. Strangelove on that of famed photographer Arthur 'Weegee' Fellig (real name Arthur Fellig), who did still photography for the movie. Sellers made recordings of conversations he had with Weegee so he could imitate his distinct high-pitched voice and heavy foreign accent.
During the attack on Burpleson Air Force Base, a sign reading "Peace Is Our Profession" is seen. That's not a satirical sign made up by the filmmakers; it's actually the motto of the Strategic Air Command.
Stanley Kubrick sought no help from the U.S. Department of Defense. The flight deck of the B-52 bomber was based on a single still shot that had been published in a British aviation magazine. Most of the shots of the plane in flight were simulated with a ten-foot model of the plane and a moving matte image behind. Each shot cost about $600.
Slim Pickens, who had previously played only minor supporting and character roles, said his appearance as Maj. Kong greatly improved his career. He later commented, "After 'Dr. Strangelove' the roles, the dressing rooms and the checks all started getting bigger."
The assault on Burpleson Air Force base was shot on orthochromatic film using a handheld camera that was operated much of the time by Stanley Kubrick himself, an activity rarely engaged in by feature film directors.
The illuminated symbols on the War Room map displays were cutouts lit by individual floodlights behind them. They generated so much heat that the display was damaged. Air-conditioning had to be installed.
Maj. Kong's primary target in the Soviet Union is a missile complex at "Laputa." In Jonathan Swift's 1726 novel "Gulliver's Travels" (a savage political satire in its own day), Laputa is a country peopled by caricatures of the scientific researchers of the day. Swift describes them as single-minded in their approach to science, to the point of being oblivious to everything around them and in danger of falling into holes, running into posts and sustaining other physical injuries unless they had the help of their servants.
In 1995 Stanley Kubrick enlisted Terry Southern to script a sequel titled "Son of Strangelove". Kubrick had Terry Gilliam in mind to direct. The script was never completed, but index cards laying out the story's basic structure were found among Southern's papers after his October 1995 death; it was set largely in underground bunkers, where Dr. Strangelove had taken refuge with a group of women. In 2013 Gilliam commented, "I was told after Kubrick died--by someone who had been dealing with hi--that he had been interested in trying to do another 'Strangelove' with me directing. I never knew about that until after he died but I would have loved to."
In the War Room scenes, Gen. Turgidson and the Air Force general seated next to him both wear wings of the lowest Air Force aeronautical rating ("pilot"). Although it is possible nowadays, in the era in which the film was made it is highly unlikely that a senior Air Force general (and the apparent Air Force Chief of Staff) would have any aeronautical rating lower than "command pilot" (wings with a star and a wreath), which required 15 years as a rated pilot and a minimum of 3,000 flight hours.
The character of Maj. T.J. "King" Kong (Slim Pickens) was based on Alvin "Tex" Johnston. Johnston was the chief test pilot for Bell Aircraft and Boeing in the 1940s and 1950s. Like Kong, he regularly flew wearing cowboy boots and a Stetson. While working for Boeing, he piloted the first flight of the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, the same plane his fictional counterpart piloted in this film. Johnston was perhaps best known for his demonstration flight of the Dash-80, prototype for the Boeing 707, over Lake Washington during the 1955 Gold Cup Hydroplane Races. He was scheduled to perform a simple flyover. Instead, he performed a double barrel roll, leading many in the crowd--including Boeing president Bill Allen--to believe the plane was out of control and about to crash. The same year that this film premiered, Johnston was promoted to manage the Boeing Atlantic Test Center. One of the projects he worked on there was the development of the Minute Man missile.
The German word "Gemeinschaft" means "A spontaneously arising organic social relationship characterized by strong reciprocal bonds of sentiment and kinship within a common tradition". In this context the discussion of the post-apocalypse society living in mine shafts at the end of the film presents an interesting double-entendre. Dr. Strangelove's remarks about the participants in the new society spontaneously accepting new social norms and having "bold curiosity for the adventure ahead" is especially germane. Also, Gen. Turgidson's admonition to "not allow a mineshaft gap" at the end is a particularly vivid pun.
The plan to regenerate the human race from the people sheltered in mineshafts is a parody of Nelson Rockefeller, Edward Teller, Herman Kahn and Chester E. Holifield's 1961 plan to spend billions of dollars on a nationwide network of concrete-lined underground fallout shelters capable of holding millions of people. The proposed fallout shelter network has similarities and contrasts to that of the very real and robust Swiss civil defense network. Switzerland has an overcapacity of nuclear fallout shelters for the country's population size, and by law, new homes must still be built with a fallout shelter. If the US did that, it would violate the spirit of MAD and destabilize the situation because the US could launch a first strike and be safe against a retaliatory second strike.
When the screens in the War Room were being constructed, Stanley Kubrick asked if the rocket trajectories were accurate and was told that they were fictional. Kubrick got the production team to inquire from their contacts in the Defense Department if they could find out the real locations of the missile silos. After they got all the relevant info, Kubrick asked, based on the statistics they had received, where the safest place in the world would be, and he was told that it would be West Cork in Ireland. This has often been cited as the reason why so many wealthy Europeans bought properties in the area from the mid-'60s onwards.
According to film critic Alexander Walker, the author of biographies of both Peter Sellers and Stanley Kubrick, the role of Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake was the easiest of the three for Sellers to play, as he was aided by his experience of mimicking his superiors while serving in the RAF during World War II. There is also a heavy resemblance to Sellers' friend and occasional co-star Terry-Thomas and prosthetic-limbed RAF ace Douglas Bader.
According to Ken Adam, the "War Room" was exaggerated in size and filmed in long shots to give a fantastic quality to the activity there, primarily the decision-making process where the power players are at considerable distances from each other.
At around the 28-minute mark, Gen. Turgidson explains that they have determined there are around 17,000 three-letter code combinations possible for the prefix they would need to send to get a message through. That's correct; there are 17,576 assuming two- and three-letter repeats are allowed (AAB and AAA, respectively, for example). He then says it will take about 2.5 days to transmit them all. That works out to an attempt lasting ten seconds each.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The U.S. government dismissed Stanley Kubrick's scenario of an accidental nuclear war as too far-fetched. However, the scene where Group Capt. Mandrake is trying to get through to the Pentagon with the code to recall the bombers, but doesn't have enough change for the pay phone, was shown at a session of Congress. Members said it raised legitimate questions about whether crucial information could find its way to the right people during a nuclear crisis.
During the deleted pie-fight scene, President Muffley took a pie in the face and fell down, prompting Gen. Turgidson to cry, "Gentlemen! Our gallant young president has just been struck down in his prime!" Had not Stanley Kubrick already decided to cut the pie fight by the time President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the line (or possibly the entire sequence) likely would have been cut due to its eerie similarity to real events.
The ninth nuclear explosion shot in the end sequence is US nuclear test "Baker" from "Operations Crossroads", the first post-war nuclear tests on the Bikini atoll. Shot No. 14 is "Able" from the same operation. Shot No. 15 is "Trinity," the first atomic explosion ever.