After watching Dr. Strangelove, you may find yourself asking what that film would have been like if it had treated its doomsday scenario seriously. Well, you can find out by watching yet another film from 1964, Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe.
What’s Fail-Safe about? Well, basically, it tells the exact same story as Dr. Strangelove, except without the humor. Once again, an American bomber is accidentally ordered to launch a nuclear attack against Russia. Again, the President (played, somewhat inevitably, by Henry Fonda) has to have an awkward conversation with the leader of Russia. Again, a sinister defense advisor (this time played by Walter Matthau) argues that the world can survive a nuclear war.
Admittedly, there is no equivalent to George C. Scott’s Buck Turgidson in Fail-Safe. However, there is a General Black (Dan O’Herilihy) who has a recurring nightmare about watching a bullfight while the sky around him glows with radiation.
Fail-Safe has the same plot as Dr. Strangelove but none of the humor. In fact, Fail-Safe has absolutely no humor at all. It’s one of the most somber films that I’ve ever seen. It has a good opening with General Black’s nightmare and an effective ending that makes excellent use of freeze frames but the middle of the film is basically just a collection of endless debates.
And I’m sure that approach made sense at the time because, after all, Fail-Safe was dealing with a serious theme, it was directed by a serious filmmaker, and it featured a bunch of serious actors. And maybe if I had never seen Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe would not seem like such a slow and boring movie. But I have seen Dr. Strangelove and, as a result, it’s impossible to watch Fail-Safe without wanting to hear Henry Fonda say, “You can’t fight here! This is the war room!”
“Gentlemen! You can’t fight here! This is the war room!” — President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) in Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love the Bomb (1964)
The next time you hear someone bragging about how their favorite politician is an intellectual who always acts calmly and rationally, I would suggest that you remember the example of President Merkin Muffley, one of the many characters who populate the 1964 best picture nominee, Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
As played by Peter Sellers, Merkin Muffley is the epitome of rational political action. Speaking in a steady (if somewhat muffled) midwestern accent and always struggling to remain calm and dignified, Muffley keeps order in the War Room as the world edges closer and closer to apocalypse.
Just consider, for example, this scene where President Muffley calls the Russian leader (the nicely named Dimitri Kissoff) and explains that a little something silly has happened.
As Muffley explains in the above scene, Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has gone crazy. Convinced that the Russians have been sapping his precious bodily fluids, Gen. Ripper has ordered a nuclear strike on Russia. Unfortunately, Russia has built a Doomsday Machine that, should Russia be bombed, will destroy the world.
While Muffley is at fist skeptical about a doomsday machine, his advisor, Dr. Strangelove (also played by Peter Sellers), explains that the doomsday machine not only exists but that it’s actually a pretty good idea. The wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove speaks in a German accent and appears to have lost control over the left side of his body. At random moments, his left arm shoots up in a Nazi salute. At other times, his hand tries to strangle him. Making these surreal moments all the more memorable is the fact that nobody in the War Room seems to notice or question them.
And, while it’s always tempting to dismiss a character like Dr. Strangelove as being an over-the-top caricature, the fact of the matter is that, following the end of World War II, several Nazi scientists ended up working for the U.S. government. In many ways, the U.S. space program was the creation of a bunch of real-life Dr. Strangeloves.
Of course, President Muffley and Dr. Strangelove aren’t the only roles played by Peter Sellers in this film. Sellers also plays Lionel Mandrake, a British officer who — as the result of an office exchange program — happens to be at Burpelson Air Force Base at the same time that Gen. Ripper orders the attack on Russia.
As famous as his Sellers’s performances as Dr. Strangelove and President Muffley may be, I actually think Mandrake is his best performance in the film. In many ways, Mandrake is the audience’s surrogate. He’s the one who gets to hear Ripper’s rambling explanation for why he launched an attack on Russia. He’s the one who has to try to convince the hilariously unhelpful Col. Bat Guano (Keenan Wynn) to help him find a quarter so he can call the Pentagon.
(“You’re gonna have to answer to the Coca-Cola company,” Guano says, before shooting open a Coke machine to get change.)
Sellers plays Mandrake as a parody of the traditional, stiff upper lip British army officer. Not only does that allow some great humor as Mandrake keeps a calm demeanor while listening to Ripper’s increasingly crazed monologue but it also allows Mandrake to be the only sane man in the movie.
(Of course, the whole point of Dr. Strangelove is that the world’s become so insane that one sane man can not make a difference. )
Sellers earned a best actor nomination for playing three different roles and he deserved it but, for me, the two best performances in the film come from Slim Pickens and George C. Scott.
Pickens, of course, is the bomber pilot who ends up riding an atomic bomb like a bull in a rodeo. As a character, Maj. Kong may be a bit too much of a spot-on stereotype but Pickens brings such sincerity to the role that it doesn’t matter. Oddly enough, you feel almost happy for him when he rides that bomb to his death. You know that’s exactly how he would have wanted to go out.
And then there’s George C. Scott, playing the role of Gen. Buck Turgidson. From the safety of the War Room, Turgidson looks forward to nuclear war and worries when President Muffley invites the Russian ambassador to join them. (“But he’ll see the big board!” Turgidson exclaims.) Turgidson is both hilariously stupid and hilariously confident. Perhaps my favorite Turgidson moment comes when he trips, falls, and stands back up without once losing his paranoid train of thought.
(Though he doesn’t have a big role, James Earl Jones makes his film debut in Dr. Strangelove. The way he delivers the line “What about Major Kong?” makes me laugh every time.)
50 years after it was first released, Dr. Strangelove remains a comic masterpiece of a nightmare, a film that proves that political points are best made with satire and not sermons.