Harold Camping’s doomsday prophecies come and go, but ‘Dr. Strangelove’ endures

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Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove. ()
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Simon Abrams

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Harold Camping, the 89-year-old evangelist and serial doomsayer, previously announced that the Rapture would occur on May 21st. He has since said that he was mistaken and that the Rapture is actually now scheduled for October 21st. So the third annual Doomsday Film Festival and Symposium this weekend at 92YTribeca couldn’t be timed any better, really.

It’s an event dedicated to the apocalypse, and this year’s line-up of screenings and panels includes a couple of standout titles, like the spectacularly deranged God Told Me To and the uniquely awful Lifeforce.

And yet no other film at this year’s celebration of End Times matches the hopeless vision of gloom and impending doom on display in Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Stanley Kubrick’s mighty adaptation of co-adapter Peter George’s novel Red Alert will screen this Sunday at 2 p.m. The film will be followed by a panel discussion featuring such talking head luminaries as Time Out New York film critic Keith Uhlich and The L Magazine film editor Mark Asch.

Dr. Strangelove towers above the rest of Doomsday’s slate thanks to its uniquely bleak and hilarious vision of a man-made, world-ending disaster. Kubrick and co-writers George and Terry Southern tease viewers with a hypothetical scenario in which military protocol and inane niceties are the only things left to prevent the extinction of all mankind. They perfectly skewer the political factionalism that defined the film’s Cold War setting by trivializing the event that triggers “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

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Dr. Strangelove works as well as it does because it’s a silly movie about a deadly serious situation. In it, the fate of the world is decided by politicians, uniformed officials and diplomats who obsess over “precious bodily fluids,” the Coca Cola Company and a possible “mineshaft gap.” Once seen, you can’t forget the film’s concluding montage of overlapping mushroom clouds. Vera Lynn’s iconic ballad “We’ll Meet Again” adds a haunting sense of irony to the scene. This is the way the world ends, not with a whimper but with an involuntary fit of giggling.

Events begin to spiral out of control in Dr. Strangelove after the power-mad General Turgidson (Sterling Hayden) enacts Wing Attack Plan R, a military protocol in which U.S. fighter pilots bomb the Russians on their native soil. Once Wing Attack Plan R is initiated, Turgidson is the only person who can stop the bombing since he’s the only one who possesses the three-digit recall code.

But Turgidson is stark raving mad, a fact that only the cowardly Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers in one of his three roles) is privy to. Somehow, the fate of the world was entrusted to Turgidson, a man convinced that the Russians are secretly adding fluorine to everything from American water supplies to “children’s ice cream” in order to “sappen and impurify our precious bodily fluids.”

The fact that someone at some point entrusted Turgidson with that much power is a given. No one in a position of power is sane or competent enough to stop Wing Attack Plan R once it’s set in motion. By the time we meet the film’s cast of characters, it’s too late for them to do anything but panic.

Momentum and bad luck have led the film’s protagonists to their current dilemma. Now, nothing can save them from the bureaucratic snafu that they unwittingly created. Take the way that Merkin Muffley (Sellers again), the impotent American president, learns of the Russians’ “Doomsday machine,” a mysterious machine designed to obliterate all life on planet Earth. Muffley doesn’t hear about the machine from the Soviet premier but rather from Alexi de Sadesky (Peter Bull), a doctrinaire and appropriately named Russian diplomat who blithely explains that the Russians built a Doomsday Machine because they had read in the New York Times that the Americans had already taken steps to build one.

It’s telling that de Sadesky doesn’t even know that Wing Attack Plan R endangers the Doomsday Machine until the Soviet premier first talks to Muffley and then to him. A pointless sense of self-perpetuating air of competition and suspicion pervades the war room, like when Muffley apologizes nervously to the Soviet premier. (“Don't say that you are more sorry than I am, because I am capable of being just as sorry as you are. So we're both sorry, all right? All right.”)

The premier knows that the world is about to end and all he can think to say to the president is how much more sorry he is. What a way to go.

Dr. Strangelove is as funny as it is because of the schizoid disconnect between the trivial character of the film’s protagonists and dire consequences of their inaction. Kubrick, George and Southern’s meticulously straight-faced timing and delivery is crucial to Dr. Strangelove’s black comedy. It’s a good thing that Kubrick excised a scene in which a pie fight breaks out in the War Room at the end of the film. Had that scene, funny as it is, been included in the theatrical cut, the filmmakers would have tipped their hands and thrown the film’s delicate balance of conflicting tones irrevocably out of whack.

It’s fitting then that the absurd and totally inexplicable last lines in the film are delivered by the titular mad scientist (also Sellers). Strangelove is ostensibly the smartest man in the president’s council but he’s also the craziest. For example, at one point, he ineffectually tries to stop his body from betraying him and winds up reluctantly heiling Muffley with a Hitler salute. To get Muffley’s attention back on his ridiculous plan to repopulate the world using a “ratio of 10 women for each man,” he stands up from his wheelchair and exclaims, “Mein Führer—I can walk!” There’s nothing left to do at that point but laugh and wait for the end.