Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe
Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Fail Safe are movies released in 1964. Dr. Strangelove is based on the Peter George novel “Red Alert”. Fail Safe is based on the novel “Fail Safe” written by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. According to the United States Movie Database Peter George was also involved in writing Fail Safe but wasn’t included in the writing credits.[i] Fail Safe is a drama about an accident which could lead to a nuclear war. Dr. Strangelove is a comedy about an insane United States Air Force general who tries to start a nuclear war. These movies are similar in many ways. This article contains spoilers for Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe.
[i] United States Movie Database (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058083/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_wr#writers)
Besides sharing a similar plot line Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe also have similar tempos. They start out slow, the start of a routine day, and build to an intense climax. Will they be able to stop SAC[i] bombers from dropping their nuclear payload? The movies are in black and white. In 1964 it was normal for movies to be in black and white if there was no reason to put them in color. Today, being in black and white enhances these movies. Black and White fits the serious and faux serious tones of Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove.
These movies have a large computerized map, in Dr. Strangelove it’s called “The Big Board”, which shows what is happening in real time. These movies shift between what is happening in a bomber and what is happening in the United States. These movies have the American President in telephone contact with the Soviet Premiere. The Soviet Premiere is not seen or heard in either movie. In Fail Safe a translator (Larry Hagman) tells The President (Henry Fonda) what the Premiere is saying. The translator also tells The President how the Premiere sounds. In Dr. Strangelove the President (Peter Sellers) has a conversation with a drunken Soviet Premiere. In both movies a single bomber manages to get through the Soviet defenses and drop their nuclear bombs. The Americans resorted to fratricide and aided the Soviets in shooting down the SAC bombers. In Fail Safe fratricide came in the form of American fighters firing missiles at the bombers. The attempt was a complete failure. The fighters didn’t shoot down any of the bombers and the fighters ran out of fuel. The fighters were so far north its pilots had no chance of survival. In Dr. Strangelove a U.S. Army unit was ordered to get control of the SAC base by force. Base posters with the SAC motto, “Peace is Our Profession”, during the fighting gave the combat sequences the dark humor typical of the movie.
An early scene in Fail Safe has a scientific expert, Groeteschele (Walter Matthau), give a Post-Apocalyptic scenario to amuse party guests. He proposes a scenario where the survivors of a nuclear war would be the worst criminals and the best accountants. That would result in a fight over the remaining resources. It would be violence versus organization. In Dr. Strangelove the Post-Apocalyptic scenario comes at the end of the movie. Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers) explains the human race can survive by living in the deepest mine shafts. The top political leaders and others chosen by computer would go into the mine shafts until the radiation on the surface drops to acceptable levels. To promote repopulation there should be 10 women to every man and the women should be chosen by their looks.
In Fail Safe when the SAC bombers shoot down two Soviet fighters those in the war room cheer. A senior officer tells them to be quiet and reminds them they aren’t watching a football game. In Dr. Strangelove when the President asks General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott) if a single B-52 has a chance of getting through General Turgidson gleefully explains how a good B-52 pilot can defeat the Soviet air defenses. When the President presses for a straight answer General Turgidson enthusiastically tells him it can then realizes it could mean the end of the world. These movies show The President of the United States as the voice of sanity. Neither movie suggests the president would resign. In Fail Safe the President asks the Soviet leader, in a rhetorical tone, “What will we tell our people”. In Dr. Strangelove the President and the other political and military leaders will live out their lives as leaders in a mine shaft. The actions of General Turdigson and the Soviet Ambassador show they will carry on with the Cold War ways. The movies have the disclaimer that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. have taken measures to insure these events could never happen. In Fail Safe it appears as wishful thinking and in Dr. Strangelove it appears as life being funnier than fiction.
[i] SAC – Strategic Air Command, a major command of the United States Air Force at the time.
The casting of some of the actors was interesting. Walter Matthau (Groeteschele) is mostly remembered for comedic roles such as Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple. Comedic actor Dom DeLuise has a small part as Sergeant Collins who explained to the Soviets how to defeat the defenses of the Vindicator bombers. A year after Fail Safe’s release Larry Hagman (Buck) stared as astronaut Anthony Nelson in the silly situation comedy I Dream of Jeannie. He would be best remembered as Anthony Nelson until he stared in the nighttime soap opera Dallas, where he played J.R. Ewing. J.R. Ewing was “the man America most loved to hate.” George C. Scott, probably best remembered for his role as General George S. Patton, was very funny as General Turgidson. In one scene he tumbled as he ran across The War Room. The tumble was an accident but was put in the movie with great comic effect.[i]
Columbia Pictures produced both movies. It released Dr. Strangelove first. When Columbia released Fail Safe many movie goers, who previously saw Dr. Strangelove, found Fail Safe funny.[ii] This illustrates the fine line between drama and comedy.
In Dr. Strangelove Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders the bombers under his command to attack The Soviet Union. When explaining his reasoning to Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) General Ripper talked about the communist conspiracy of tainting the water and ice cream. These rumors were believed by many in America at the time. When General Turgidson realized he would have to stay longer than expected he called his secretary (Tracy Reed). He was having an affair with her and at the end of his phone call reminded her to say her prayers. The B-52’s crew’s survival kits included a Bible and prophylactics. The B-52 pilot was Major ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens). While the name, as were many others in the movie, was probably a joke ‘King’ is a credible call sign for a pilot named “Kong”. When Major Kong confirmed the attack order he took off his flight helmet and put on a cowboy hat. Major Kong was the comic character on the bomber with the rest of the crew playing straight men. When the scene shifts to the bomber a chorus hums “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye”. This Irish folk song has very dark lyrics but it has the same melody as the American Civil War song, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” To the American audience “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” probably set the right comedic mood for the bomber scenes. When the B-52 released a bomb Major Kong rode the bomb down as he yelled “Yahoo!” and waved his cowboy had as if he were bronco riding. Slim Pickens was a rodeo cowboy before he turned to acting. When ABC news reported Slim Pickens’ death in 1983 it showed the scene of him riding the hydrogen bomb down. The setting for Dr. Strangelove was Friday the 13th, September 1963. Columbia Pictures released the film in 1964 so technically it was set in the past. After going over the contents of the survival kit with the crew Major Kong remarked, "A fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff". The city was originally filmed as Dallas but because of the Kennedy assassination it was overdubbed to Vegas.[iii] Las Vegas, Sin City, was the better choice.
[i] United States Movie Database (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0057012/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv)
[ii] United States Movie Database (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058083/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv)
[iii] United States Movie Database (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0057012/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv)
Names and Places With Double Meanings in Dr. Strangelove
President Merkin Muffley
General 'Buck' Turgidson
Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper
Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky
Major T. J. 'King' Kong
Laputa, the Soviet ICBM Complex
The policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, nicknamed MAD, sounded insane but made sense. Neither side would start a nuclear exchange because it is unlikely there would be a winner. A winner in such a conflict would be far worse off than they were before the conflict. The Fail Safe premise was an accident possibly triggering a nuclear war. In Dr. Strangelove the premise was a series of safeguards put in place to deter a nuclear attack and worldwide devastation causing a nuclear attack and worldwide devastation. These movie scenarios seemed a more likely possibility than a deliberate nuclear exchange.
Surprisingly there was no apparent concern of another aspect of Fail Safe. An American president ordered two 20 megaton bombs dropped on New York City. The audience accepted it as necessary to prevent a nuclear war. The bomber crew knowingly carried out the mission. Others who knew about the mission made no attempt to stop the mission.