4 August 2007

Hud and Dr. Strangelove

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 6:50 pm

We watched two sixties movies back-to-back, and though they were made only two years apart their sensibilities seemed separated by at least a generation.

Hud (1962) is an actors’ movie, earning Oscars for best supporting actor (Melvyn Douglas in deeply moving performance) and supporting actress (Patricia Neal, uncomfortably over-the-top at times but solidly representative of a style of acting that has gone out of favor). Though Paul Newman was nominated for best actor, his stereotypic portrayal of the smug and self-centered title character kept the film as a whole from being much more than just another horse opera, an obsolete genre of which Brokeback Mountain is the postmodern country cousin.

This story, like so many others I’ve watched recently, calls for a Lacanian interpretation where desire is indistinguishable from rebellion against the Law imposed by the Big Other. The tough old rancher (Douglas) is thoroughly disgusted with his ne’er-do-well younger son (Newman). “You’re an unprincipled man,” the father tells the son. “That’s alright Old Man,” the son shoots back, “you’ve got enough principles for the both of us.” The heated interpersonal drama unfolds against a stark black-and-white cinematic world of dusty roads, a sleepy Western town, and the big empty Texas that reduces everything to insignificance.

A single series of images will dominate my memory of this movie. One of the rancher’s cattle dies of undetermined causes. The vet comes to examine the remains; he suspects hoof-and-mouth. Tense days go by as diagnostic tests are conducted. At last the vet returns with the worst news a rancher can hear. The scene begins: two big bulldozers, side by side, drive toward the camera, scraping away the top layer of dirt. Next, from the air, we see the result of their work: a big rectangular pit maybe eight feet deep, steep edges cut out on three sides, sloped evenly down from grade on the fourth side. Then we watch men on horseback herding the cattle, maybe two hundred head, down the slope and into the pit. The underground enclosure is barely big enough to hold them all: the cattle shove and climb over one another. At last there they stand, shoulder-to-shoulder, a single shuffling mass of horns and hide and eyes, quiet, waiting. All along the rim of this dugout corral silent men stand stare down at the herd. A couple of them wear cowboy gear, the rest are covered head to toe in rubberized raingear, looking like aliens in the midday glare of the Southwestern sun. Each man holds a shotgun under his arm, and if we didn’t realize it before we do now: this big wide trench is a mass grave.

* * * *

The premiere of Dr. Strangelove was scheduled for November 22, 1963, a date that, like September 11, 2001, stands sentinel at the transition from one era to the next. Still, I have far more vivid memories of my only Little League home run and the Beatles hitting the American charts than of John Kennedy’s assassination, even though all three events took place within a year of each other. I suppose it’s possible that, when the movie was released in early 1964, the audience already regarded Dr. Strangelove as a holdover from a doomed presidency that had witnessed the erection of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis and Bay of Pigs debacle, and the onset of America’s military engagement in Vietnam. But the Cold War dragged on and so did Vietnam; Lyndon Johnson, elected for a full term, decided not to run again and was succeeded by Richard Nixon. By then I’d suffered through an angst-ridden high school, been teargassed in antiwar rallies, quit college, passed my pre-draft physical, and begun backpacking through Europe and North Africa with no idea when or whether I’d go back to the States. As the years passed Dr. Strangelove came more and more to symbolize the nihilistic counterpoint of the sixties and early seventies. Even now, with the Cold War over, the film still seems timely – or timeless.

This is an English movie about the American will to military annihilation, not just of its enemies but also of itself. Shot in black and white at a British studio, Dr. Strangelove features memorable performances, brilliant lines, and iconic images that have stayed in my memory through the years. There’s the cramped B-52 cockpit, an artifact of cinematic imagination so realistic that the FBI interrogated director Stanley Kubrick to determine if he’d been privy to an intelligence leak. Then there’s the White House War Room, with its gigantic circular table and the wall map showing the bombers gradually approaching their targets in the Soviet Union. The “Making Of” feature on the DVD says that, when Ronald Reagan first took office, he wanted White House aides to show him the War Room. When told there was no such room, he said there must be – he’d seen it in Dr. Strangelove. The bomber pilot (Slim Pickens), waving his cowboy hat in jubilation, rides the massively phallic nuclear warhead down to its target. The final scene is what has stayed most vivid over the years: a series of images of nuclear mushroom clouds is projected behind the closing credits while a woman’s voice sings the old song without a hint of irony: “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but we’ll meet again one sunny day.”

This time I was especially tickled by a scene I’d forgotten. General Jack D. Ripper, who ordered the nuclear strike on Russia, has suicided in his bathroom. Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers) has just figured out the secret code for recalling the bombers: O.P.E., a permutation of P.O.E., the initials for Purity Of Essence and Peace On Earth, recurrent motifs in the General’s insane anticommunistic paronoia (I did remember the code). One of the American soldiers storming the General’s headquarters confronts Mandrake and orders him to put his hands up. After reasoning, pleading, and blusteringu Mandrake persuades the soldier to let him call the White House in order to give the President (Peter Sellers again) the code. The General’s hotline has been blasted by incoming fire, so Mandrake resorts to using the pay phone in the corridor. He doesn’t have enough change to pay the toll, so he orders the soldier to shoot the lock off the soft drink machine’s coin box. The soldier is reluctant: it’s private property. Mandrake shames him into it: are you willing to permit the loss of millions of lives just to protect this stupid machine. Reluctantly the soldier agrees; he shoots, and the coins come tumbling onto the floor. But he’s still skeptical: if this whole thing is a hoax and you don’t get the President on the phone, he tells Mandrake, “you’ll have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company.”


  1. By then I’d suffered through an angst-ridden high school, been teargassed in antiwar rallies, quit college, passed my pre-draft physical, and begun backpacking through Europe and North Africa with no idea when or whether I’d go back to the States.

    When did you come back to the States? What drew you back and how did you wind up in the corporate world???


    Comment by Erdman — 5 August 2007 @ 8:28 pm

  2. Good last line.

    Note to self: “Must see ‘Dr. Strangeglove.'”

    And The Doyle: were you supposed to be IN Vietnam!!??


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 6 August 2007 @ 12:01 am

  3. I stayed away from the States for about 8 months. Fortunately the draft ended about a week after I passed the pre-induction physical, so I wasn’t technically a draft evader — unlike those other poor saps who had to spend years in Canada before Jimmie Carter pardoned them.


    Comment by ktismatics — 6 August 2007 @ 3:58 pm

  4. Just finished with the movie. My this is a great film.

    I found it hilarious, even watching as a Gen. X/Yer.

    I also found the Coke machine episode to be (pardon the pun) classic. FYI, the soldier gives the warning prior to shooting the machine. He looks at the machine and says, in an almost sacred tone, that Mandrake will have to answer to the coca-cola company. So, in that brief exchange the American ideals of private ownership and corporate domination come to the fore. These, of course, are the antithesis of the Chomskies that Gen. ‘Buck’ Turgidson (a brilliant performance by George C. Scott) derides throughout the movie.

    I liked how you walk us through this movie historically, b/c this is the kind of film that, in my opinion, takes on greater meaning through time.

    Thanks for recommending it.


    Comment by Erdman — 11 August 2007 @ 11:57 am

  5. I’m sure we’re both relieved to know that the USArmy stands guard over the interests of Coca-Cola. While we relish the absurdity of Mandrake calling the President collect on a pay phone, one still needs MONEY to gain access to political influence, and Coca-Cola always seems to be there as a source of that money — money that’s been pushed into the slot a quarter at a time (unadjusted for inflation) by you and me.

    And yes, George C. Scott was a riot. I love it too when Dr. Strangelove gets so excited at the end about his eugenics scheme and the, er, seminal role he can play in repopulating the globe that he actually STANDS UP.


    Comment by ktismatics — 11 August 2007 @ 1:20 pm

  6. When Strangelove stands up I think he says something like, “Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!” I was lol on that one. It is hillarious.


    Comment by Erdman — 11 August 2007 @ 2:03 pm

  7. I saw it last night. ‘Twas funny. And yes, very good acting. Kubrick often seems to manage a sense of light hearted and comedically calm jubilation through sickness and disaster.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 14 August 2007 @ 4:07 pm

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