Some Thoughts on Seeing Dr. Strangelove on the Big Screen

Dr. Strangelove

Production model of the War Room set, from Dr. Strangelove

‘Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ is my favorite film. I was pleased to learn that John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola both held up Dr. Strangelove’s absurdist humor as the example of what they were trying to achieve in writing the screenplay for their film, ‘Apocalypse Now’ (My second-most favorite film).

I recently saw Dr. Strangelove again for the – I don’t know – 25th time? But it was only the second time I’ve seen it on a big screen. The first time there was a projection problem with the first reel. They gave us our money back and let us stay for the rest of the film. It was okay from the second reel on. But I don’t fully count it as having seen the film in a theater.

I noticed several things that I’d never noticed before. First, I noticed a typo in the opening credits. These credits are famous. The design, by Pablo Ferro, has been much-copied over the years. I can’t believe I noticed it but it’s never going to show up the way it did if you’re watching it on even the largest large-screen television.

And the funniest part to me is that the typo is on the writing credit. It says ‘Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, Peter George, and Terry Southern.’ Then, underneath that is the credit to George’s book, ‘Red Alert’, which was the original material Kubrick planned to base the film on.

The credit reads ‘BASE on the novel ‘Red Alert’ by Peter George. I wonder if Kubrick ever noticed it.

The next thing I noticed, again because it was on a BIG screen, was that Miss Foreign Affairs, the centerfold in the Playboy magazine that Col. Kong (Slim Pickens) is reading, is Tracy Reed, who plays Miss Scott, General Turgidson’s (George C. Scott) ‘confidential secretary’. Apparently this was intended and I just never noticed it before.

I’d also never noticed a couple of shots with General Turgidson in the foreground during the War Room scenes in which other men seated at the table behind him are slightly out of focus. One of those men appears to have the hair and tinted glasses of Dr. Strangelove, but it doesn’t look like Peter Sellers to me.

I noticed that there is a point in the final scene when Sellers, in the Strangelove character, is explaining the concept of using mineshafts to preserve a portion of the country’s population. Actor Peter Bull, who plays Soviet Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky, stands behind and slightly to the left of Strangelove’s wheelchair.

It is well-known that Sellers’ improvisations drove large sections of the War Room scenes. Kubrick admitted to laughing frequently and heartily at Sellers while filming. But Bull, whose stern countenance completely melts down can barely stifle outright laughter at Sellers. Kubrick must have been faced with the choice of using the only take of a brilliant Sellers improv or leaving it out.

I thought I’d found something new, but I googled it to see if I could find another reference.

PETER BULL SELLERS BREAKING CHARACTER

The first item was the Wikipedia entry for ‘Breaking character’. Bull’s performance is second on the list.

That final scene, by the way, wasn’t the original final scene. In fact, the final scene was shot and not used. It featured a pie fight in the War Room in which every character ended up completely covered in merengue. Kubrick decided it against using it. So, in a way, he was stuck using the take with Bull breaking character.

Something else I learned as I was writing this. The advanced screening for Dr. Strangelove was not held. It was scheduled for the evening of November 22nd, 1963. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy would, a few days later, prompt Kubrick to bring actor Slim Pickens into a dubbing studio to record the word ‘Vegas’ to replace the word ‘Dallas’ in his commentary on the contents of the bomber crew’s survival gear.

“A fella could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff” wasn’t funny anymore.

 

Putting Words in Their Mouths: Three Great Lines of Film Dialog

GroupWithBubblesA single line of dialog does not a screenplay make. But there are certain lines that stay in our minds long after the projector is turned off and the theater floor swept. In some cases those lines become the stuff of popular culture. Here is a list of three of my favorite lines of film dialog.

3. “Have you seen the returns on ‘Gandhi II’?”

David Mamet is a successful playwright, essayist, screenwriter, and director. He has written and directed a number of films, including ‘House of Games’ (1987) and ‘The Spanish Prisoner’.(1997) You know his dialog immediately, the way the spoken words form the warp and weft of the scene. There is no mistaking it.  ‘State and Main’ (2000) is an absurd exploration of what happens to a small East Coast town when a film production moves in and runs roughshod over the locals.

In one scene, two of the film-within-a-film’s crew are seen entering the production office having an exchange around the above, an inside joke-within-a-joke about the priorities and integrity of the film industry.

2. “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”

Mario Puzo’s novel ‘The Godfather’ was published in 1969. It was an immediate best seller. The screenplay for the film ‘The Godfather’ (1972) was co—written by Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, though they did not write together. Puzo completed a draft of the screenplay and submitted it. Coppola took a copy of Puzo’s novel and went through it with a pair of scissors, cutting it up and pasting it into another book, accompanied by his notes about themes within each scene and whether or not that scene would be included in the film.

The line above is delivered by the character Peter Clemenza (Richard Castellano), as he’s initiating a young man into the ways of the family. Having just executed a mole, Clemenza instructs his new recruit to do the above. There is such humanity in the words, and the way Castellano delivers them.

1. “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”

When Stanley Kubrick decided to make a film based on Peter George’s thriller ‘Red Alert’, he originally intended it to be a serious drama. He began working with George on a draft of the screenplay. The more he researched the subject of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) and the ways the U.S. and the Soviet Union were dealing with it, the more he realized the only way to treat the material was as a black comedy.
Kubrick and Terry Southern wrote the screenplay that became ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) In that one line of dialog they brilliantly summed up their theme.

Evolution of a Screenplay: ‘Apocalypse Now’

Last week I wrote about the screenplay for ‘The Birds’.

‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979) was based on three things. The first was the novella ‘Heart of Darkness’, by Joseph Conrad. It tells the story of Marlowe, sent up the Congo River to bring back one of his company’s representatives who terrorizes the surrounding countryside looking for ivory. He is their best producer, but his methods, as our narrator discusses with his manager, are unsound.typewriter-726965_1280

These words are echoed, almost verbatim, in the screenplay written by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola, which serves as the second basis for the film.

Marlowe later learns that he was recommended by the same people who had recommended Mr. Kurtz, who he is being sent to retrieve.

Milius had been thinking about writing a screenplay about the war in Viet Nam for some time. One of his writing instructors had mentioned Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ and Milius read it. He decided that it would be the perfect basis for his film, about a colonel in Special Forces who violates chain of command by carrying out operations over the border in Cambodia without authorization, using an army of Montagnard villagers willing to do anything he orders.

The narrator of the screenplay is Captain Willard, sent up the Nong River to terminate the command of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz ‘with extreme prejudice’. He travels on a patrol boat with a crew of young men in an absurdist version of the military inspired in large part by Stanley Kubrick’s film ‘Dr. Strangelove’ (1964). As Willard gets closer to his destination, as he delves deeper into the Colonel’s dossier, he discovers how much he has in common with this man he’s being sent to kill.

As in the book, there is a strong connection between the two men. It is symbolized by the river, in what William Faulkner described as the ‘Geologic umbilical’ in ‘Absalom, Absalom!’. And in the Milius/Coppola screenplay, this connection is so strong that the two men bond together for a climatic battle against the Viet Cong.

Wait. What?

That is the film as Milius originally conceived it. Milius wanted to write a war movie as much as he wanted to make a statement about the war. His politics are well-known. He wrote and produced the film ‘Red Dawn’ (1984) about a Soviet invasion of the United States. It was basically an NRA commercial, demonstrating how the invaders would use the registration system to track down and confiscate all firearms.

The early drafts of ‘Apocalypse Now’ have all the major set pieces seen in the final film, but with Milius’ original ending. In some cases scenes appear as written, in others they take place either in different places geographically or in different times within the flow of the film itself. There are some startling changes in terms of key pieces of dialog – and many of those that have become the most quotable in film history – which were originally delivered by other characters. Willard himself utters the now famous ‘Charlie don’t surf’ and ‘Someday…this war is gonna end.’

It is the river itself that is the third basis for the film. The production had been fraught with problems. Actor Harvey Keitel, originally cast to play Captain Willard, was replaced a couple of weeks into shooting. And then Martin Sheen had a heart attack, shutting down production. And then there was a typhoon. They worked when they could. While Sheen was unavailable, the cast and crew shot scenes that would later be edited with shots of Sheen. There are even some long shots of the patrol boat featuring an unidentifiable Keitel used in the final film.

As Coppola describes it, he had no ending. Even though he had started production with the script as written, he hadn’t been happy with that final battle scene. They were going to the location and Marlon Brando would be flying in for a million dollar week. And there was no ending. According to Coppola, by this point he’d shot everything that could be shot in the script. He had taken to leaving the script in his hotel room and bringing his original paperback copy of ‘Heart of Darkness’ to the set every day.

Brando’s monologues were worked out in detail ahead of time with Coppola. But in front of the camera it was all Brando improvising, both solo and with Sheen and, only rarely, Dennis Hopper. It is one of these exchanges where the lines from ‘Heart of Darkness’ occur, when Col. Kurtz tells Willard the generals think his methods are unsound.

It was on the river that Coppola finally came to terms with what had to happen. Willard had to carry out his mission. He had to kill Kurtz. The entire scene where the villagers sacrifice a water buffalo by brutally hacking it to death with machetes was something Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, discovered while visiting a neighboring village (Her excellent documentary, ‘Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse’ (1991) covers this in detail). And this is how Willard came to hack Kurtz to death in one of the most amazing scenes in film history.

Willard is more present in the film because of his narration. This was added after the film was shot. There was narration in the script, which Coppola recorded himself for use in editing, but he wasn’t happy with it. He knew of Michael Herr’s writing from the research Milius had done writing the screenplay (Herr is also one of the screenwriters credited for Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’ [1987]). Coppola asked Herr to write his own narration, following the script but hewing more towards the film as it had evolved during the production.

Years after the film was released, Coppola approached editor Walter Murch about creating a new version of the film, utilizing footage that had been shot at the time but which, for various reasons, had not been used in the final film. There are a number of smaller changes, including the addition of transitions between the ‘episodes’ of the film.

The main additions are a scene involving the crew of the patrol boat encountering the Playboy Bunnies from the show at a fuel depot, another in which the boat docks at a French rubber plantation, and one in which Willard steals Colonel Kilgore’s (Robert Duvall) surfboard.

It’s an interesting exercise, but I don’t think it is necessarily a better movie. I found the scene in which Willard trades fuel for ‘time with the bunnies’ for the guys objectionable. It’s a scene straight out of the Milius screenplay though, as written, I found it not just objectionable, but totally missing the mark of the film in general.

Interestingly, Milius himself objects to the scene being restored to the film.

“The bunnies were like the Sirens in mythology,” he explained an interview. “Kilgore was the Cyclops, and the bunnies were the Sirens. To show less of them made them more mysterious.”

All three of the added scenes significantly alter our perception of Willard. The downright playfulness he exhibits stealing Kilgore’s board is unlike anything we’ve seen of him before. His sexual encounter with a beautiful French woman at the ghostly plantation and the pimping out of the bunnies shows a man who has needs beyond wanting a mission. The Willard of the original film was closed off. He even refuses the offer of a joint from the rest of the crew and then withdraws from them, literally drawing a curtain between them.