Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it — believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt. The reason why Coleridge agreed with the tourist who called the cataract sublime and disagreed with the one who called it pretty was of course that he believed inanimate nature to be such that certain responses could be more ‘just’ or ‘ordinate’ or ‘appropriate’ to it than others. And he believed (correctly) that the tourists thought the same. The man who called the cataract sublime was not intending simply to describe his own emotions about it: he was also claiming that the object was one which merited those emotions.
– C.S. Lewis, The Abolition Of Man
There was posted, not too long ago, an invitation at the PJ Media site for writers to speculate on which of Stanley Kubrick’s films were the greatest. There are two evident problems with doing this. One is that Kubrick’s films are, generally speaking, so very different;. Even the films that are kind of the same aren’t the same. 2001: A Space Odyssey is very different than A.I., despite their sci-fi settings. Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket are very anti-military, but in starkly different ways. A Clockwork Orange is a very different horror movie than The Shining.
But the other problem is more central. Of all of Kubrick’s movies, none of them approach the sublime more frequently than Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. I am using “sublime” here the same way that Lewis did, and Coleridge did. The scenes in Dr. Strangelove that work–and that’s almost all of them–merit our approval and respect.
A lot of this has to be credited to the brilliance of Kubrick’s collaborators, notably co-screenwriter Terry Southern and primary star Peter Sellers. In this scene, Sellers delivers his version of the one-sided telephone conversation schtick made famous by Bob Newhart just a few years prior:
Note the balance here between the faux-calm that Sellers is trying to project here against the fiddling and fidgeting that George C. Scott is doing, as well as the perfect twist of the knife by Sellers right at the end of the clip.
Sellers’s meek President and stammering RAF officer have to carry the majority of the movie, counterbalanced against Scott’s hyperactive Air Force general. Scott wasn’t yet the legendary on-screen presence that he would later be; at this point, his biggest roles had been in The Hustler and Anatomy of A Murder. But he’s extremely charismatic and effective as an overconfident steely-eyed missile man:
But for me, the best parts of Dr. Strangelove are the contributions by the smaller characters, and that has to be credited to Kubrick. The performance everyone remembers is that of Slim Pickens as the pilot of one of the bomber planes. The fact is that Pickens wasn’t really that good of an actor. His other memorable roles came in Blazing Saddles, which was a knowing self-parody, and in 70′s TV dreck like B.J. And the Bear, which I mention just to play this video:
But what’s easily the most magical scene in Dr. Strangelove is the brief appearance of Keenan Wynn, who probably appeared in more schlocky TV shows than anyone else, and who was the villain in one of the “Herbie” movies. Here, he gets the chance to out-deadpan Peter Sellers, of all people, and does it magnificently:
There shouldn’t be a debate about this, people. Dr. Strangelove is the best Kubrick movie. Period. You can tell C.S. Lewis I said so.