Celebrating Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove at 50

As Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy Dr Strangelove, starring Peter Sellers, turns 50, we share some production designs and behind-the-scenes shots from the making of a cold war masterpiece.

Sarah Cox
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Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963)

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963)

Like most people during the 1960s, Stanley Kubrick feared the very real threat of nuclear war. His fear led to fascination and by the time he began adapting Peter George’s cold war novel Red Alert into a film, he had collected more than 40 books on nuclear warfare.

With the resulting film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963), Kubrick managed to make people laugh at a subject that was disturbingly close to reality. Although the subject matter of the film was initially considered unsuitable for a black comedy, after attempting to write a serious interpretation of the novel Kubrick decided that the concept was so absurd it was impossible to make it as anything else.

One of Kubrick’s production index cards

One of Kubrick’s production index cards
Credit: With thanks to the SK Film Archives LLC, Sony Colombia, the Kubrick family, and University of the Arts London

Kubrick was known to be a stationery fanatic, as well as compulsive note-taker, and often used index cards like the one shown here as a preferred method of annotation and documentation in the development of his films .

Story development points like these found in the archive provide an insight into Kubrick’s initial concepts for Dr. Strangelove and include everything from philosophical quotes to sketches of nuclear devices.

Despite his meticulous research, US government security meant that certain information was impossible for Kubrick to obtain. The US Air force denied Kubrick access to its B-52s during his research for the building of the bomber ‘Leper Colony’, leaving production designer Ken Adam to search technical magazines in order to get the information needed to replicate the planes.

Wally Veevers (special effects) stands underneath the model B-52.

Wally Veevers (special effects) stands underneath the model B-52.
Credit: With thanks to the SK Film Archives LLC, Sony Colombia, the Kubrick family, and University of the Arts London

US servicemen who later visited the set were reportedly amazed at the level of accuracy Adam had been able to achieve.

Further examples of Adam’s work in the Kubrick Archive at London College of Communication include sketches of the war room and the B-52 pilot Major T.J ‘King’ Kong (played by Slim Pickens) riding the atomic bomb.  

Ken Adam’s production design for the war room

Ken Adam’s production design for the war room
Credit: With thanks to the SK Film Archives LLC, Sony Colombia, the Kubrick family, and University of the Arts London

Ken Adam’s production design for the scene in which Major ‘King’ Kong rides an atomic bomb

Ken Adam’s production design for the scene in which Major ‘King’ Kong rides an atomic bomb
Credit: With thanks to the SK Film Archives LLC, Sony Colombia, the Kubrick family, and University of the Arts London

Kubrick favoured natural source lighting in his films, inspiring Adam to create dramatic architectural designs. The design of the war room meant that it was one of very few sets to be covered with a ceiling, allowing it to be lit from an identifiable source rather than studio lighting.

The role of Major Kong was originally intended for Peter Sellers. Already playing three main characters in the film, he pulled out of the role before shooting began, partly due to a broken ankle but reportedly also because he felt he couldn’t do justice to the heavy Texan accent required of the character. Having previously collaborated with Sellers on Lolita (1961), Kubrick encouraged him to improvise with the script; it was Sellers who developed the ‘Nazi’ hand of Dr Strangelove.

A number of behind-the-scenes photographs in the archive feature Kubrick and George C.  Scott (General Buck Turgidson) engrossed in a game of chess.

Playing chess in the war room.

Playing chess in the war room.
Credit: With thanks to the SK Film Archives LLC, Sony Colombia, the Kubrick family, and University of the Arts London

A keen player since childhood, Kubrick would set up the board during breaks to play with cast and crew. He found a willing participant in Scott and reportedly found his resulting victories an advantage in directing the actor on set.   

George C. Scott and Stanley Kubrick playing chess on set.

George C. Scott and Stanley Kubrick playing chess on set.
Credit: With thanks to the SK Film Archives LLC, Sony Colombia, the Kubrick family, and University of the Arts London

Kubrick had managed to address initial studio concerns over the controversial subject of the film by arguing that because the film was set in an indefinite future, it avoided any issues related to the current administration. The premiere for the film was due to be held on 22 November 1963 but never took place due to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy that day. Studio fears were renewed, concerned that the event would make the film appear insensitive. Out of respect, the release was postponed until the following year and Kubrick changed the character Kong’s line in the film from “A fella could have a pretty good week in Dallas” to “A fella could have a pretty good week in Vegas”.

Dr. Strangelove was critically acclaimed and won a number of awards, including New York Film Critics Award for best director, and was nominated for many others including three Academy Awards. In correspondence dated July 1964 Kubrick wrote: “I like Dr. Strangelove most of all the films I have done”. It is testament to Kubrick’s vision that even 50 years after its release, it is often voted one of the best comedies of all time.

The Kubrick Archive

The Archive of acclaimed filmmaker Stanley Kubrick is housed in the archives and special collections centre at University of the Arts London. It is available to University students and staff, members of other Higher Education Institutions internationally, and interested members of the public. The Archive provides a unique insight into the filmmaking processes of Stanley Kubrick, including his extensive research, screenwriting and production techniques, photography and film distribution and reception.

The Archives and Special Collections Centre holds approximately 90 archival boxes of material relating to the development, production and release of Dr. Strangelove, dating from 1959-1964.

Further information on booking a visit to the Archives.

The University Archives and Special Collections Centre is based at London College of Communication, Elephant and Castle, London, SE1 6SB.  Email: archive-enquiries@arts.ac.uk  Tel: 020 7514 9333.

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