Last secrets of Strangelove revealed

by Grant B. Stillman

Grant B. Stillman is an international lawyer and diplomatic historian who stumbled upon these discoveries while taking a sabbatical at the Geneva Institute of Advanced International Studies. His full article will be published in the Spring 2009 issue of the periodical Film History: An International Journal // (c) 2008 Grant B. Stillman.


Despite the intense study of Stanley Kubrick's oeuvre in this anniversary year, some major questions about his early Cold War masterpiece Dr. Strangelove (1964) have yet to be answered. Most of the sources for the funniest moments not in the original book have never been identified. And we still do not even know the genesis for the title character's name memorably brought to life by Peter Sellers.

Kubrick himself left us important clues to solve these lingering riddles. In a New York Times interview given just before filming started, he described the story as being about "an American college professor who rises to power in sex and politics by becoming a nuclear Wise Man." The screenwriting director allowed his Russian ambassador character (Peter Bull) to admit that his most reliable intelligence source was from reading the New York Times. And during the film's restoration process in the early 90s, Kubrick, a former still photographer for Look magazine, personally supervised the rephotography of each frame of the negative to preserve as much detail in the images as possible. What exactly was he trying to make sure we could see?

If you remember the eerie final shot of his horror film The Shining (1980) Kubrick uses a period still photograph hanging on the haunted hotel's wall to reveal the Jack Nicholson character as being a reincarnated axe murderer. The importance of photographic inserts is central to Dr. Strangelove as well. When first seen the B-52 bomber pilot (Slim Pickens) is admiring a Playboy centerfold (Tracy Reed billed as Miss Foreign Affairs) whose buttocks are covered by a strategically-opened January 1963 edition of Foreign Affairs magazine. If you look it up, a lead article in that edition is by one of the long-rumored models for the Strangelove character, Henry A. Kissinger, who was already advising the Kennedy White House on revamping U.S. nuclear policies to make them more useable, including a first-strike option and more funding for fallout shelters.

What would you say if I told you there exists a piece of paper from an unrelated third party predating the script on which appeared the names of Peter Sellers, Henry Kissinger and UN ambassador during the Cuban missile crisis Adlai Stevenson (the easily recognizable model for the film's balding president), together with water fluoridation fears and Russian espionage conspiracies? All choice ingredients which turn up in the final version of the Strangelove screenplay.

Too good to be true? A forgery? No, it actually exists in of all places the recommended programs in the What's On TV listing pages of Time magazine from its 17 February 1961 edition, which featured a lead article on the supposed missile gap between the United States and Soviet Union. This was just the sort of cutting Kubrick would have been sure to place in his copious newspaper and magazine folder of nuclear inanities, which he was compiling in preparation for the film.

The Great Challenge (CBS, 4-5 p.m.). On the first of a new panel series, U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, Historian Arnold Toynbee, Economist Paul Samuelson and Foreign Affairs Expert Henry Kissinger discuss "The World Strategy of the U.S. As a Great Power.".... ...The Nation's Future (NBC, 9:30-10:30 p.m.). Debate topic: "Is Fluoridation of Public Drinking Water Desirable?"

The eclectic sources for this autodidact were legendary both in their mundanity and esoterica. As is well-known, he found the poetic title for his Vietnam opus Full Metal Jacket (1987) from perusing a humble gun catalog. So borrowing from a What's On TV listing to inspire the bizarre elements and improbable character mix of his screenplay would not have been beneath him. Moreover, some other memorable script components can now be sourced for the first time.

Scholars have rightfully focused on the crucial contributions of the legendary German-born production designer Ken Adam to the breakthrough look of the film. But most have missed the significance of how he first came to Kubrick's attention in the closing months of 1962. In several interviews Adam has mentioned that Kubrick told him he was very impressed by the first James Bond movie Dr. No (directed by Terence Young), especially Adam's set design, which was released during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, a scant couple of months before the New York Times "Wise Man" quote. Apart from being a favorite author of President Kennedy, Bond creator Ian Fleming was regularly serialized in Playboy, including the edition featuring a favorable profile about Kubrick himself.

In the 1958 novel of Dr. No we are told that the eponymous villain changed his German name upon assuming U.S. citizenship (as did Strangelove and Kissinger), and wanted to force missiles off their intended courses and targets. As a front for his secret island base, he employed Cuban workers to mine guano, an ingredient in fertilizers and munitions which probably inspired the name of the Strangelove character Col. "Bat" Guano (Keenan Wynn). Dr. Julius No meets his just demise when Bond entombs him in a guano avalanche, which apparently was too much even for the film version.

The wheelchair-bound motif for Dr. Strangelove is harder to source with confidence, but it probably has some inspiration in the sexually frustrated, mechanistically-maimed, intellectual husband of Lady Chatterley from D.H. Lawrence's novel which was going through hard-fought obscenity trials for release in the early 1960s and would be sure to have struck a chord with Kubrick both in his censorship battles over Lolita and interest in daring writers, such as Vladimir Nabokov and Arthur Schnitzler. Apparently both Kubrick and Sellers believed that politically powerful figures were really overcompensating for being impotent in some hidden way and that could be indicated by the wheelchair. This logic would be in line with the quote given to the New York Times as well.

Peter Sellers admitted that the business of using a black glove was suggested by Kubrick himself, although the anarchic arm was probably an inspired Seller's improvisation which anticipated medical science by more than 30 years. Certainly Fritz Lang's seminal mad scientist Rotwang (from Metropolis 1927) can be glimpsed here, but I feel Kubrick was probably influenced more directly by the black-gloved, guano-mining Dr. No characterization who, we learn in the film version, suffered from a nuclear accident to his hand.

Many claim to have resolved the genesis of the title character's name. Curiously, co-scriptwriter Terry Southern was silent about that. Until we unearth a "smoking-gun memo" in the director's own handwriting from the recently-opened Kubrick archives, I can only submit for your consideration one further explanation. Very few real people or fictional characters in the movies have names that begin with "Strang(e)". Of those rare exceptions, Fleming created the British MI6 Jamaican station chief, Jack Strangways, who is murdered in the first few minutes of Dr. No. In the movie his peculiar name is displayed prominently on the letterbox sign outside his gate.

A minor character in the second version Lawrence wrote of Lady Chatterley's Lover is also called Jack Strangeways and he dreams about mowing down "commies" with a machine gun and getting a prize stud position repopulating a post-apocalyptic world; fantasies which reappeared in the obsessed generals in Kubrick's movie. (What's more Kubrick may even have owned the underground edition of the long-banned book published by Mandrake Press; hence his naming of another of Seller's characters -- Group Captain Lionel Mandrake.)

As a closing clincher, the tongue-in-cheek giveaway in Kubrick's New York Times quote is driven home when we put together that the character actor who portrayed Dr. No was none other than Joseph Wiseman (quite literally a nuclear Wise Man)!

Just as the x-ray revelation of underlying sketches behind an old master's painting only enhances our appreciation of the final work; the discovery of these earliest roots in no way diminishes the overall intellectual and artistic achievements of the Strangelove screenplay. These unexpected sources do show us how they were collected by Kubrick and playfully exploited by him before the time of his collaboration with co-scriptwriters, which tends to support Kubrick's contention that he as auteur was primarily responsible for the key structural ingredients and unforgettable comedy situations. As Kubrick himself said, "If I told you [the meanings of my films] it wouldn't be ambiguous - and if you didn't discover it for yourself, it wouldn't mean anything anyway."