Saving the World

Feed me, you said, and I was feeding you, Jack!

Such an uneasy camaraderie evolves between British officer Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) and the psychotic General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden) in scenes scattered throughout Dr. Strangelove (1964). The War Room has its zany pre-apocalyptic antics, and Slim Pickens’ Russia-bound B-52 is hilarious in its satirically jingoistic way, but the portion of the film set in Ripper’s drab office is an absolute masterpiece of uncomfortable dark comedy. It’s not too hard to imagine it as a two-man play by Edward Albee—maybe a reworking of Zoo Story with some added machine-gun fire.

The premise for these scenes is so twisted: Mandrake essentially has to befriend a powerful but emotionally vulnerable madman in order to save the world. In a bid to gain Ripper’s trust, he agrees with virtually everything the General says, only occasionally dissenting from his paranoid ravings. Sellers retains a forced smile and laughs a little too loud, but his rapport-building tactics go nowhere, because as Ripper draws nearer to committing suicide, he becomes more and more walled off from the real world. So this scene devolves into two different one-sided conversations as each character gets lost in his own motives and anxieties.

In his futile efforts to avert a nuclear war, Mandrake hazards a trip into Ripper’s heart of darkness. That’s how he ends up feeding ammunition into Ripper’s machine gun as they fire on the American soldiers outside. With that “Feed me” line, Mandrake is playing on the close bonds that purportedly develop between soldiers in wartime. But his attempt to squeeze himself and Ripper into that well-trodden narrative falls on deaf ears, and his stratagem ends in comic disaster.

At least it was a valiant effort, and it gave screenwriters Kubrick and Terry Southern (with inveterate ad-libber Sellers) a chance to write some fantastic dialogue. For example, look at another of my favorites, as Mandrake recounts being tortured by the Japanese: “I don’t think they wanted me to say anything. It was just their way of having… a bit of fun, the swines. Strange thing is, they make such bloody good cameras.” In this bizarre, impossibly stressful situation, it almost makes sense—like so many of the nonsensical leaps made by characters in Dr. Strangelove—to connect torturing POWs with making cameras. Almost.

[For more about Dr. Strangelove‘s brilliant black comedy, see my piece from last week at The Film Experience about the film’s use of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again.” ]

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