17 Facts About Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Stanley Kubrick’s bleak Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb belongs to a class and genre all its own. Here’s everything you need to know about the game-changing movie on its 55th anniversary.

1. The movie was supposed to be a drama.

The international climate of the early 1960s piqued Stanley Kubrick’s interest in writing and directing a nuclear war thriller. Kubrick began consuming piles of literature on the topic until he came across former Royal Air Force office Peter George’s dramatic novel Red Alert. Columbia Pictures optioned the book, and Kubrick began translating the bulk of the novel into a script.

During the writing process, however, the director found himself struggling to escape a persistent comedic overtone because he found the vast majority of the political calamities described in the story to be inherently funny. Eventually, Kubrick abandoned the idea of fighting the adaptation’s dark sense of humor and embraced it wholeheartedly.

2. Dr. Strangelove doesn't exist in the original book.

A still from 'Dr. Strangelove' (1964)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Tone aside, the plot of Dr. Strangelove is strikingly similar to that of George’s novel. There’s one notable exception: Dr. Strangelove doesn’t appear in the novel—Kubrick and writer Terry Southern created the new character. 

3. The studio demanded that Peter Sellers play multiple roles. 

Columbia Pictures slapped Kubrick with a few conditions at the dawn of Dr. Strangelove’s production. The studio’s chief demand was that Peter Sellers, with whom Kubrick had worked on Lolita and who the director had planned to cast again, play multiple roles in the new movie. (Sellers played a character with a propensity for disguises in Lolita, which Columbia speculated helped fuel the movie’s success.) 

4. Sellers was supposed to play Major Kong.

Originally, Sellers was cast as four characters in Dr. Strangelove: Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and the titular mad scientist (all of whom he played in the movie), as well as Major Kong. After Sellers injured his leg and had trouble with the Texas accent, Kubrick brought in Slim Pickens to play Kong.

5. Two other famous cowboys were approached to play Kong.

Before landing on Pickens, the production team sought fellow Western mainstays John Wayne and Bonanza star Dan Blocker for the part of Major Kong. Wayne never replied to Kubrick’s messages, and Blocker’s agent passed on the project. Co-writer Southern later remembered the agent sending a telegram that read, “Thanks a lot, but the material is too pinko for Dan. Or anyone else we know for that matter.”  

6. Nobody told Slim Pickens they were making a satire.

Before being cast as Dr. Strangelove’s gung-ho bomber pilot Major. T. J. Kong, actor Slim Pickens had starred almost exclusively in Westerns, with nary a comedy part to his name (much less a political satire). This didn’t pose much of a problem, however, as Kubrick deemed the actor’s natural cadence and decorum to be perfect for the cowboy soldier. 

Kubrick led Pickens to believe that the film was supposed to be a serious war drama, prompting him to carry himself as he might in any of his Western pictures. Furthermore, according to James Earl Jones (who made his film debut in Dr. Strangelove) and Kubrick biographer John Baxter, Pickens behaved, and dressed, identically onscreen and off … not because he was “staying in character,” but because he apparently always acted like that. 

7. Kubrick lied to George C. Scott in order to get funnier takes.

George C. Scott in 'Dr. Strangelove' (1964)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Unlike Pickens, George C. Scott—who plays bombastic General Buck Turgidson—was well-aware that Dr. Strangelove was a comedy, but was nevertheless hesitant about playing his character too “big.” Kubrick coaxed Scott to deliver broad, animated performances as Buck, promising him that they were merely an exercise and would not be used in the final cut. Of course, the takes that went to print were among the actor’s wackiest. Scott felt terribly betrayed, and vowed never to work with Kubrick again. Although Dr. Strangelove remained their sole collaboration, Scott did eventually come to appreciate the film and his performance.

8. Kubrick got his way with Scott by beating him at chess. 

When Kubrick wasn’t duping Scott into performing against his instincts, the two were wagering on the outcome of chess matches. Both the director and his star were expert chess players, and would settle arguments about creative differences with on-set competitions. (Kubrick often won.) 

9. President Merkin Muffley originally had a cold. 

On the opposite side of the spectrum, some performances were a bit too unruly for Kubrick’s tastes. In developing his part as U.S. President Merkin Muffley, a wimpy and diplomatic foil to Buck Turgidson’s vociferous “man’s man,” Sellers and Southern experimented with giving the character a bad cold. Sellers’s imitation of comically agonizing cold symptoms consistently cracked up the rest of the cast and became too much of a distraction from the film’s forward momentum. 

10. Kubrick was surprised that very few people caught on to the film's many sexual innuendos.

It wasn’t until around two months after the release of Dr. Strangelove that Kubrick heard anyone mention the movie’s vast array of visual and verbal sexual euphemisms. The first person to contact him about the in-movie prevalence of double entendre was Cornell University art history professor LeGrace G. Benson; Kubrick replied two weeks later with a letter of gratitude. 

11. Dr. Strangelove was based on four (not five) famous German scientists and political figures.

The movie’s wheelchair-bound namesake, an ingenious but maniacal former Nazi scientist, drew from a collection of real-life influences. The character was modeled chiefly after rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun, with traces of RAND Corporation military strategist Herman Kahn, Manhattan Project kingpin John von Neumann, and hydrogen bomb designer Edward Teller. Some later critics have claimed that Henry Kissinger also helped inspire the character. However, Sellers always denied this speculation, and as Slate notes, Kissinger was still a fairly obscure Harvard professor in 1964.

12. General Ripper's fluoridation conspiracy theory came from a real-life radical group.

General Jack Ripper’s conspiracy theory about water fluoridation, which prompts him to instigate global warfare, wasn’t Kubrick’s creation. Founded in 1958, the John Birch Society promoted an anti-fluoridation agenda throughout small-town America. In several areas of the country, water fluoridation was banned, and advocates of the practice were threatened with arrest and incarceration. 

13. One line of dialogue was changed because of JFK's assassination.

Dr. Strangelove held its first test screening on November 22, 1963, the same day that John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas. Recognizing that the tone of the dark, politically charged satire might seem too abrasive for American audiences in light of the tragedy, Columbia Pictures delayed the film’s release from December 1963 to January 1964. 

On top of this, Strangelove employed sensitivity by tinkering with a line spoken early on in the film by Major Kong. While rifling through a pack of military supplies that included chewing gum, lipstick, nylon stocking, and prophylactics, Kong (originally) remarked, “A fella could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all this stuff.” A sloppy lip-dub replaced the word “Dallas” with “Vegas” as not to allude callously to the site of Kennedy’s murder.

14. Kubrick opened a lawsuit against a rival film during production. 

Four years after Peter George penned Red Alert, Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler came out with similarly themed but more commercially successful novel Fail Safe. Shortly after the second novel’s publication, the film was optioned for adaptation. Curiously enough, the studio in question was Columbia Pictures, the very company that was producing Dr. Strangelove at the time. 

While George was engaging in his own legal battle with authors Burdick and Wheeler for alleged plagiarism of his 1958 story, Kubrick threatened the Fail Safe adaptation, directed by Sidney Lumet, with similar legal action. In truth, Kubrick only wanted to push the rival’s release back far enough that it wouldn’t interfere with the performance of his own picture. Fail Safe was ultimately released in October of 1964, nine months after Dr. Strangelove

15. The movie was supposed to end with a pie fight. 


Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Perhaps the most legendary deleted scene in the history of cinema, Dr. Strangelove’s original ending involved the entire war room staff engaging in a madcap pie fight. The segment in question begins with Soviet Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky, disgruntled over his mistreatment at the hands of General Turgidson, hurling a custard pie at the American officer, but missing and hitting President Muffley instead. 

What comes next is a rally cry by Buck (“Gentlemen, our beloved president has been infamously struck down by a pie in the prime of his life! Are we going to let that happen? Massive retaliation!”), followed by fast-motion warfare that is ultimately halted by the yells of an infuriated Dr. Strangelove. 

Conflicting rumors attribute the scrapping of the scene to the Kennedy assassination (with Turgidson’s “our beloved president” line coming off as inappropriate in the context of JFK’s death) and Kubrick’s feeling that the scene simply didn’t work creatively. The idea was scrapped following the November 22 test screening and has been shown publicly only once: at a screening of the film at London's National Film Theatre in 1999, immediately following Kubrick’s death. 

16. Sellers's comedy partner allegedly suggested the somber ending. 

Prior to his work on Lolita or Dr. Strangelove, Sellers was known best as one third of a British radio comedy group that led The Goon Show. Rumor has it that Sellers’s fellow Goon, Spike Milligan, paid an impromptu visit to the Strangelove set one day during production to spend time with his friend. It was during Milligan’s pop-in that he apparently suggested to Kubrick the idea of juxtaposing footage of nuclear explosions with the bittersweet melodies of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again.” 

17. Dr. Strangelove inspired actual changes in international policy.

While certain critics, politicians, and military personnel alike dismissed Dr. Strangelove as farce and fallacy, the terrifying plausibility of the events at play in the movie struck a nerve with Washington D.C. Government agencies including the Pentagon’s Scientific Advisory Committee for Ballistic Missiles examined the film and Peter George’s Red Alert as a means to qualify the likelihood and prevent a Strangelove-like scenario in the real world. As early as the mid-1960s, procedure was shifted so that no one government individual would have access to the complete code needed to unlock a nuclear weapon.

By the 1970s, the Air Force began employing coded switches that would disallow the unauthorized instigation of nuclear arms, as represented by the actions of General Ripper in the film.

Why Are the Academy Awards Statuettes Called Oscars?

Getty Images
Getty Images

In 2013, the Academy Awards were officially rebranded as simply The Oscars, after the famed statuette that winners receive. "We're rebranding it," Oscar show co-producer Neil Meron told The Wrap at the time. "We're not calling it 'the 85th annual Academy Awards,' which keeps it mired somewhat in a musty way. It's called 'The Oscars.'" But how did the statuette get that nickname in the first place?

The popular theory is that the nickname for the Academy Award of Merit (as the statuette is officially known) was coined by Academy Award librarian and future Director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick. The story goes that when Herrick first saw the statue in 1931, she said that it looked like her Uncle Oscar. According to Emanuel Levy, author of All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards, columnist Sidney Skolsky was there when Herrick said this and would later write that, “Employees have affectionately dubbed their famous statuette ‘Oscar.’”

While the first documented use of “Oscar” as the nickname for the statuette was made by Skolsky—in a 1934 New York Daily News article—there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Skolsky was actually responsible for the above quote. Skolsky, in his 1975 memoir Don’t Get Me Wrong, I Love Hollywood, claimed he first used the nickname referencing a classic vaudeville joke line, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” in an attempt to mock the Academy Awards:

"It was my first Academy Awards night when I gave the gold statuette a name. I wasn’t trying to make it legitimate. The snobbery of that particular Academy Award annoyed me. I wanted to make the gold statuette human. ... It was twelve thirty when I finally arrived at the Western Union office on Wilcox to write and file my story. I had listened to Academy, industry, and acceptance talk since seven thirty ... There I was with my notes, a typewriter, blank paper, and that Chandler feeling.

You know how people can rub you the wrong way. The word was a crowd of people. I’d show them, acting so high and mighty about their prize. I’d give it a name. A name that would erase their phony dignity. I needed the magic name fast. But fast! I remembered the vaudeville shows I’d seen. The comedians having fun with the orchestra leader in the pit would say, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” The orchestra leader reached for it; the comedians backed away, making a comical remark. The audience laughed at Oscar. I started hitting the keys ...

“THE ACADEMY awards met with the approval of Hollywood, there being practically no dissension … The Academy went out of its way to make the results honest and announced that balloting would continue until 8:00 o’clock of the banquet evening … Then many players arrive late and demanded the right to vote … So voting continued until 10 o’clock or for two hours after the ballot boxes were supposed to be closed … It was King Vidor who said: “This year the election is on the level” … Which caused every one to comment about the other years … Although Katharine Hepburn wasn’t present to receive her Oscar, her constant companion and the gal she resides with in Hollywood, Laura Harding, was there to hear Hepburn get a round of applause for a change…”

During the next year of columns, whenever referring to the Academy Award, I used the word 'Oscar.' In a few years, Oscar was the accepted name. It proved to be the magic name."

"Mouse's Return," a September 11, 1939 article in TIME magazine, seems to back up Skolsky’s above claim, stating:

"This week Sidney Skolsky joined the growing stable of writers that Publisher George Backer is assembling for his New York Post. Hollywood thought Publisher Backer had picked the right horse, for Skolsky is one of the ablest columnists in the business (he originated the term “Oscar” for Academy Awards) and by far the most popular …"

Though Skolsky has actual evidence to back his claim, his assertion that he coined the nickname is still slightly in doubt. Many claim that during Walt Disney’s Academy Award acceptance speech for Three Little Pigs in 1934—the same year Skolsky first covered the Awards—Disney referred to the statuette his little "Oscar," which was supposedly an already well-established nickname for it within the industry. The term Oscar was commonly used as a mocking nickname for the Academy Award (as Skolsky claims he used it), but in this theory, Walt Disney was supposedly the first in the industry to publicly use the name in a positive light.

Perhaps Herrick really did think the statuette resembled her uncle. Or maybe Skolsky really did come up with the moniker (whether he did or not, he certainly helped popularize it). In the end, nobody really knows why the Academy Award statuette is called an Oscar.

The idea for the design of the Academy Award statuette was thought up by MGM director Cedric Gibbons. His idea was to have a knight gripping a sword while standing on a film reel. Sculptor George Stanley was then hired to create the actual statuette based on this design idea. The first Academy Awards ceremony was held on May 16, 1929 in the Blossom Room of Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel. The nickname Oscar wasn’t officially adopted for the statuette by the Academy until 1939.

Incidentally, the Academy states that the five spokes on the film reel the knight is standing on signify the original five branches of the Academy: writers, directors, actors, producers, and technicians.

Daven Hiskey runs the wildly popular interesting fact website Today I Found Out. To subscribe to his “Daily Knowledge” newsletter, click here.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article originally appeared in 2013.

11 Dothraki Words and Phrases Every Game of Thrones Fan Should Know

Helen Sloan, HBO
Helen Sloan, HBO

You know the words khal and khaleesi, but consider working these other words and phrases from the Dothraki language—which was created by linguist David J. Peterson, and featured in Living Language Dothraki—into your vocabulary before the final season of Game of Thrones premieres on April 14, 2019.

1. M’athchomaroon!

The Dothraki way of saying hi, this word—which can also be shortened to M’ach! or M’ath!—translates to “With respect.” To say hello to a group of non-Dothrakis, you would use the phrase Athchomar chomakea, which literally translates to “Respect to those that are respectful.” Fonas chek, which translates to "hunt well," is one way to say goodbye.

2. San athchomari yeraan!

Peterson writes that the Dothraki have no word for “thank you.” Instead, use this phrase, which literally translates to “a lot of honor to you!” but basically means “much respect!”

3. Fichas jahakes moon!

These are Dothraki fighting words, meant to encourage the warriors in their khalasar (or Dothraki group). This phrase means “get him!” but literally translates to “Take his braid”—which makes sense, since Dothrakis cut off their braids after a defeat. A Dothraki who wins a lot of battles is a lajak haj, or “strong warrior.”

4. And 5. Yer shekh ma shieraki anni and Yer jalan atthirari anni

Jason Momoa and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones
Helen Sloan, HBO

Both of these phrases—the first said by a male, the second by a female—mean “you are my loved one,” but they literally translate to phrases well-known to Game of Thrones fans: “You are my sun and stars” and “You are the moon of my life.” As Peterson notes, “these expressions come from Dothraki mythology, in which the sun is the husband of the moon.”

6. Anha dothrak adakhataan

Peterson writes that “as a result of the importance of horses to Dothraki culture, there are many idiomatic expressions related to horses and riding.” This phrase is best used before a meal: It means “I’m about to eat,” and literally translates to “I ride to eating.” If you were Dothraki, you’d likely be eating fresh horsemeat (gavat) and drinking mare’s milk (lamekh ohazho, which is often just shortened to lamekh).

7. Hrazef

This is Dothraki for horse, and there are many other words relating to horses in the language. A good one to know is the word for the great stallion, a.k.a., “the deity worshipped by the Dothraki”: vezhof.

8. Addrivat

Joseph Naufahu, Tamer Hassan, Emilia Clarke, Elie Haddad, Darius Dar Khan, and Diogo Sales in Game of Thrones
HBO

If there’s one thing the Dothraki are very good at, it’s killing, and they have multiple words for the deed. This is a verb meaning “to kill,” and literally translates to “to make something dead.” Both Ds are pronounced. It’s used, according to Peterson, “when the killer is a sentient being.” (Drozhat is used when a person is killed by an animal or an inanimate object, "like a fallen rock," Peterson writes.)

9. Asshekhqoyi vezhvena!

The next time your friend or loved one is celebrating another year around the sun, use this Dothraki phrase, which means “happy birthday” but literally translates to “[Have] a great blood-day!”

10. Zhavorsa or Zhavvorsa

Dothraki for dragon. Finne zhavvorsa anni? means “Where are my dragons?” This word might not be super applicable in everyday life, so jano—the Dothraki word for dog or dogs—is probably more appropriate.

11. Vorsa

Dracarys—a.k.a., what Dany says to Drogon to get him to let loose—is the High Valyrian word for dragonfire. It's unclear if the Dothraki have a word for dragonfire, but the word for fire is vorsa. Sondra, meanwhile, is their word for obsedian—or, as it's called on Game of Thrones, dragonglass.

For more information on the Dothraki language and culture, pick up Living Language Dothraki: A Conversational Language Course Created by David J. Peterson Based on the Hit Original HBO Series Game of Thrones at Amazon.

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