Release Date(s)1964 (June 16, 2020)
Studio(s)Hawk Films/Columbia Pictures (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A+
[Editor’s Note: Though we’re reviewing the films in the set one by one, Dr. Strangelove is currently only available on physical 4K disc in Sony’s Columbia Classics 4K Ultra HD Collection: Volume 1 box set. It’s available on Amazon by clicking here, or on any of the artwork pictured in this review.]
In case you haven’t guessed by its title, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is black comedy at its finest. The film wraps itself smartly in the trappings of the Cold War and cleverly reveals just how truly absurd that history actually was. But when this Stanley Kubrick classic first premiered in 1964, it caught an unsuspecting public by surprise. The arms race was in high gear. People took those silly “duck, cover, and don’t look at the flash” civil defense films seriously, and home bomb shelter construction was considered a growth industry. So it goes without saying that folks didn’t quite know what to make of Dr. Strangelove. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, but it was many years before the film came to be widely appreciated. The more we’ve come to understand the sheer magnitude of the military and political folly of the time however, the more brilliant Strangelove seems to become.
Here’s the plot in a nutshell: During the height of the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force maintained an around-the-clock airborne strike force of B-52 bombers, poised to deliver nuclear annihilation upon the Soviet Union at a moment’s notice. Aboard one of these bombers, Major “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) and his crew receive the unthinkable—the “go” code to initiate Wing Attack Plan R. It seems that, back at good old Burpelson AFB, their wing commander, General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), has gone stark raving mad. Believing that the government is ignoring a Communist plot to poison the water supply with fluoridation, Ripper sets out to “protect our precious bodily fluids” by launching a nuclear first strike. This, he hopes, will force ineffectual President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) into action. When Muffley learns that he can’t recall the bombers, he’ll have to order an even bigger strike to overcome the inevitable Soviet counter-attack. Of course, when confronted with this news, Muffley does nothing of the sort, preferring instead to inform a drunken Soviet Premier that one of his commanders “went and did a silly thing.” He even invites the Soviet Ambassador into the top secret War Room, much to the chagrin of his gung-ho military advisor, General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott). The Ambassador soon reveals that the Soviets have developed a Doomsday Machine, that will automatically destroy all life on Earth if it detects an American attack. As things unravel in Washington, back at Burpelson, a British exchange officer (Captain Mandrake—also Sellers) attempts to reason with Ripper, knowing that he’s the only person with a prayer of stopping this insanity. Meanwhile, aboard his B-52, the no-nonsense Kong is determined to complete his mission, come hell or high water. And in the end, it’s up to the film’s infamous Dr. Strangelove (Sellers yet again) to devise a last clever plan for “preserving a nucleus of human specimens.”
Sellers is terrific here as Muffley and Mandrake, but it’s as the off-kilter Dr. Strangelove, a wheelchair bound ex-Nazi scientist, that he truly shines. With his lopsided hair, Strangelove is an obsessive, maniacal figure, for whom Heil-Hitlering is an involuntary response. Scott’s blustering performance is equally entertaining as the gum-chewing Turgidson. Fans of classic Disney live-action films will quickly recognize Keenan Wynn as Colonel “Bat” Guano. And yes… that is James Earl Jones among the bomber crew (in his first feature film role). But it’s for Slim Pickens’ goofy turn here that I really love this film. He’s absolutely hilarious as cowboy-turned-pilot Kong: “If this thing turns out to be half as important is I figure it just might be, I’d say that you’re all in line for some important promotions and personal citations when this thing’s over with. And that goes for every last one of ya, regardless of yer race, color or yer creed!”
It’s also worth noting that Dr. Strangelove is loaded with sly, tongue-in-cheek jokes. Almost every character name is the film is some kind of clever sexual innuendo or pun. You’ll smile at the “Peace is our Profession” signs around Burpelson AFB... as American soldiers engage in a firefight across the base. You might spot that the pin-up girl in Kong’s Playboy is Turgidson’s secretary. Among the books in front of Turgidson in the War Room is one labeled World Targets in Megadeaths. Even the Soviet Premier’s name is a joke... Dimitri Kissoff.
Now then… onto the A/V quality of Sony’s new 4K Ultra HD. Dr. Strangelove was obviously captured photochemically on B&W 35mm film, in this case using Mitchell BNC cameras and spherical lenses. It’s presented here at the same 1.66:1 aspect ratio found on both the 2016 Criterion Blu-ray (reviewed here) and also Sony’s 2009 45th Anniversary Special Edition Blu-ray (reviewed here). Both were sourced from the same native 4K scan and restoration (done circa 2008) of the two surviving fine grain positives from 1964 (as the original camera negative no longer exists—it was destroyed by the laboratory charged with making prints shortly after the film’s original release). For this physical Ultra HD release, the film was graded for high dynamic range (HDR10 only is available on the disc). The chance to actually see this film in native 4K does result in a real improvement in fine detail and texturing—it’s not huge, but direct comparison between the Criterion BD and the 4K does reveal it. What I find to be more pleasing however is the HDR grade, which makes the film’s contrasts more natural looking. It’s a restrained grade to be sure, but the highlights are just a little more luminous. And the blacks are less crushed, which means they also reveal a bit more detail. Grain levels are still obvious, as they should be, but they’re a bit more refined than they appear in HD. This presentation is by no means a 4K dazzler, but it surely represents the film looking as good as it possibly can—every bit of detail in the negative is visible on screen.
On the audio side of things, you get the exact same English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix found on the Criterion Blu-ray. But instead of an LPCM mono mix, the English mono is also now in DTS-HD MA. Both tracks are of excellent quality, with good overall clarity and dynamic range for a film of this vintage. The mono mix is certainly my preference, but each retains the essential sonic character appropriate to the original theatrical experience. Additional audio options are available in Czech, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, with optional subtitles present in English, English SDH, Arabic, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Brazilian Portuguese, Portuguese, Russian, Slovak, Castilian Spanish, Latin Spanish, Swedish, Thai, and Turkish.
Sony’s Ultra HD package includes the following extras on the actual 4K disc:
- Stanley Kubrick Considers the Bomb (HD – 16x9 – 5:38)
- Flying Solo: Stanley Kubrick as Producer (HD – 19.14)
- Stanley Kubrick’s Pursuit of Perfection: Joe Dunton and Kelvin Pike (HD – 12:13)
- Exploding Myths: Richard Daniels on the Stanley Kubrick Archive (HD – 14:15)
- Deep Impact: David George Remembers Peter George (HD – 10:56)
- Transcending Time: Symbols and Strangelove (HD – 17:25)
- Archival Stanley Kubrick Audio Interview (HD – 2:50)
- The Today Show Clips: Peter Sellers & George C. Scott (SD – 16:38)
- Exhibitor Trailer (HD – 16:53)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 3:23)
In addition to this, the Blu-ray copy included in the package is the 2009 45th Anniversary Special Edition disc (which was also mastered from the 4K restoration). It adds the following:
- The Cold War: Picture-in-Picture and Pop-Up Trivia Track
- No Fighting in the War Room or: Dr. Strangelove and the Nuclear Threat (SD – 30:04)
- Inside Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (SD – 46:04)
- Best Sellers or: Peter Sellers and Dr. Strangelove (SD – 18:27)
- The Art of Stanley Kubrick: From Short Films to Strangelove (SD – 13:50)
- An Interview with Robert McNamara (SD – 24:26)
- Split Screen Interviews with Peter Sellers & George C. Scott (SD – 7:17)
So… longtime fans of Dr. Strangelove will recognize immediately that the extras listed above encompass everything from that 45th Anniversary Special Edition (which was essentially everything from the previous DVD releases too, save for an advertising gallery and an Easter egg), along with all of the video-based extras from the more recent Criterion Blu-ray. All you’re missing is the liner notes book from the 2009 Blu-ray (which was part of the Digibook packaging) and the Criterion edition’s beautiful reproduction of the Wing Attack Plan R envelope (with its own liner notes booklet, essay, and the replica Holy Bible & Russian Phrases book). That immediately makes this new 4K release the most comprehensive edition of the film to date, at least in terms of disc-based content. On top of that, you get the all-new Stanley Kubrick Considers the Bomb piece. It’s just 5 minutes in length, but it’s worth your time, featuring new interview comments by Eric Schlosser (author of Command and Control), Stanley’s daughter Katharina, and Jan Harlan.
It should also be noted that the Columbia Classics 4K Ultra HD Collection: Volume 1 box includes Movies Anywhere Digital codes for all of the films in the set, including this one. And while the discs come packaged in a traditional 2-disc keepcase (with a cardboard slipcover featuring a photo of Sellers as Strangelove), the insert artwork is based on the film’s original theatrical poster (you can see both pictured below).
Dr. Strangelove is a supremely funny film and one of my all-time favorites. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but if you like dark comedies and biting satire, this is as good as it gets. It’s also arguably one of Kubrick’s best films, so it’s well worth watching for that reason alone. Sony’s new 4K release might be a tough sell if you’ve already got the last two Blu-rays, but it’s comprehensive at least and likely as good as the film will ever look or sound on disc. So if you’re game, be sure to pack your survival kit, watch out for deviated pre-verts, and remember: There’s no fighting in the War Room!
- Bill Hunt