On January 30, 1964, with the Cuban Missile Crisis a recent memory, Stanley Kubrick took a diversionary approach to Cold War tensions by releasing Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It was the first time an American film director had dared to cloak a serious political statement in black comedy. Kubrick said that he had set out to make an earnest movie but decided that the nuclear destruction scenarios he had studied were too absurd to be played as anything but grim farce.
Kubrick’s daring vision convulsed audiences and most critics, who were also impressed with the film’s authentic details. The B-52 bomber’s interior was so convincing that U.S. Air Force officials demanded to know how Kubrick had managed to replicate it. He hadn’t: The offending set was a brilliant speculation, culled from aviation books and magazines. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther led a small, vocal backlash, admiring some of the performances but calling the finale — in which a Russian nuclear device incinerates the earth’s surface — ”malefic and sick.”
Strangelove production designer Ken Adam, 69, wonders what such naysayers would have made of the original ending. ”We filmed a gigantic pie fight in the War Room,” he says, ”with George C. Scott swinging from that lighting fixture.” But by the time Kubrick began previews, President Kennedy had been shot, and a closing scene ”with the President sitting on the floor covered in custard” simply wouldn’t fly, says Adam. Another key revision came when Peter Sellers — originally cast to play not only President Merkin Muffley, Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake, and the title role, but also the bomb-riding Major T.J. ”King” Kong — broke an ankle a week into filming his cockpit scenes. ”That,” says Adam, ”was the official reason Peter lost the (Kong) role.” In fact, according to Adam, Kubrick didn’t like Sellers’ characterization and was secretly relieved when the injury provided an excuse to hire Slim Pickens instead.