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Nerve center for a nuclear nightmare
by Leon Minoff

London - Chances are that Whitehall's recent decision to reshape itself along Pentagon lines - perhaps including a War Room - was not inspired by the odd construction on Stage A at Shepperton Studios, where Stanley Kubrick is guiding Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. One enters Mr. Kubrick's War Room as one enters a mosque. Felt overshoes must be donned to prevent scuffing 13,000 square feet of jet black laconite floor glittering like an eight ball caught in the rain. Once inside, however, a visitor is apt to regard his new footwear as the least strange thing about Dr. Strangelove.

The War Room of the Pentagon is one of the principal seats of the nightmare comedy that deals with the possibility of nuclear annihilation by accident, which Kubrick is producing, directing and co-writing.

The fact that no one has ever publicly acknowledged a subterranean precinct in the real Pentagon, much less issued a photograph, did not faze the 34-year-old filmmaker or his art director, Ken Adam. "We've never seen an H-bomb, either," Kubrick said between rehearsals, "but two whoppers are being built right now on an adjacent stage."

Science Fiction

In the center of the War Room - conceived as a sort of vast lean-to bomb shelter - was a circular table 22 feet in diameter and covered in green baize like the playing fields of Las Vegas and Monte Carlo. Seated in 29 chairs and bathed in an eerie light were the Joint Chiefs of Staff, brain-trusters and State Department officials. The 30th place was conspicuously empty. But not for long.

On a hand signal from the director, a floor panel slid open and a chairborne Peter Sellers, unrecognizable in one of his four roles in the film, emerged on a hydraulic lift and bounced jerkily into his place at the table as Merkin Muffley, President of the United States. He then addressed himself to co-star George C. Scott, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who was fingering a book entitled "World Targets in Megadeaths." "General Turgidson," said the President, "what is going on here?"

During a tea break, Kubrick explained what was going on. "A psychotic general, who believes that fluoridation of water is a Communist conspiracy to sap and pollute our precious bodily fluids, has unleashed his wing of H-bombers against Russia. That's why the President has been summoned to the War Room. It develops that for various and entirely credible reasons, the planes cannot be recalled, and the President is forced to cooperate with the Soviet Premier in a bizarre attempt to save the world."

The Bronx-born director, whose credits include Paths of Glory, Spartacus and Lolita, said he had wanted to make a film about the bomb for three years. He estimates he has read upward of 70 books on the subject and keeps a copious magazine and newspaper file. He's also spoken with such strategists as Herman Kahn and Thomas Schelling. But it was Alastair Buchan, director of London's Institute for Strategic Studies, who brought to his attention a suspense novel called Two Hours to Doom.

Mr. Buchan thought it a rare fictional treatment of how nuclear war might start inadvertently. So did Kubrick. He bought the screen rights for $3,000 and set about adapting it in his Central Park West apartment with the novel's author, Peter George, a former Royal Air Force flight lieutenant. It was only then, Kubrick divulged, that he began to see the film as a grim comedy.


Scheduled for release by Columbia Pictures in early fall, Dr. Strangelove is being shot in England, it was explained, to accommodate Peter Sellers, who was unable to leave the country for domestic reasons. In addition to the President, the protean Sellers also plays the title role of a German scientist, a Texas pilot of an H-bomber headed inexorably for Russia, and an R.A.F. exchange officer. What roles are left are handled by Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Peter Bull, James Earl Jones, and Tracy Reed, Sir Carol Reed's daughter, who, as the sole girl in the cast, is making her screen debut as a Pentagon secretary.

Background air sequences were shot over the Arctic. The sole other nonstudio location, Kubrick stated, was at International Business Machines in London, where Computer 7090 - the same data processor that calculated where Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. would descend into the ocean after his earth orbit - figured in sequences with Sellers.

The tea break over, the unit lined up for their felt slippers and padded back into the War Room. As cameras began to turn, 30 phones around the table were picked up simultaneously. The President was on the "hot line" to the Soviet Premier in the Kremlin (a full week, incidentally, before that headline-making announcement from Geneva). He spoke in the tones of a progressive nursery school teacher.

"Hello!... Hello, Dimitri.... Yes, this is Merkin. How are you?... Oh fine. Just fine. Look, Dimitri, you know how we're always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the Bomb?... The Bomb? The HYDROGEN BOMB!… That's right. Well, I'll tell you what happened. One of our base commanders..."

The New York Times, April 21, 1963

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