As you get older—pay attention kids, this will happen to you someday—you discover that the things you assumed everyone knew are no longer true. It's a wake up call letting you know that time has marched on and what you thought of as "current events" have slipped into "history." It can become a problem when you're looking at an old movie or novel where understanding "topical references" suddenly requires footnotes.
It happened to me when I was watching The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966) with my daughter, then in second grade. It's a comedy about a Russian sub that gets stuck off of Martha's Vineyard and the crew's desperate attempts to get away before they are discovered. My daughter asked what to her seemed a perfectly obvious question: "Why are the Americans and Russians scared of each other?"
She knew Russians, of course. Her baby sitter was Russian. So why were the Russians afraid of being found, and why did the Americans get so hysterical when they learned there were Russians on the island? It wasn't easy compressing nearly half a century of history into a simple explanation. I told her that this happened a long time ago when America and Russia were afraid they were going to have a war. Fortunately, it didn't happen. Satisfied, she went back to the movie.
However, it got me thinking. There are a lot of Cold War era films that will make as much sense to younger audiences as Shakespeare's histories. Fail Safe. Seven Days in May. The 27th Day. The Bedford Incident. Are these films doomed to be forgotten or, worse, treated as "nostalgia," or can they transcend the concerns of their time and still speak to modern audiences? Of particular interest are two classic SF films that I've used in college courses, Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970).
In Dr. Strangelove General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) gives the Strategic Air Command orders to attack the Soviet Union under a protocol that assumes that Washington and the civilian leadership have been destroyed. Of course, this hasn't happened, and President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) is appalled that such a plan even exists. He's chagrined when he's reminded that he approved it himself after a rival politician claimed "our nuclear deterrent lacked credibility." When the president insists that there were supposed to be safeguards to make sure a lunatic like Ripper couldn't launch a nuclear war on his own initiative, General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) insists that they needn't throw out the whole program because of one slip up.
This is black comedy about bureaucracy out of control. Director Stanley Kubrick would dabble in satire again, but he would never go for laughs the way he does here. It helps to have Peter Sellers in three roles—not only as the Adlai Stevenson-like president, but as Lionel Mandrake, a British officer temporarily assigned to work with Ripper, and as ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove himself. Kubrick moves effortlessly back and forth between three locations: Burpelson Air Force Base, which Ripper has cut off from the outside world; one of the attacking war planes, led by Major "King" Kong (Slim Pickens in a role originally intended for Sellers, who couldn't master the Texas accent); and the top secret War Room at the Pentagon. Everyone is working at cross purposes. Ripper is intent that there be no turning back, leading to American troops firing upon each other when the president orders that communications be re-established with Burpelson. The president invites Soviet ambassador DeSadeski (Peter Bull) into the War Room to demonstrate to the Russians that this is a horrible accident and not an attempt to start World War III. Meanwhile Kong and his crew (including a young James Earl Jones in his first film role) "show initiative" by doing whatever it takes to complete their mission, not knowing that it will set off the Doomsday Device that will end life on Earth as we know it.
Quite apart from the Cold War trappings, this is a film in which irony abounds. Indeed, someone looking for an illustration of irony need look no farther than the scene where the president breaks up a scuffle between DeSadeski and Turgidson (who found the ambassador taking photos with a hidden camera) with the immortal words, "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here—this is the War Room!" There's also DeSadeski's explanation of why the Russians built the Doomsday Device, which will enshroud the planet in a radioactive cloud should their country come under attack. Tired of the arms race and with a population demanding consumer goods, the Soviet leadership saw this as a comparatively cheap way out. The deciding factor, though, was learning that the US was developing the same technology. When the president claims to have no knowledge of any such research, DeSadeski's reply is withering: "Our source was the New York Times."
Dr. Strangelove is also filled with unexpected sexual humor, starting with the names of the characters. Most are easy to decode, all suggesting potency, fertility or, in Ripper's case, sexual violence, but those looking for a challenge should try to explain the derivation of the president's name to a roomful of college students.
There is also a variety of visual and verbal gags linking nuclear madness to sex. The opening scene is of a bomber refueling in mid-air. While the two planes are linked in seeming coital bliss, the soundtrack provides a lush arrangement of the romantic standard, Try a Little Tenderness. Later, when Col. "Bat" Guano (Keenan Wynn) finds Mandrake in an office with Ripper's body, he decides that Mandrake is a "deviated prevert" who has killed Ripper to cover up his "preversions." And, of course, at the end, there's Strangelove's explanation of how they could survive a nuclear winter hiding in mineshafts, with ten women for every man. When asked if that will mean the end of traditional monogamy—for men, at any rate—Strangelove chortles, "Regrettably, yes."
Ripper's motivation may be the biggest joke of all. He's trying to protect "our precious bodily fluids" from contamination, a theory he developed when he noticed his "loss of essence" after experiencing "the physical act of love." What it sounds like is that Ripper is either ignorant of the male arousal cycle or, even more appropriately, he's impotent. By starting World War III he's firing off his missiles by other means.
These sex jokes are not just schoolboy humor inserted into the political satire. In mixing life and sex with death, Kubrick shows just how confused these characters are in sublimating their sex drives into nuclear annihilation. In one of the film's best gags, Major Kong goes through the crew's survival kits, which include nylons, lipstick, chewing gum, tranquilizers, sleeping pills, pep pills, one hundred dollars in gold, and one government-issue prophylactic. "Shoot, a feller could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff," says Kong. (Actually, he says "Dallas" but the line was rerecorded after the assassination of President John Kennedy.)
Dr. Strangelove remains a potent brew for modern audiences, which should have no trouble relating to self-serving officials, wars built on lies, and the fact that plain reason and logic seem to have no effect against those hell-bent on death and destruction. The enemy in Dr. Strangelove only seems to be the Russians. As with other Kubrick films, our real problem is ourselves.
In many ways Colossus: The Forbin Project came too late to be fully appreciated in its time. Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe had taken us through doomsday scenarios with no hope of escape years earlier. Then Kubrick's collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, the landmark 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), changed the face of SF films. After HAL 9000, a mad computer was old news. It would be some time until Colossus would be could stand as an important film in its own right.
Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden) has completed a massive scientific undertaking. All of America's nuclear weapons and defenses are now under the control of Colossus, the most advanced computer ever created. The theory is that war has now been taken out of human hands. If you attack us, Colossus will retaliate without fail. We needn't worry about any General Rippers—the human element has been removed.
What happens next is as predictable as it is inspired: Colossus discovers there's a Russian supercomputer called Guardian performing the analogous task for the Soviet Union and demands a link between the two. Every time the humans attempt to thwart Colossus, they fail, since it has the ability to rain nuclear death anywhere on the globe, including within the US. Much of the film is given over to attempts to outwit Colossus: by cutting off the link between the computers, by replacing the nuclear warheads with dummies, by coordinating action with the Russians. All are futile. What's worse, after each attempt Colossus takes steps to make sure that such actions cannot be repeated. In one of the most chilling scenes, Forbin's Russian counterpart is executed on Colossus's orders under the threat that missiles will be launched if his colleagues do not comply.
The film raises some fascinating questions. Isn't Colossus simply carrying out its programming? It has been set up to prevent war, and it ruthlessly does so, taking any and all necessary actions to fulfill its task. As General Turgidson said about the bomber crew that wouldn't give up, Colossus is showing initiative. It's easy to misread the film as simply another story about a manmade creation gone out of control. Dr. Forbin even recommends that Frankenstein be required reading for all scientists. Yet is Colossus really out of control? Indeed, even Forbin denies that the computer is actually capable of independent thought. Unlike HAL 9000, which killed off most of the Discovery's human crew in the belief it was saving the mission, Colossus is merely doing what it was programmed to do: prevent war, and protect itself against those who would attempt to keep it from fulfilling its mission.
Once Colossus realizes that Forbin is the one behind these various attempts it orders round the clock surveillance on its creator. In order to escape such scrutiny, Forbin has Colossus research its own datafiles on human sexuality, explaining that he needs privacy for this purpose and then bringing in a female co-worker as his supposed lover. During these rare moments of privacy they are able to exchange information and escape detection.
What's ultimately frightening about Colossus is that it offers no way out. Dr. Strangelove ironically presents us the end of the world, complete with Vera Lynn singing We'll Meet Again. Colossus offers us the end of human freedom as we know it. Forbin's final defiant speech about never giving in isn't very reassuring. As Colossus promises humanity peace and prosperity, perhaps the most disturbing thing is how many people would be willing to make the tradeoff.
Both Dr. Strangelove and Colossus contain messages that transcend their Cold War-era roots. While fashions and technology change, it's clear that some things stay the same. We're still pretty good at creating our own problems all by ourselves.