Bagel Over the White House: Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe (1964)

Welcome all to the second installment of Bagel Over the White House, an ongoing series in which I look at the effect of political context on American film and the effect of American film on politics. Today, I decided to give myself extra work by tackling two films at once, but with good reason.

Even at the time of their release, Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe were the subject of comparison to each other. Both films detail very similar stories of nuclear apocalypse, the newest and sexiest type of apocalypse there was in 1964. Just two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis seemingly brought the world to the edge of extinction, Hollywood gives us a good number of films telling us what the fear of unstoppable total annihilation does to a national psyche. There are several of these from around the same period, but Strangelove is easily the most well-remembered.

I’m not gonna spend too much time going through Dr. Strangelove in detail because, even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve probably already absorbed a lot of it through cultural osmosis. Just to go over some of the basics, the movie tells the story of an approaching nuclear apocalypse brought about by the insane General Ripper taking it upon himself to nuke the Commies without any orders from above after he deduces that they’re fluoridating the water as part of an evil plot to ruin his jizz. The president and his staff must figure out a way to stop Ripper from bombing Russia and thus setting off a doomsday device that will kill all life on Earth, although the beautifully-named Air Force Chief of Staff Buck Turgidson sees the whole mess as a Commie plot to get the Americans to reveal all of their military secrets to the Russians.

In the end, the combined forces of the Americans and Russians are not enough to stop Major Kong’s plane from dropping a nuke and bringing about the end of days. The desperate Americans develop a plan to start a new society underground in abandoned mine shafts, making sure to plan things out so that they will still be more powerful than the Russian mine-dwellers when they emerge to a barren wasteland in a hundred years. Even in the face of human extinction, the Cold War never stops.

What sets Dr. Strangelove apart from its contemporaries in the nuclear annihilation genre is that it’s a comedy, and a very good one at that. The title character, one of three played by Peter Sellers in the film, is an ex-Nazi delighted to now be developing doomsday plans for the US government. It’s a bizarre, unsettling, and truly great comic performance which sticks out even in a movie that’s full of them. Dr. Strangelove manages to relieve an impossibly heavy tension by making the constant threat of everybody dying funny and by speaking to a commonly held belief that the Cold War was a bunch of dangerously-armed men acting like children who were going to get us all killed. There is an inherent fear of having to give up your power and rely on someone else’s good judgment that goes hand in hand with representative government, and Strangelove finds the humor in that beautifully. It’s not hard to see why this was a box office hit.

Fail Safe is the movie Dr. Strangelove was going to be before Stanley Kubrick decided it might work better as a black comedy. It is a serious, no-nonsense, real-time account of the US government trying to avoid an impending nuclear apocalypse brought about by simple technological failure. There is no General Ripper here, only a faulty (or sabotaged) radio which prevents the military from getting through to its nuclear bombers and telling them not to destroy Moscow. There is no score whatsoever to break the tension, and many of the shots feel extremely harsh and claustrophobic. From the beginning, we see that this tension is already beginning to wear on the people in charge of our armory, and before the movie ends, we will see several of these men pushed to their breaking points.

Being a more straightforward drama, Fail Safe presents a more diverse look at the politics surrounding nuclear war than Dr. Strangelove tries to. One of our central characters here is Professor Groeteschele, a hawkish political scientist who sweeps his way into the Pentagon with the goal of convincing the US military to annihilate the Russians by any means necessary (his Scary German Name hardly a coincidence). Like Turgidson and Ripper, he sees the Russians as sub-human and this unfortunate incident as a golden opportunity to strike against Moscow with little chance for retaliation. He is opposed by the more level-headed General Warren “Blackie” Black. Of note here is the role reversal from Strangelove: in that movie, it was the military men who were trying to ramp up the conflict and the intellectual president who had to talk the world out of blowing itself up. Here, the intellectual is the hawk and the military is full of good, rational men trying to save the day for us all. The two debate in the beginning over whether limited war is helpful or even possible in this new Nuclear Age, a question which was very relevant as the US prepared to try and engage in one in Vietnam, and you can guess who takes which side.

Dan O’Herlihy (left) as General Blackie and Walter Matthau (right) as Groeteschele

Fail Safe is most famous today for its extreme bummer of an ending. Despite the best efforts of the honorable President Henry Fonda and Frank Overton’s General Bogan, one of the planes headed for Moscow succeeds, and the city is obliterated. Like Kong in Strangelove, the soldiers flying this plane have been trained a little too well; Colonel Grady ignores admonitions from both the president and his own wife, assuming that they are merely Soviet agents disguising their voices. The blind heroism that we normally look for and respect in our armed forces is turned on its head. In order to convince the Russians that it was all a terrible accident and prevent them from starting a full-on nuclear war in retaliation, the President makes the ghoulish choice to level the playing field by nuking New York City. The movie really piles on here; we find out during this whole process that the First Lady is in NYC that day, as is Blackie’s whole family, leading him to commit suicide after he succeeds in dropping the bomb.

Even though this is technically less of an apocalypse than Strangelove ends in, the realism the movie is presented with makes it much more upsetting. I cannot imagine how it must have felt to see this play out in 1964 when this seemed like something that was imminently possible; people must have been vomiting in the theaters. It was already going to be a tough sell since Strangelove had come out first and made light of the same subject matter, but the ending ensure that Fail Safe would have trouble at the box office. The final shots of the film, some snap zooms on stills of New Yorkers happily and unknowingly frolicking as their death approaches from above, remind me greatly of the infamous “Daisy” campaign ad which had aired during the presidential election of that year.

One of several great two-shots of Henry Fonda (right) as the president and Larry Hagman (left) as his Russian translator

For anyone who isn’t familiar, “Daisy” was an ad aired by President Johnson’s reelection campaign in 1964. It features a small girl plucking petals off of a daisy and (incorrectly) counting up to nine as she goes. Once she makes it there, the camera freezes, starts zooming in on her pupil, and an announcer starts a countdown from 10. When he reaches zero right as the girl’s pupil fully blacks out the screen, the ad switches to footage of nuclear detonations and we hear this quote from LBJ: “These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.” It ends by telling us to vote for President Johnson and that “The stakes are too high for you to stay home.” Nuclear warfare was a major issue of the 1964 campaign, in part because Johnson’s opponent, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, had been a little too willing to advocate for using nukes on the Russians. Though Goldwater is never mentioned by name in the ad, anyone paying attention to politics at the time would have gotten the message loud and clear: vote for Johnson or the girl gets it.

The “Daisy” ad, Dr. Strangelove, and Fail Safe, along with fellow 1964 Cold Warfare film Seven Days in May, are often considered to have contributed to Goldwater’s massive loss. In Strangelove, we see a nuclear crisis brought about in part because the wrong people are in charge of our armory; in Fail Safe, we see one (sort of) averted because the right people win out over the evil Groeteschele. The implication of both films is that America can save itself by ensuring that only good guys have access to the big red button, and Barry Goldwater is not a good guy. The Nuclear Age is no place for hawks, remember to vote Johnson on November 3rd.

“Hey, this is just enough petals to count how many electoral college votes Goldwater will get!”

Despite the two films having so many similarities, Dr. Strangelove clearly came out on top. It performed much better at the box office, and it remains much more beloved today. This is not to say that Fail Safe has nothing to offer; it’s a fantastic if genuinely upsetting film that perfectly captures the tension it’s trying to portray. Both of them have something great to offer, so why did only one get the recognition it deserved at the time? The answer, I believe, lies in the tone. Fail Safe is one of the tensest movies I’ve ever seen. It is great, but it is most definitely not fun to watch. The ending left me feeling almost physically ill. Watching New York get annihilated as part of a very real-seeming apocalypse does not make for a good date night movie. The ending is also bleak in other ways; while the heroic and rational General Blackie commits suicide, the inhumane Groeteschele survives to affect policy for another day. Dr. Strangelove found a way to cut the unbearable tension of the Cold War, but Fail Safe did everything it could to build it up.

What makes one film a classic and another a relic is hard to pin down, but for these two parallel masterpieces, there may be a simple explanation: when people are faced with certain death, it may be too painful to ask that they confront their annihilation head-on. Or, we cannot stop worrying and love the bomb.