collaboration with Peter George and screenwriter Terry Southern (The
Loved One, Barbarella, Easy Rider), Kubrick instead
devised a hilarious, clever script that as far as I’m concerned does not
seem passé or forced all these years later. Part of the reason being, of
course, the inspired performances of the cast, who were encouraged to
disregard, for example, are George C. Scott, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones
and Slim Pickens in their memorably bizarre roles as General “Buck”
Turgidson, Colonel “Bat” Guano, Lieutenant Lothar Zogg and Major T.J.
“King” Kong, respectively.
names, aren’t they? Especially Buck Turgidson, who is a sexual profligate,
and just the opposite of another U.S. General, Jack D. Ripper (played by
Sterling Hayden), who keeps reminding us that he stays away from women in
order to preserve his “precious bodily fluids”.
Sellers, however, who steals the show, Strangelove’s battle with that
mechanical arm of his being worth the price of admission on its own,
according to Baseline.
interesting sidelight. Believe it or not, at one point Kubrick & Co. had
scripted the final scene of Dr. Strangelove as a magnificent
drawn-out custard pie fight in the War room. In fact, a week was spent
filming it. In the end, however, Kubrick decided on the climax we know and
love today — nuclear bombs exploding all over the planet, the voice of
Vera Lynn singing We’ll Meet Again and Peter Sellers (as
Strangelove) hysterically demonic in his delivery of the last gem of a
time twenty years had passed since Dr. Strangelove, the public had
been energized by a string of large-budget disaster movies (Airport,
1970; The Poseidon Adventure, 1972; Earthquake, 1974; The
Towering Inferno, 1974). We were therefore considered ready for a
couple of feature films that concentrated, not on politicians’ ability or
inability to stop global thermonuclear war, but on the calamitous effects
of such a conflict.
up we may have been by the exploits of Lancaster, Hackman, Heston and
McQueen as they dealt with catastrophe, but no one, I’d say, was really
prepared mentally or emotionally for what appeared on our TV screens in
the mid to late 80s. Here in Australia we were subjected to both
controversial nuclear war aftermath movies in the one year, namely the
American The Day After and the British Threads. Both
were developed specially for television, and both were disturbing
presentations, devastating in their joint impact.
Day After (1983) is set in the Kansas town of Lawrence after a Russian
nuclear bomb explodes there, and traces the tribulations of several
families. The cast includes Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams, John Lithgow
and Amy Madigan. In similar vein, Threads (1984) portrays events
that lead up to and follow a nuclear war. It follows two families in the
working-class Yorkshire town of Sheffield whose son and daughter are about
to get married.
The Day After has its catastrophic and poignant moments, it seems too
heroic or optimistic or glamourised or . . . something. Sanitised,
perhaps? Certainly Hollywoodised. I saw it before I saw Threads and
quite appreciated it at the time, but once having sat through the
heartbreaking and sometimes stomach-turning Threads, I knew which
for me was by far the superior film.
How can I
forget its chilling, unrelenting bleakness? How can I ever fail to
remember the sight of people toiling miserably in the fields after the
nuclear winter has set in? How can I ever put out of my mind that
shattering childbirth scene with which Threads concludes?
generalising, but I believe that the presentation difference has to do
with how Americans and the English are sometimes incompatible in their
worldview and how they instinctively portray this on film. We have only to
look at movie versions of the Titanic story to see this
dissimilarity of approach — A Night to Remember (British, 1958) and
Titanic (American, 1953 and 1997). And as comedian John Cleese and
family therapist Robin Skynner point out in their Life and How to
Survive It, while “Americans love you if you’re successful: it’s
failure they can’t forgive”, for the English “[it’s] anything
optimistic, full of hope, or uplifting that makes them uneasy”.
Threads, producer/director Mick Jackson assembled a cast who at the
time were virtual unknowns (Karen Meagher, Reece Dinsdale, Rita May,
Nicholas Lane and Victoria O'Keefe). This in itself adds to the horrific
realism by not distracting the audience with star actors.
that, by concentrating in such a matter-of-fact way on the effects of
radiation and nuclear winter and extending his story of increasing
hopelessness and horror to three generations, he succeeds in making his
sobering cautionary point far more compellingly than a movie with a
hopeful ending could ever hope to achieve — much as we on this comfortable
side of a global holocaust might desire it.
Stanley Kubrick with his big-screen masterpieces, Mick Jackson has
specialised in producing and/or directing telemovies, some fictional, some
based on fact. Another fictional one you may remember was the satire A
Very British Coup (1988), developed for TV by Alan Plater from Chris
Mullins’ novel and starring Ray McAnally and Alan MacNaughtan.
regards Jackson’s “factual” movies, one of the best was The Race for
the Double Helix, made in 1974 for the BBC with Jeff Goldblum as James
Watson, Tim Piggot-Smith as Francis Crick, Alan Howard as Maurice Wilkins
and Juliet Stevenson as Rosalind Franklin. The story of the
discovery in 1953 of the structure of the DNA molecule is a riveting one
and, considering the competitive nature of the search, Jackson’s docudrama
title is quite appropriate.
there was a team led by U.S. chemist Linus Pauling (1901-94), who in 1951
had discovered a three-dimensional spiral structure in proteins, and was
now working on DNA. Deoxyribonucleic acid had been known as the chemical
transmitter of genetic information since 1944, but what it looked like,
how its component parts fitted together and how it performed its
hereditary function remained a mystery.
the Atlantic, several scientists were interested in the problem. Maurice
Wilkins (b. 1916), a physicist working at King's College in London when he
heard of Pauling's discovery, began to wonder whether DNA might have a
helical structure too. His research method was to use the technique known
as X-ray crystallography.
Rosalind Elsie Franklin (1920-58) joined the laboratory as another X-ray
crystallographer — not, as is sometimes thought, as Wilkins’ subordinate,
but as his peer. Though in her career she performed much other useful
research, it is her investigations on DNA for which she deserves to be
honoured, not only for the beautiful X-ray diffraction photographs she
obtained, but also for her insight into their implications. While
unconvinced about the whole DNA helical idea at first, Franklin extended
the studies begun by Wilkins and gradually produced better and
better high-resolution photographs.
complexity of DNA remained a frustration, however, and with no lenses to
focus X-rays as there are with light rays, mathematics must take the place
of glass, sometimes involving calculating from models based on guesses.
This is where Crick and Watson enter the story.
Crick (also born in 1916) was a physics graduate student at Cambridge. As
much as he would have liked to do DNA X-ray diffraction studies, English
protocol kept him from competing with Wilkins and Franklin, though it did
not prevent him thinking and talking non-stop about DNA. Indeed, thinking
and talking and guessing were what Crick and Watson were best at — and
this included gossiping and the picking of other people’s brains — for
they really preferred discussing other people’s results to doing their own
Watson, 12 years Crick’s junior, had come from America as a postgraduate
genetics student. Showing none of Crick’s restraint he applied for work in
X-ray crystallography, and was taken on at the same lab, where he
gradually learned to do diffractions. Working together, Watson and Crick
tried Pauling’s method of creating models of the molecule’s subunits. But
when they showed their first DNA model of three inter-twisted helices to
Wilkins and Franklin, Franklin was quick to point out its deficiencies —
primarily that it was incompatible with her own diffraction data.
established that the bases in DNA are always paired in the same way, but
he and Watson at this point ignored Franklin’s insistence on the correct
location of the sugars. Meanwhile, Pauling had produced his DNA model. It
too contained three twisted helices and was also clearly wrong.
asking her permission, Wilkins showed Watson and Crick one of Franklin’s
then unpublished photographs, which was crucial evidence for the helical
structure. Very excited when he saw the picture, Watson built a model that
incorporated two helices, paired bases, plus Franklin’s sugar structure.
Crick did calculations that showed that this model was feasible. Wilkins
and Franklin produced X-ray diffraction calculations that confirmed the
structure. On a visit to Cambridge, Linus Pauling agreed.
Franklin has been described as an aloof loner, and according to Watson she
and Wilkins got on each other’s nerves. On the other hand, in the
exclusively male scientific world she inhabited she was not even allowed
into the Common Room where she could talk shop with her colleagues.
Race for the Double Helix, Mick Jackson wisely allows time for all the
diverse personalities to be developed. Rosalind Franklin, in particular,
is presented quite sympathetically, particularly at the end, where she
accepts defeat so graciously.
is that had she lived (she died at the untimely age of 37), she’d have
almost certainly won the Big One for her vital contribution, but under its
rules the Nobel Prize is never awarded posthumously. Four years after her
death Watson, Crick and Wilkins did win the Physiology/Medicine Prize for