Strangelove, Threads and Franklin
[ Issue 28 ]

Strangelove, Threads and Franklin fascinate Emily Bronto

Bikwil is pleased to present Stangelove, Threads and Franklin

Strangelove, Threads and Franklin

Strangelove, Threads and Franklin is part one of Dr. Strangelove and Friends, another in our occasional series we have called Stepping Stones.

Starting with the movie character Dr. Strangelove, Tony Rogers takes us on a tour of some unexpectedly related people and things.

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Dr. Strangelove and Friends
[ Stepping Stones No. 2 ]
— Tony Rogers


Younger Bikwil readers, when asked to name their favourite performance of Peter Sellers (1925-80), might immediately think of his film appearances and so nominate Inspector Clouseau (1964, 1975, 1976, 1978 and 1982) or Chance, the mentally retarded main character in Being There (1979), or perhaps the bumbling actor from New Delhi in The Party (1968). On the other hand, elderly fans of The Goons (1951-9) will be well aware of the diversity of roles Sellers played in that radio show, and might be hard put to choose between them. Apart from his four regular parts (The Hon. Hercules Gryptpype-Thynne, Major Denis Bloodnok, Henry Crun and Bluebottle), Sellers could turn his talented voice to any outlandish minor character that Spike Milligan and his cohort writers could dream up. In The Canal and The Phantom Head-Shaver of Brighton, for example, he played six roles, while in The £50 Cure he performed a total of nine.

When he moved into big-release movies, Sellers occasionally took on multiple parts in that medium too, notably in the hugely popular The Mouse That Roared (1959). No wonder, then, that producer/director Stanley Kubrick was keen to sign him up for three roles in his black-and-white classic Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Sellers played the title role (the mad wheelchair-bound German inventor of The Bomb, with an artificial arm that’s always about to rise of its own accord into a Nazi salute), Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (a British Air Force liaison officer) and Merkin J. Muffley (the U.S. President).

Described in Baseline’s Motion Picture Guide Review as “one of the finest, funniest, most intelligent black comedies ever made”, Dr. Strangelove was in actual fact originally intended to have a straight dramatic plot like that of another 1964 anti-cold-war movie Fail-Safe. Basing his script on Peter George’s novel Red Alert, Kubrick found, however,

. . . while trying to flesh out the screenplay, that he was continually forced to leave out things "which were either absurd or paradoxical in order to keep [the screenplay] from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question." (Baseline and Gene D. Phillips in Stanley Kubrick: A Film Odyssey)

In 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 improvise.

Hard 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.

Great 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”.

It is 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.

One 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 line.

By the 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.

Softened 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.

The 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.

While 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?

Maybe I’m 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”.

For 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.

Not only 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.

Unlike 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.

As 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.

First 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.

Across 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.

In 1951 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.

The 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.

Francis 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 experiments.

James 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.

Crick 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.

Without 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.

Rosalind 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.

In The 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.

The irony 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 their discoveries.

(This essay will be continued in the next issue.)

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