As pretty much every film buff knows by now, Stanley Kubrick's 1964 nuke satire Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb ends on a note both decidedly bizarre and oddly apt. Increasingly excited by his plan to secrete the best and the brightest of American hegemony in a mine shaft to sit out the nuclear shroud of the Doomsday Machine, the heretofore wheelchair-bound Strangelove (Peter Sellers, in one of three roles in the film) suddenly rises and takes a few short, hobbled steps forward. "Mein Führer!" he cries in elation. "I can valk!" But too late: it's all over, as a thoroughly distressing montage of mushroom clouds, accompanied by the WWII sentimental hit "We'll Meet Again."
The original ending was a bit different. What first interrupted Strangelove's elation was General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) once again seeing the Russian ambassador (Peter Bull) taking secret snapshots of the War Room, whereupon Turgidson attempts to dissuade him by throwing a custard pie from the War Room's buffet in his face. At which point there breaks out the king of all pie fights, halted by...the inevitable end of the world.
Kubrick's editor, Anthony Harvey, who had also cut the director's prior film Lolita, recalls the press screening, which happened to occur on or around November
21, 22, 1963, the day of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. "There we are. I was showing it to the press, I remember, around that time. We canceled everything and we all trudged on to Grosvenor Square, stood in shocked silence as the news unfurled. That's the date. And some weeks after that, I believe, the film was going to be released. And Columbia Pictures were very nervous about anything to show the president—any president—in that state, as it should be. Columbia was worried. And they were Columbia Pictures. That ending, how it started, the George Scott character threw a custard pie to the Russian ambassador, and it missed and hit the president. And then all hell broke loose. And it was like there was about two minutes when, after this brilliantly constructed film, it devolves into a kind of silent Mack Sennett sort of thing, with everybody getting hit by custard pies. And somehow they were very worried, the studio, about releasing it. They found it might be offensive or something. So Stanley took it out for the moment, and then the film opened and he just didn't feel like putting anything back. So that remained in the cutting room floor. But it was a brilliant piece of work. Who knows? I certainly thought it was. But I think when you get to a point in working on a film for almost a year, and this sort of sudden pressure comes in as a result of what happened to Kennedy, it's a sort of clear-cut situation. So that was removed. And it never went back." While stills of the footage exist, it's still unclear as to whether the scene survived the loss of the original negative, or exists in Kubrick's archive. Despite the hopes of some cinephiles, it is not, finally, included on the new Blu-ray disc of Strangelove.
Despite its grand theme of global apocalypse, Strangelove is a fairly intimate film. A brief sojourn in the love nest of General Buck Turgidson aside, the film has only three locations: Burpleson Air Force base, from which General Ripper launches the doomsday-predicating attack; the bomber commanded by Major Kong; and the cavernous War Room from whence the President, the joint chiefs, and the mysterious Strangelove strategize. One of the most remarkable things about the film is its deft cross-cutting between the three narratives unfolding in those locations in parallel time. Harvey recalls that getting all the pieces to fit wasn't at all easy: "When the editor normally shows the first cut to the director, it never, never seems to be what you thought it might have been in the script. And in this particular case I remember we didn't think it was any good at all. So we just took the whole film to pieces, we had a huge kind of war room of our own in the cutting room, and we put up pieces of paper representing every sequence in different order. It took three months of working back and forth, thinking of the writer, did we get the right balance, you know? And then almost at the end, one of the reels in the cutting disappeared; for no reason at all it vanished. Nobody could find it. They thought it was in the wrong pile. So we had to start from scratch. And I tell you, there was no copy anywhere, so we had to really start again. Or I had to start again, putting it back together. And we never found it. I don't know what happened!"
"Working with Kubrick overall was remarkable. I just learned a hell of a lot. As an example he always thought if an actor is giving a brilliant performance, don't cut to the other actors but keep going on the same performance. And leave it to the viewer to imagine the other person's reaction. The more simple it is, the better—which I thought was tremendous. I think you can over-edit things and you lose momentum rather than gain it. And Kubrick was always very encouraging about my directing ambitions. He sometimes gave me material that he thought would interest me. One I remember was called Lunatic at Large." Lunatic at Large, a script by crime fiction kingpin and two-time Kubrick collaborator Jim Thompson (Paths of Glory, The Killing) recently emerged from the Kubrick Archive and is currently in production.
As for Harvey, the realization of his directing ambitions caused him to drop out of Kubrick's next project, 2001: A Space Odyssey. "I was in New York to cut that picture, and one night I went down to the Cherry Lane Theater and saw a marvelous play by Leroi Jones called Dutchman, and I bought an option on it. And went back to London and there was I, starting to direct." Harvey went on to direct
Katherine Katharine Hepburn, with whom he would form a lifetime friendship, in The Lion In Winter, and make the cult favorite, and quirky-indie-band-namer They Might Be Giants, co-starring Strangelove's Scott.