What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of something called the Mystery Character Blog-a-thon being hosted by the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. The irony is this movie gives screen time to four members from my list of favorite actors, and I finally get to write about it in an event dedicated to films with characters which are never seen.
You can see all the contributors to this blog-a-thon here:
During the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, it was a common practice to keep nuclear-armed bombers in the air at all times to prevent them from being wiped out in a surprise attack. As such, the 34 B-52s of the 843rd Bomb Wing are on just such a mission; they fly right up the edge of Soviet airspace when they are given an order to return to their home base or to proceed in attacking their pre-destined targets.
To this point, the bombers have never been given an order to proceed into Soviet airspace, but that changes when those aircraft are given the attack order by Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (played by Sterling Hayden), who is the commander at the 843rd‘s home Burpelson Air Force Base. While he is ordering the bombers past their “fail-safe” points, Ripper also tells all of Burpelson’s personnel that the United States and the Soviet Union are now in a “shooting war.”
NOTE: For purposes of this plot making sense to those who have yet to enjoy what may very well be the greatest “dark” comedy ever made, I’m telling some of these plot points out of sequence against how they occur in the movie. Those who have seen this film will notice that, and should understand why.
As a result, General Buck Turgidson (played by George C. Scott) goes to the Pentagon’s “War Room” to brief President Merkin Muffley (played by Peter Sellers) about the attack ordered by General Ripper. Muffley wants to know how such an attack could have been ordered without Presidential authority. Turgidson tells him Ripper used “Plan R,” which is an emergency war plan which allows a senior officer to launch just such an attack in the event the normal chain of command was killed in a “decapitation” strike.
Turgidson explains the rationale behind “Plan R” was to discourage the launching of a pre-emptive attack in the hopes of taking out the command and control structure needed to authorize a counter-attack. Turgidson also believes the Soviets do not have such a means of dissuading a pre-emptive strike which he thinks gives the United States a superior strategic position. He tries to convince Muffley to continue with Ripper’s attack, stating that a first strike against the Soviet Union would destroy 90% of their missiles before they could retaliate. According to Turgidson’s calculations, this attack could result in a strategic victory for the United States which would “only” mean “modest and acceptable” American losses of “no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops.”
Muffley has no interest in such a “first strike.” Instead, he summons the Soviet Ambassador (played by Peter Bull) to the “War Room,” contacts Soviet Premier Dmitri Kissoff on the hotline between Washington and Moscow, and insists on aiding the Soviets in any way they can so they can destroy the American bombers before they can launch their attacks.
Meanwhile, back at Burpelson AFB, an exchange officer from the British Royal Air Force named Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (also played by Peter Sellers) is General Ripper’s de facto second-in-command. Mandrake realizes there has not been a Soviet attack on America when he turns on a radio and hears music rather than Civil Defense broadcasts. Mandrake then confronts Ripper, who refuses to issue the recall order to the bomber wing despite Mandrake’s protests. Mandrake then threatens to issue the recall order on his own authority; the only problem is Ripper is the only one who knows the authentication code necessary for issuing such an order. Ripper not only refuses to divulge the code, he then locks Mandrake and himself in his office. Realizing what’s at stake, Mandrake tries to convince Ripper to give up the code. Ripper refuses, and in the process delivers a rant which makes it clear he is psychotic.
Here’s where my change in sequencing becomes important. Early in the film, the B-52 crew commanded by Major T.J. “King” Kong (played by Slim Pickens) receives the “Plan R” command. Doubtful at first, Kong verifies this order, which leads him to going back into the top secret safe where the code books are kept, replacing his flight helmet with his trademark cowboy hat, declaring “Well, this is it boys…nuclear combat toe-toed-toe with the Russkies!” After a soliloquy deliver to his crew, Kong makes it very clear that they will carry out their mission.
This is re-enforced by their full enaction of “Plan R,” part of which includes setting the bomber’s communications to disregard any communications which are not preceded by the three-letter prefix which only Ripper knows. Thus, the stage is set for Kong’s “renegade” bomber to be the catalyst for World War III.
As Kong reveals the contents of his crew’s individual survival packs designed on the assumption they will be shot down somewhere over Soviet Russia, the Soviet Ambassador arrives at the “War Room” over the indignant protests of General Turgidson. The general’s objection to the presence of the ambassador rises to the level of a physical confrontation, which for my money leads to the best line in the entire film.
This is when we are introduced to the character which qualifies this movies for this event. Even though he only appears via the telephone hotline, it becomes immediately clear that the Soviet Premier Kissoff is a drunkard and at this moment is immediately and in headlong in pursuit of inebriation.
After some conciliatory “drunk talk” with Kissoff, Merkin hands the phone to the Soviet ambassador. While the actual words are not heard, the ambassador learns Turgidson’s assumption about the Soviets not having a “first strike” deterrent is incorrect. After this call with the Premier, the ambassador reveals the Soviets have installed something called the “Doomsday Device.” According to the ambassador, this is a system which upon any nuclear attack on the Soviet Union will immediately release such nuclear force as to “automatically destroy all human and animal life on Earth.”
Again, I’m out of sequence with the actual movie, but this is the best point at which to introduce the title character, Merkwürdigeliebe. Also known as “Dr. Strangelove,” Merkwürdigeliebe (again played by Peter Sellers in his third role) is a wheelchair-bound “mad scientist” type who is a former Nazi and a strategy expert. He also has a rogue hand which is clad in a black leather glove and alternates between making Nazi salutes and trying to strangle him.
As an advisor to the President (whom Merkwürdigeliebe refers to as “Mein President” or “Mein Führer”), Strangelove explains the principle behind the Doomsday Device,saying it is “simple to understand” and “credible and convincing” and that “it only requires the will to build it.” He also questions the Soviet ambassador as to why they haven’t told anybody about this; pointing out that such a system kept secret has no value as a deterrent. The response from the the Soviet Ambassador is an admission that the “Doomsday Device” has only recently come into existence and that Premier Kissoff was waiting to announce it because he “loves surprises.”
Back at Burpelson AFB, the soldiers sent there by President Muffley have arrived to take control of the base and arrest General Ripper. However, Ripper warned Burpelson’s security forces that the enemy would disguise themselves as Americans to launch an attack against them. As a battle for control of the base breaks out, Ripper produces a .50 caliber machine gun he had hidden in a golf bag and joins the firefight.
Eventually, Ripper’s men lose the battle. Ripper fears he will be tortured in order to get him to reveal the recall code, so he locks himself in a bathroom and commits suicide. At the same time, Army Colonel “Bat” Guano (played by Keenan Wynn) shoots his way into Ripper’s office. But since he doesn’t recognize Mandrake’s British uniform, he suspects Mandrake,is the leader of “a mutiny of deviated preverts” and places him under arrest.
However, Mandrake has deduced the recall code from doodles on Ripper’s desk. Mandrake then convinces Guano that he needs to call the President in order to give him the code. The problem is the office phone lines were put out of commission during the battle. The only alternative is a pay phone, but Mandrake does not have enough change to make the call. Mandrake then persuades Guano to shoot a vending machine to get the change out of it. Mandrake takes the change and successfully reaches Muffley.
The recall code gets sent, and all the bombers which have not already been blown out of the sky return to Burpelson…with the sole exception of the one commanded by Major Kong. While Kong and his crew survived the Soviet attempt to shoot them down, their aircraft suffered serious damage to it’s communication equipment, rendering it incapable of receiving the recall code.
As a result, President Muffley urges the Soviets to concentrate their air defenses around Kong’s primary and secondary targets. However, Kong’s B-52 also suffered damage to the fuel tanks, which means it is no longer able to reach those destinations. Kong and his crew then decide to attack the nearest target of opportunity.
But as they begin their bomb run, Kong and his crew discover the B-52’s bomb bay doors were also damaged by the Soviet anti-aircraft missile attack and are inoperable. Kong goes into the bomb bay to discover the problem seems to be an electrical short. He has to sit on one of the nuclear bombs to reach it, and once he fixes the electrical issue, the bomb releases. In what may be the iconic scene of the film, Kong rides the bomb to the ground, waving his hat like a rodeo cowboy. The bomb detonates, and the Doomsday Device is set in motion.
Meanwhile back in the War Room, Strangelove makes a recommendation to President Muffley that a select group of about 200,000 or more people be relocated into a deep mine shaft, where the nuclear fallout cannot reach them for purposes of repopulating the United States. As this conversation devolves into it’s details, an obviously excited Strangelove suddenly bolts upright from his wheelchair exclaiming “Mein Führer, I can walk!” as the film abruptly ends with a montage of nuclear explosions set to the World War II song “We’ll Meet Again.”
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
You may not know this man, but baseball fans certainly do. He’s “Country” Joe West, and this past week he set the all-time record for having umpired more Major League baseball games than anybody else in the history of the game. As an ump, it’s my role as a baseball fan to have a “love/hate” relationship with him, but there’s two undeniable facts about him.
First, he’s clearly a “larger that life” figure who has undoubtedly left his mark on the history of the game. For the “larger than life” part, there’s how he got his nickname…he was also a country music singer in his younger days. And he was a known entity in Nashville; when he broke the record by umpiring his 5,376th game, country legend Emmylou Harris was on hand, and the Oak Ridge Boys sang the National Anthem.
If cutting 45s in Nashville and being an umpire for 45 years weren’t enough, West left his mark on baseball by inventing and marketing protective gear for umps. It’s not like he certainly doesn’t understand the need, especially after winning an honorable mention at last year’s Dubsy Awards in the Gruesome Injuries category.
But it’s the second undeniable fact about “Country” Joe West which makes him part of today’s hidden sports analogy. Unlike Soviet Premier Kissoff in Dr. Strangelove, I can see Joe West.
Not only is Joe West plainly visible, he may very well be the best-known umpire in all of baseball. Honestly, I’m not sure how many baseball fans could name another “man in blue,” but good or bad…they all seem to know “Country Joe.”
Since West is the senior man of his four-member umpiring team, he has the designation of being the “crew chief.” As such, now that video review is part of baseball, it’s the crew chief’s job to make the ruling on the field for any calls for which the unseen video reviewer has made.
It works like this. Whenever a call goes under video review, the umps don headsets from which they hear the voice of somebody who is supposedly at the league’s main office in New York City. Then once the ruling is made, it’s the crew chief’s job to enact the call coming down from the league office…if in fact that is whom with which he’s speaking.
Again, unlike the unseen Soviet Premier Kissoff, we never hear whomever is Joe West’s headset. For all we know, it could be the head office in New York, he could be listening to the Oak Ridge Boys, or he could be getting orders to kill the Queen like Reggie Jackson in The Naked Gun.
Don’t think that couldn’t have happened; most people don’t know West made a cameo appearance in that movie.
But there’s no doubting that the unseen Kissoff and the unseen, unheard video official both drive the plots of Dr. Strangelove and the drama that is any major-league baseball game. Not to mention, just as Kissoff and President Merkin Muffley can’t avoid “Doomsday,” the mystery video reviewer has to solve the problem it was designed to fix...bad officiating.
The Moral of the Story:
Take the old proverb about “the devil you know versus the devil you don’t,” replace the word “devil” with the word “umpire,” and it’s still undeniably true.
Beyond that, am I the only one who thinks “Country” Joe West would have made one hell of a “Major Kong?”
FUN FACT: Not only This is the first film in this series to feature four actors from my list of favorite actors (Slim Pickens, Sterling Hayden, Peter Sellers, and George C. Scott), it’s the second to deal with an accidental nuclear holocaust, and the third to center on the exploits of the U.S. Air Force’s Stratecic Air Command. It may have something to do with the fact I was born on a U.S. Air Force Base which easily could have been the model for Dr. Strangelove’s Burpelson AFB.
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