Script To Screen: “Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”

Peter Sellers in one of three roles he plays in the movie: U.S. President.

A scene from the brilliant 1964 satire Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, screenplay by Stanley Kubrick & Terry Southern & Peter George, novel by Peter George.

IMDb plot summary: An insane general triggers a path to nuclear holocaust that a war room full of politicians and generals frantically try to stop.

In this scene, U.S. President Muffley, played by Peter Sellers, is forced to call Dmitri, the head of the Soviet Union to deliver some bad news.

DE SADE hands the phone back.
                         PRESIDENT MUFFLEY
Hello?...Yes...Uh-huh...certainly I understand
...Oh someone tried it on you once before...
Look, Belch, I'll tell you why I called...
Hello...Hello...Can you hear me?...Say, could
they turn the music down a little?...Oh, well,
could they stop playing?...Oh, good, I thought
we lost the connection there for a minute...
yes, I hear you very clearly...Well, look...
(clears throat)
You know how we've always talked about the
possibility of something going wrong?...With
the H-bomb...uh-huh...that's right...Well, it
happened...Hello?...Can you still hear me?...
What?...Not missiles - planes...that's right...
B-90's...That's right...Thirty-four of them...
In about an hour and a half...uh-huh...Uh-huh
...Uh-huh...Well, how do you think I feel about
it?...I know that...Uh-huh...Uh-huh...Well, why
do you think I'm calling you?...to work some-
thing out on this disarmament thing...Uh-huh...
Sure, but you haven't been reasonable...Uh-huh...
Uh-huh...Look Belch...Look, we're wasting time...
Uh-huh...a base commander...We're not sure...
Well, we think he's gone psycho...Had a mental
breakdown...We're trying to do that...We're
doing that right now...Well, we've got our fingers
crosses...we're hoping...We're trying that too...
Uh-huh...Uh-huh...Uh-huh...That's not fair for you
to say...We're doing everything we possibly can
...Certainly...Sure I can imagine...Uh-huh...
                         PRESIDENT MUFFLEY (cont)
Uh-huh...Uh-huh...Look, there's something
else. We want to give your Air Staff a
complete rundown on the targets, flight
plans, and defensive systems of the planes
...No, it's on the level...Sure I hate to
do a thing like that, but at this point it's
got to be a case of one hand scratches the
other...co-operate...Right now...Who should
they call?...The People's Central Air Defense
Headquarters?...Where?...In Karnak?...Right...
You'll call them first...Uh-huh...Do you happen
to have the phone number?...Just ask Karnak
information?...
(he gestures to GENERAL SCHMUCK who exits the
room)
What's that?...Yes, I'm listening...Uh-huh...
Uh-huh...a hundred thousand megatons...Cobalt-
Thorium-G casing?...What's that for?...Uh-huh
...Uh-huh...Irrevocable and automatic?...Uh-
huh...Why didn't you let us know?...Sure I know
the Party Congress is next week...Certainly I
understand..but what are we supposed to do about
it now?...Right...Okay, well, how long will it
take for you to get back to your office?...Right,
well call me back as soon as you do...BEdlock 3-
3333, extension, 2497...If you forget, just ask
for me...Right...Bye-bye.
Hangs up phone.
                         PRESIDENT MUFFLEY
(to AMBASSADOR DE SADE)
The Premier says that've got a Doomsday
Machine that can kill all human life on earth-
is that true?

Here is the scene from the movie:

The dialogue as written covers the Beginning (saying hello), Middle (delivering the news), and End (what to do about the bombers) of the scene, as well as many of the lines in the film version. But it’s what Sellers does with the dialogue, improvising as only he could, that elevates the humor several notches. Compare to the script to a transcript of the movie:

President Merkin Muffley: [to Kissoff] Hello?… Uh… Hello D- uh hello, Dmitri? Listen, uh uh I can’t hear too well. Do you suppose you could turn the music down just a little?… Oh-ho, that’s much better… yeah… huh… yes… Fine, I can hear you now, Dmitri… Clear and plain and coming through fine… I’m coming through fine, too, eh?… Good, then… well, then, as you say, we’re both coming through fine… Good Well, it’s good that you’re fine and… and I’m fine… I agree with you, it’s great to be fine… a-ha-ha-ha-ha… Now then, Dmitri, you know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the Bomb… The Bomb, Dmitri… The hydrogen bomb!… Well now, what happened is… ahm… one of our base commanders, he had a sort of… well, he went a little funny in the head… you know… just a little… funny. And, ah… he went and did a silly thing… Well, I’ll tell you what he did. He ordered his planes… to attack your country… Ah… Well, let me finish, Dmitri… Let me finish, Dmitri… Well listen, how do you think I feel about it?… Can you imagine how I feel about it, Dmitri?… Why do you think I’m calling you? Just to say hello?… Of course I like to speak to you!… Of course I like to say hello!… Not now, but anytime, Dmitri. I’m just calling up to tell you something terrible has happened… It’s a friendly call. Of course it’s a friendly call… Listen, if it wasn’t friendly… you probably wouldn’t have even got it… They will not reach their targets for at least another hour… I am… I am positive, Dmitri… Listen, I’ve been all over this with your ambassador. It is not a trick… Well, I’ll tell you. We’d like to give your air staff a complete run-down on the targets, the flight plans, and the defensive systems of the planes… Yes! I mean i-i-i-if we’re unable to recall the planes, then… I’d say that, ah… well, ah… we’re just gonna have to help you destroy them, Dmitri… I know they’re our boys… All right, well listen now. Who should we call?… Who should we call, Dmitri? The… wha-whe, the People… you, sorry, you faded away there… The People’s Central Air Defense Headquarters… Where is that, Dmitri?… In Omsk… Right… Yes… Oh, you’ll call them first, will you?… Uh-huh… Listen, do you happen to have the phone number on you, Dmitri?… Whe-ah, what? I see, just ask for Omsk information… Ah-ah-eh-uhm-hm… I’m sorry, too, Dmitri… I’m very sorry… All right, you’re sorrier than I am, but I am as sorry as well… I am as sorry as you are, Dmitri! Don’t say that you’re more sorry than I am, because I’m capable of being just as sorry as you are… So we’re both sorry, all right?… All right.

What Sellers does so wonderfully is zero in on the personal relationship between he and Dmitri, suggesting that the Soviet leader is insecure about their friendship and that Muffley is equally so. It’s like the dynamic between the two reflects the very nature of mistrust that lies at the heart of the strategy both countries subscribed to at the time with regard to their respective nuclear arsenals, what was known as M.A.D. — Mutually Assured Destruction. Indeed it was this very point that inspired Kubrick to take this story, what he originally conceived of as a drama, and turn it into arguably the greatest movie satire of all time.

Note: I put in bold three key bits of business in the movie transcript to spotlight how Sellers improvised to milk this dynamic of mistrust and insecurity. The last set of lines about who is more sorry also is a metaphor for the entire reason why the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. found themselves in this situation, what was called The Arms Race, where each side kept building up their weaponry to keep up with the other.

The writing in the script is great. Sellers’ performance as three characters in the movie makes the film something truly special.

One of the single best things you can do to learn the craft of screenwriting is to read the script while watching the movie. After all a screenplay is a blueprint to make a movie and it’s that magic of what happens between printed page and final print that can inform how you approach writing scenes. That is the purpose of Script to Screen, a weekly series on GITS where we analyze a memorable movie scene and the script pages that inspired it.

For more articles in the Script To Screen series, go here.