I. The Only Way to Secure Peace on Earth
In 1958, a British writer of crime novels and spy adventures published a cautionary political thriller called Two Hours to Doom. The author's name was Peter George, and that's the name on the cover of his first three novels, but on this one, his fourth, he chose the pseudonym Peter Bryant. This decision was reportedly made based on George's then-active service in the RAF, a service that involved some contact with nuclear weapons programs. His novel, which would be reprinted later that same year under its now better-known title Red Alert, deals with this as well, and its intention was to terrify somebody, anybody, into a new way of thinking about national defense.
The novel opens with the crew of the American Air Force bomber "Alabama Angel" about to complete a routine mission up to fail-safe point that separates that routine from a potential act of war by crossing into Soviet air space. Unexpectedly, however, they receive orders from Sonora Air Force Base to proceed with Plan R, which allows, essentially, for someone other than the President of the United States to order a nuclear attack on Russia. The intention is to make it possible for US retaliation against a Soviet nuclear strike, if that strike severs the normal chain of command. The Commanding Officer of Sonora, General Quinten, knows all there is to know about Plan R, and has been planning this moment for a long time. Since he learned of his terminal illness, the reader is led to assume, but possibly even longer ago than that. There has been no attack by Russia on the United States, but the crew of the "Alabama Angel", and the rest of the 843rd Wing, all thirty-two planes within which have received the same orders, doesn't know that.
So you see where this is going. There is the fear, once the president has been informed of the crisis and he and his advisers have met in the Pentagon to figure out what to do, that Russia may have a sort of "doomsday device" in place, that will destroy the world if Russia is hit with nuclear weapons. The Russian ambassador, invited to the Pentagon by the president, believes that such a thing exists, but must be activated manually. There is talk, if the "Alabama Angel" -- which is, finally, the only plane that looks like it will make it to its target -- delivers its nuclear payload, of giving up an American city of equivalent population in order to even things out and keep the war from escalating. This becomes unnecessary. Red Alert isn't funny, and isn't meant to be. It's terrified. One of the things that it's terrified of is the logic behind Quinten's reasons for doing this, which, given the state of the world, are almost unassailable.
Red Alert has its Major Kong, and its President Muffley. It has its Buck Turgidson and its Lionel Mandrake and General Ripper. It has its Premier Kissof and its Alexei de Sadeski. It even, very briefly, sort of has its Colonel Bat Guano. It does not have a Dr. Strangelove.
II. The Invisible Matador
Then, in 1962, Peter George's Red Alert was shamelessly plundered. Co-written by Eugene Burdick, previously best-known as the co-author of The Ugly American, and Harvey Wheeler, a political scientist with just the one work of fiction to his credit, Fail-Safe tells the same story as Red Alert, with only one alteration worth the name: in Fail-Safe, the crisis is caused not by human choice but by a mechanical error. Otherwise, you have a U.S. President who spends much of his time on the phone with the Russian premier, you have military and Dept. of Defense consultants working desperately to recall the bombers while a few argue that unfortunate as this situation is the best way to deal with it is to go all-in and obliterate Russia, you have one bomber that gets through, and so on. Burdick and Wheeler did choose an ending different from that used by Peter George, but the one they did land upon is one George invented anyway: when Moscow is destroyed, the President offers to destroy New York City (which he goes through with) to balance the scales.
Fail-Safe was an enormous success, which is no doubt why Peter George learned of it. That it was so much more successful than Red Alert is no doubt why Burdick and Wheeler thought they could get away with it (they didn't, George sued them and won an out-of-court settlement, though I don't know how much Burdick and Wheeler suffered as a result). It seems somewhat grotesque to plagiarize a novel written from a place of sincere nuclear horror in order, one presumes, to achieve financial success, but I'm forced to add that I think as a novel, Fail-Safe is better than Red Alert. That it's inexcusable doesn't change that. George spends too much time on the "Alabama Angel", which would be justified if those pages weren't bogged down by technical jargon both in the dialogue among the crew, and in the prose itself -- Red Alert must count as a kind of proto-techno-thriller, of the sort later popularized by Tom Clancy. Burdick and Wheeler do much less of this, and their scenes set in the Pentagon and elsewhere have a more convincing "this must be what it would be like" vibe.
However, in other ways Burdick and Wheeler are less thoughtful than George. In Fail-Safe, they have no General Quinten who intentionally sets this disaster in motion. All they have is a political scientist and consultant named Walter Groteschele, a sinister, somewhat Freudian "eroticization of death" sort whose job it is to make the argument for going ahead with the first nuclear strike against Russia that the U.S. has vowed to never engage in but which fate has nevertheless begun for them. In Fail-Safe, this is entirely academic, and there's no chance the President will ever go for it. But in Red Alert you not only have the argument, you have the man who went through with it. For Quinten, the decision is entirely practical:
"...We've told [the Russians] loudly enough and often enough that we'll never attack the first. The Rockefeller report drew attention to that, as well as the enormous advantage they gain from it...
"The Russians marked the fact that we were prepared to sacrifice a nation rather than risk a war. They marked the fact we preferred to preach sermons to the British and French because they'd seen the grip the Reds were getting on Egypt and had done something about it. Their I.C.B.M. was coming along fast. Our reluctance to act gave them fresh proof they'd be able to fight a war exactly when and where they chose. They went to work. It was that Christmas of fifty-six I decided that they had to be smashed."
With Groteschele, Burdick and Wheeler offer someone the reader is meant to fear, and think is crazy. With Quinten, a character George agrees with no more than Burdick and Wheeler do Groteschele, the reader is given a character about whom the reader is forced to ask "What if he's right?"
And yet, even though this story had been written twice, it had not yet been defined. It would take Stanley Kubrick to do that. Kubrick is known, for better or worse, and to the varying shades of chagrin felt by the original writers, for defining the novels he adapted into films. This has never been more true than it is with his 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which, while more or less scrupulously following the plot of Peter George's Red Alert, on which it is based, feels like something wholly new, sprung directly from Kubrick's skull. Of course it wasn't, but the sense that Dr. Strangelove (which has been recently released in a Criterion edition) had never been made in any form before, and would never be replicated, was strong even when I first saw it, probably sometime in the late 1980s, and I doubt anyone could make a strong case that I was wrong.
And what Kubrick did, of course, was turn Red Alert (and Fail-Safe) into a comedy. Not merely a satire, which as a form does not guarantee a single laugh from its audience, even when it thinks it does (I love Network, which despite Sidney Lumet's protestations is obviously satirical, but I don't think I could ever stand up for it as being actually funny), Kubrick's film is an actual comedy. It has jokes. It has bits. It has big, committed, comedic performances. Scenes could be lifted from it and play as self-contained sketches. It is also one of the last beautifully directed, truly hilarious films ever made (which isn't to say it's one of the last well-made comedies, but we're quickly running out of those now, too). Somehow, it's a pure, ridiculous comedy that contains within it battle scenes that look like genuine war footage. It is a film that is almost nothing but jokes (of one sort or another) until General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), this film's equivalent of Red Alert's General Quentin, though in this case actually mad (hilariously so) rather than practical and terminally ill, shoots himself in his office's bathroom (as Quentin does), and this film's equivalent of Red Alert's Major Howard, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) tries to open the door only to find -- and the audience has to interpret this, it's not graphic -- that the door is blocked by the corpse, for the first time suggests that death is not something you recover from, and introduces the literal physical weight of humanity, and, moreover, achieves this through the death of the man who has engineered the death of everyone on the planet. Or subtly underlines it. After which, it's back to the jokes.
This was Kubrick's big idea, and it's ingenious, though it wasn't Peter George's idea. George has a writing credit on the film, along with Kubrick and then-hot counterculture satirist Terry Southern, who by then had written the novel The Magic Christian and co-written with Mason Hoffenberg the notorious book Candy. These brought Southern to the attention of both Kubrick and who I suspect was his most important filmmaking collaborator (outside of cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, whose black-and-white images somehow achieve both a monstrously cold grotesqueness and a stark you-are-there verisimilitude within the same shot), star Peter Sellers, who plays not only the heroic (but still funny) Group Captain Mandrake (sorry for another parenthetical already, but I recently read or heard some dink critic say that this film is populated with nothing but idiots and assholes, neither of which defines the smart and determined (but still funny) Mandrake), but also President Muffley (see previous parenthetical) and the Nazi-born Dr. Strangelove. Southern, anyway, is where the comedy is nowadays said to have come from, even though Kubrick later said that Southern had earned his third-place-in-the-writing-credits status, and that most of the writing that was popularly attributed to Southern was in fact his, Kubrick's, doing, or Peter George's.
It's hard to know what Peter George felt about all of this. John Baxter and Vincent LoBrutto, two of Kubrick's biographers, have written that George was appalled by Kubrick's comedic approach. On the Criterion disc, meanwhile, George's own son says he was delighted with the film. Nothing I've read by George suggests a gift for comedy, but clearly he wasn't a stupid man, and could see what Kubrick was doing. George himself could barely wrap his head around the state of the world, and to purge some of his resulting fear and frustration he wrote a novel about the worst case scenario. Kubrick looked at the same situation and couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity. It's the kind of joke you can't make now. You can't joke about anything that's terrible to its roots.
IV. Down By the Old Maelstrom
It should probably be noted that at least a few years before Stanley Kubrick had the notion to be irreverently and blackly hilarious on the subject of mutually assured destruction, that idea had already occurred to singer/songwriter/pianist/satirist Tom Lehrer, who in 1959 recorded his classic song "We Will All Go Together When We Go". Sample lyric:
We will all bake together when we bake
There'll be nobody present at the wake
With complete participation
In that grand incineration
Nearly three billion hunks of well-done steak
As it neatly sums everything up, this seemed worth mentioning.
V. I'm Not Your Kind
Undaunted by the controversy surrounding the jarring similarities between it and Red Alert, Columbia pictures pushed forward with its plans to adapt Fail-Safe. It ended up in the hands of the great Sidney Lumet, with a screenplay by Walter Bernstein (someone has edited the credits section of the film's Wikipedia page, perhaps sardonically, to list Peter George as a co-writer), and a hugely impressive cast: Henry Fonda as the President, Larry Hagman as the young translator during the President's conversations with the Russian premier, Ed Binns as the bomber pilot who gets through to his target, Dan O'Herlihy as the Air Force general who lives under a cloud of, to him, inexplicable existential dread, and, most intriguingly, Walter Matthau as Dr. Groeteschele (in the film, for whatever reason, his last name gets four Es rather than three as in the novel).
And, as the novel is pretty good, so is the film. I'd argue it's better, since Lumet was a much better filmmaker than Burdick and Wheeler were writers. The cast is pretty much dead on the money, and the film has the kind of quiet, icy, relentless tension that can only find release in a burst of doom. In the novel, Burdick and Wheeler employed a metaphor within a dream about a matador killing a bull to sketch out General Black, the O'Herlihy character, and Lumet and cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld include that at the beginning and end (Black is the man who will drop the bomb on New York and then commit suicide), using documentary footage of a fatal, for the bull, bullfight, but the image is manipulated into a shadowy, dreamy impressionism. It's all pretty effective.
Groeteschele, as good as Matthau is, is still pretty impotent. As in the novel, his character is Jewish, and has the Holocaust to provide motivation (what if the Jews had fought back with everything they had, and etc.), but that's just lip service, as far as I can tell. When it comes down to playing his role in the story, Groeteschele fires as many blanks in Lumet's film as he did in Burdick and Wheeler's "original" novel. Which is funny, given, for one thing, the character's aforementioned Freudian shadings, and Kubrick's decision to film the mid-air fueling of a bomber shown in Dr. Strangelove's opening credits as a love scene. I'm also moved to wonder about how German "Groeteschele" (or "Groteschele") sounds, and looks, though the character is explicitly Jewish. Of German-Jewish heritage, of course, but that's no accident. Presumably, Groeteschele is a Jew whom the Holocaust turned into a fascist, which strikes me as...unsavory, I guess you'd call it.
VI. You Must Have a Victor and You Must Have a Vanquished
In 2000, the curious idea to remake Fail-Safe as a truncated live television play was hatched by George Clooney, who then went ahead and made it happen. As in the original film, the cast is quite something: Richard Dreyfuss as the President, Harvey Keitel as Gen. Black, Hank Azaria as Groeteschele, Norman Lloyd, Sam Elliott, and James Cromwell as various members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Noah Wyle as the translator, and Clooney himself as Noble Pilot (aka Grady, the character Binns played in Lumet's film). Also appearing at the very beginning is Walter Cronkite as George Clooney's dad, or something like that, I can't remember. Cronkite's the only one I noticed who flubbed a line.
Other than some good performances (I liked Dreyfuss and Elliott in particular), and the fact that it's live, which, at the time, you know, you think "Well maybe someone will accidentally say 'cocksucker' eleven times", the only thing that distinguishes this movie is when, at the end, when somebody, maybe it was Clooney, no one can say, slaps on a series of title cards about how lots of countries have nuclear weapons and someone, perhaps YOU should do something about it. The 2000 Fail-Safe is a message-bleating TV gimmick. You can't say that about Lumet's film. You can't even say that about Burdick and Wheeler's novel.
VII. The Dead Worlds of Antiquity
The strangest iteration of this story is the last one (so far, one feels compelled to add). In conjunction with the release of Kubrick's film, Bantam books also released Peter George's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. That is to say, the novelization of the film that George wrote. It is a very odd book.
There is some evidence within George's novelization that he was unhappy with the Kubrick's comedic approach, because he keeps cutting jokes. Though Kong's speech that leads up to the line, gone is "A fellah could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas [nèe Dallas] with all that stuff." Also, while George describes Strangelove's twitching gloved hand, he describes that hand as being made of metal, like a Bond villain, and anyway never pays it off. The hand never tries to choke its owner, nor does it ever salute Hitler. The last joke of the novel is Turgidson's "mine shaft gap" line, not "Mein Fuhrer...I can walk!" (It's also interesting that he dropped the term "Plan R," which he invented for Red Alert, in favor of "Ultech," and rather than the bomber re-call code being some combination of the letters POE, which he also invented for his novel (for "Peace on Earth" rather than "Purity of Essence) in favor of some combination of JFK. In this novelization that refers to "Joe for King," which is graffiti that Ripper believes refers to Stalin, but which here is a clear reference to John F. Kennedy, whose assassination affected the release and post-production of Kubrick's film.)
There are lots of jokes in the novel, but they almost all come directly from the film. Or the script, which George co-wrote, and which Kubrick credits to him more than Southern. But it's strange to read an ostensibly comic novel in which every joke is found in the dialogue, and not one is found in the prose. There are a couple of feeble nods toward mild slapstick, but nothing that George seems delighted by or even interested in. They read as something George felt he should try to do, but didn't want to do.
One of the only things George adds to all this is a very brief passage told from the point of view of the Doomsday Machine, after the bomb hits:
Under the perpetually fog-shrouded mountain in the empty arctic of northern Siberia, seismographs, radio antennae, and computers analyzed the material they had received.
The memory banks clicked as they examined it.
They arrived at their decision.
For a few seconds there was silence.
And one other brief passage, after the bomb, which Major Kong rode to his fate, hits its target, Missile Complex 69:
Nothing remained of Missile Complex 69 or of Major King Kong.
He had hit his target and destroyed it. Now the particles which had made him a human being rose into the atmosphere to add their small contribution to the radioactive particles from the explosion of the Doomsday Machine.
Though written with flair, this kind of kills the joke from Kubrick's film. Which you can't help but wonder about. The other thing worth pointing out is that while, in all versions of Fail-Safe, Moscow and New York are both destroyed, and in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and in George's novelization, the whole world is destroyed, in Red Alert the only casualties are the crew of the "Alabama Angel," and Gen. Quinten, who is a suicide. As in the Kubrick film, in George's original novel the bomber's bomb-bay doors are damaged. Unlike in Dr. Strangelove, however, this does not lead to a brilliant joke, but to the failure of the mission. So while the bomb goes off, it destroys only land, not people. So Red Alert's Doomsday Machine, which is manually triggered, is not triggered. And because a city is not destroyed, the sacrifice of a city of its own by a guilty U.S. is not necessary. All that's needed is for Russian and American leaders to realize that they'd both almost been hit by a bus, and change course.
For probably many reasons, some of which even those close to him would never suspect or understand, Peter George shot himself in 1966.