Both Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe were released in 1964 and have gone on to become cult favorites. Both movies were shot in black and white. Both movies deal with an accidental nuclear strike. Both movies involve scenes of the President and his advisers in an underground bunker. Both movies state that hydrogen and atomic bombs are far too dangerous to be kept as weapons. It’s here where the similarities end.
Dr. Strangelove is a comedy, albeit about the darkest comedy ever done, while Fail Safe is high drama. Dr. Strangelove has a subtitle How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Just who the “I” is supposed to be is unclear, but could be aimed at the fictional President. Dr. Strangelove uses bizarre characters and situations to promote an anti-nuclear message. This image is best crystallized in cowboy-hatted Slim Pickens riding a bomb like it was a bucking bronco.
In contrast, Fail Safe is a high drama and high tragedy. The pace is relentless and does not give the viewer a break. This helps to emphasize the weighty decision placed on the President’s shoulders. In the end, the President orders the bombing of New York by American bombs in order to placate the USSR, which suffered an accidental missile strike. None of the people who would die had anything to do with the decision making. This gives the audience a sense of being a sacrificial lamb at their government’s whim.
Both films deal with the accidental deployment of nuclear weapons, done in different ways. In Dr. Strangelove the cause is a crazy general bent on saving American bodily fluids from the Soviets. He’s helped by an even crazier bomber pilot played by Slim Pickens.
In Fail Safe the accident is triggered by a more mundane, yet still all-too-human cause. A solder played by Dom DeLuise makes a mistake while trying to repair a military control computer, thus triggering the destruction of Moscow.
Acting the President
The crucial role in both movies is that of the President. In Fail Safe the role is played by Henry Fonda in one of his most memorable roles. This President is not given a name. His President is weighed down, traumatized and yet able to make decisions – even if the decision kills thousands of innocent Americans.
In contrast is Peter Seller’s Hamlet-like President Menken, which cannot seem to make any decision and has lines like, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” He is ineffectual at making any headway in stopping the bombing of the USSR. He also seems completely ignorant of the security protocols surrounding the deployment of nuclear weapons. He tries to placate the Soviet Premier with small talk on the telephone and then saying “sorry.”