Ranking: Every Stanley Kubrick Film from Worst to Best

view all

05. Paths of Glory (1957)

paths of glory Ranking: Every Stanley Kubrick Film from Worst to BestRuntime: 1 hr. 28 min.

Press Release: It’s the first World War. A French colonel must defend three soldiers after charges of “cowardice in the face of the enemy” are brought against them. Col. Dax (Douglas) must contend with unfeeling, conniving, and oblivious superior officers in a race against time. Can he convince his generals to see the actions of the three men from his point of view? Will the three men fall by firing squad?

Cast: Kirk Douglas, George Macready, Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey, and Joe Turkel

Score: Whether it be through reimagined, famous compositions or original pieces of work, Kubrick’s most famous films are instantly recognizable by their score … save Paths of Glory. Gerald Fried’s military score briefly appears during the film’s opening and closing credits, as well as a sequence early on that finds Gen. Paul Mireau (Macready) making his way through downtrodden trenches.

This would mark the final collaboration between Fried and Kubrick. Fried’s scores appeared in every work Kubrick directed in the ‘50’s, dating all the way back to the short documentary Day of the Flight. Not to slight Fried, but musical accompaniment is not missed while watching Paths. Its stripped-down story didn’t need a score to guide us along the way or nudge us towards a specific emotion. Instead we’re given a definitive case of “less-is-more”. As for Kubrick’s crucial inclusion of a proper song, well, that’s for another category…

Carey’s “Ferol” Performance: As for other Paths players who couldn’t stand him, where do we begin? Carey himself recounts them in one of his final interviews, this one with Film Comment: producer James Harris (“He made sure I’d done all my scenes, then fired me the next day”), actor Emile Meyer (“He wanted to punch me because in my death scene I was biting his arm”), and actor Adolphe Menjou (“…he thought I’d disgraced the company with my behavior. I had a toy monkey with me, and I was walking around with holes in my shoes.”)

But here’s the thing: over 60 years later, the behavior was worth it. Look at Carey’s face during the trial sequence. Kubrick’s intense close-up won’t let you miss it, but he’s captivating all the same: eyes rolling around in his head, trying to keep it together in the face of death. That aforementioned sequence with Meyer? Kubrick actually encouraged Carey to keep with it, and it led to the improvised repetition of his emotionally scarring “I don’t want to die.” There are countless stories about Carey from throughout his career in Hollywood. Truly a fascinating performer.

A Twist on the Enemy Shoulder: Paths of Glory is considered to be one of the greatest war films of all time, but not for obvious reasons. While the charging of Ant Hill is an incredible spectacle that was the ‘50s equivalent of Spielberg’s D-Day in Saving Private Ryan, it isn’t Kubrick’s action that drives his path to glory (I will not apologize for that). It’s in the film’s many closed-door meetings where we discover the film’s message: Our enemies aren’t always at our back door. Sometimes they’re already in our house.

Paths’ generals Broulard (Menjou) and Mireau (Macready) are villains almost to the point of stereotype. The former always has a smile to hide his fangs, the latter a mustache just short of twirl-worthy as he gives his outrageous orders. Mireau even goes as far as to order his troops to fire into their own trenches. These characters are more concerned with rank and achievement than they are behind Queen and Country. And then there are those quotes!:

“There’s no such thing as shellshock.”
“There are few things more fundamentally encouraging and stimulating than seeing someone else die.”
“The men died wonderfully.”

The French were taken aback by the film’s plot that focused on its military and banned it for decades, even though the film took place over 40 years before its release year. The furor over Paths’ anti-war sentiment spread across the world and it would receive banishment in several other countries for years. To quote Col. Dax (who quotes Samuel Johnson): “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Accept the past. Do good in the present. Embrace the future.

Thee Moment: The men are dead, but Col. Dax can take some comfort knowing that Mireau will go to trial for his actions. He stops just outside a bar where a large number of French troops await a performance. A young German woman in tears (Christiane Kubrick née Harlan) is pulled to the stage. She is frightened and does not want to be there. The troops hoot and holler, and after an insulting introduction by the bar’s owner, the young woman begins to sing.

The rowdy crowd starts to quiet down almost immediately as she sings a folk song: “Der treue Husar” (“The Faithful Hussar”). It’s likely the men don’t know the lyrics, as they indicate by simply humming along, but it isn’t about that. They hear the beauty. They remember home. Love. All of the above. Kubrick cuts to close-ups of dozens of the men, all in various states of grief and self-recognition. Dax is called away. The film ends.

Kubrick is rightfully lauded as a technical genius, but it’s in the final minutes of Paths of Glory that his ability to capture humanity is film at its finest. Kubrick’s marriage to Harlan would last until his death in 1999.

The Master at Work: Kubrick’s most memorable moment as a director in this film follows Dax’s walk through the trenches. While the stark lighting in the prison cells as the men await their fate is a masterstroke, much of that credit goes to cinematographer George Krause (his first and only time working with the director). However, it is in the trenches that we get a tease of POV shots that would define so much of Kubrick’s days in color cinema. Kubrick alternates back-and-forth between Dax’s POV with shots focused on the colonel himself as he makes his way through the trenches. Men look upon him in silent fear — not of the man himself, but with dark knowledge of their near-certain doom. Bombs go off just feet away, but Dax is focused on staying strong for his troops. It’s the least he can do. Beautifully shot, beautifully cut.

Kubrickian Scale: 6 out of 10. If you go into Paths of Glory not knowing it was a Kubrick film, you may be surprised to learn that fact later on. However, going in knowing who directed the film changes a lot. The pitch-black military humor is less broad as it is in Strangelove, but it’s there for the taking, nonetheless.

Analysis: Paths of Glory is not nearly as well-known as some of his other masterpieces, as well as Kubrick films that just plain aren’t as good. It lacks the flash and pop of future works but never suffers because of it. Paths is an exercise in subtlety for the most part, and you can look no further than the film’s “climax” (if you can call it that): Three men are unfairly killed. There is a meal with military leaders. A woman sings.

Clocking in at under 90 minutes, Paths doesn’t need to be a second longer and Kubrick recognizes this. He would direct other military-focused films later on, expanding upon Paths’ “lunatics running the asylum” approach to a much more humorous effect in Strangelove. But the reason Paths reigns supreme over his other war film, Full Metal Jacket, is because it goes beyond the simple “War is Hell” motif. It exposes war games, back-patting, blackmail, betrayal, and the unjustness of it all. We do not see one enemy soldier throughout the entire movie, but it doesn’t matter in the slightest.

In many ways the film is of its time. Would Broulard and Mireau be played quite as sniveling and e-vile today as they are in this film? Would Douglas and his tough American accent have been cast in the role as a French colonel? Who’s to say? There is too much spectacle to be found in Paths of Glory that compels us to look away from these dated decisions. The Ant Hill charge is a spectacle in and of itself, but the manipulative, tactical nature by those we should trust is the film’s calling card. –Justin Gerber


04. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

1971 a clockwork orange Ranking: Every Stanley Kubrick Film from Worst to BestRuntime: 2 hr. 16 min.

Press Release: Adapted from the Anthony Burgess novel of the same name, Clockwork follows the character of Alex (McDowell), who is the very worst humanity has to offer in an England of the future. Alex and his eerily merry band of droogs terrorize the city streets, wreaking havoc upon both its land and citizens. When the “fun” runs out, Alex is subjected to a technique that promises to “cure” him. Can you cure evil, or is it a permanent state of being?

Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Adrienne Corri, Miriam Karlin, and Aubrey Morris

Score: Wendy Carlos’ synthetized adaptations of classical music encapsulate the experience for the viewer. We shouldn’t be hearing Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary” or Beethoven’s “Ninth” this way, but we must. We shouldn’t be watching these horrible people do these horrible things, but we must. While not a score to a “horror” film, Carlos’ synthesizers are nothing short of unsettling and at times downright frightening. The moment we meet Alex in that extreme close-up is that much more terrifying because of Carlos and the slow-build of the emerging title theme.

Beethoven’s “Ninth” is featured in its pure form several times throughout the film. It is Alex’s soundtrack to life. He reveres it so much that he abuses Dim when he interrupts a woman singing “The Hymn of Joy” at the Milk Bar. He needs it to play as he climaxes to thoughts of women hanging, volcanoes, and a chorus line of bleeding Christs dancing before him. The piece later transforms from fulfilling a pleasure center to negative reinforcement: the soundtrack to the videos he must endure during his rehabilitation. The power of music defines the character of Alex as much as it does the film.

As would be the case nearly a decade later (see: The Shining), Carlos was displeased with how little of her score was used in the film. Kubrick, as has been repeated ad nauseam, was known for sticking with temp tracks after filming was complete. This was no exception for Clockwork. Carlos’ complete score is now available for anyone who wants to hear it, and while it’s compelling in its own right, it is tough to imagine the film altered in any way. It’s iconic as is.

Futureal in a Sexual Dystopia: Paging Captain Obvious: the “ultra-violence” in Clockwork is difficult to take in. However, the nightmarish events that women are put through are not simply to shock for shock’s sake. These actions present to the audience the depths of depravity young Alex has willingly entered — transforming his violent fantasies and mad dreams into action. This is never clearer than when Alex and his droogs invade a home and rape a woman in front of her incapacitated husband.

What is this future, and how much of it is real? Is it a coincidence that nearly every piece of artwork features women in submissive positions? While Alex’s bedroom features a giant painting of a woman with her legs spread (that his pet snake seems quite enamored with), the “Catlady”’s workout room has a number of paintings with women bent over, looking over their shoulders at their lovers (assaulters?). Her lone statue is a penis with enormous testicles (buttocks?). She meets her end when Alex clobbers her with it, but not before he teases her with it first, of course.

Much of what we see in the film may be from Alex’s blurred perspective, but the outcomes are very much real. Clockwork is about sexuality and violence run amok and unchecked. We’re not meant to be entertained or titillated by the events on screen, but we are meant to feel something. The homeless man says it best before he takes his beating early on: “It’s a stinking world because there’s no law and order anymore! It’s a stinking world because it lets the young get on to the old, like you done. Oh, it’s no world for an old man any longer. What sort of a world is it at all?”

Self-Banishment: Artist responsibility is a tricky one when it comes to the reaction of their audience. Clockwork is supposed to be a condemnation of and commentary on brutality. A disheartening number of disturbed individuals saw otherwise. After allegations of copycats and an outraged public’s protests became too overwhelming, Kubrick himself banned the film in the United Kingdom. The ban wouldn’t be lifted until after his death in 2000, a year after he completed another “outrage” film: Eyes Wide Shut.

Thee Moment: The Prison Chaplain tells Alex that “goodness comes from within. Goodness is chosen. When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” He does not believe that the Ludovico Technique will do anyone any good, let alone Alex. But Alex doesn’t care; he just wants to get out of prison by any means necessary. The technique is difficult to go through both physically (eyelids kept open by metal prongs) and psychologically.

Through fictional (?) scenes on a movie screen, he witnesses a man beaten in the streets and a woman raped (both by a gang of hooligans that resembles Alex’s own droogs). At first this is pleasurable to Alex, but before too long the sequences begin to make him sick. The inclusion of Beethoven’s “Ninth” as the soundtrack to the technique is too much for Alex to bear. He screams uncontrollably. The result of this sequence plays a big part in not only young Alex’s future, but society’s, as well. Iconic.

The Master at Work: There are several fascinating extras on the film’s 40th anniversary edition Blu-ray (remember those?). The best of the lot is probably a 10-minute special feature with Alex himself. Malcolm McDowell is brought to a table to pore over old photographs and memorabilia from the film’s production. The actor is genuinely surprised when he picks up an early draft of the script to discover Kubrick had scratched out the title and replaced it with The Ludovico Technique (he mocks this unused alternate title).

During this segment, we learn that the actor initially refused to film the aforementioned treatment sequence, suggesting that his stand-in take his place. Kubrick promised it would only take 10 minutes, but surprise, surprise, it didn’t. The professional doctor responsible for administering the eye drops during the shoot couldn’t remember his one line, both causing the shoot to go longer than expected and distracting him from treating McDowell.

Another story McDowell regales us with took place after a long day of shooting. Kubrick drove McDowell back to his house to go over some dailies. As they pulled into Kubrick’s estate, they saw three Rolls Royces parked out front. They were big-wigs from Warner Bros. and they had been waiting for hours. Kubrick, as non-plussed as ever, told them that he and McDowell had to go over the dailies, but they were not invited. He suggested to these executives that they order local Chinese food and wait for them. McDowell looks back on this event and laughs as he reads a note from one of the WB reps, who fondly writes about how much they enjoyed the evening.

Kubrickian Scale: 10 out of 10. From the moment we see Alex staring us down. The one-point-perspective is, ahem, on point throughout Clockwork. Couple that technique with the myriad amount of tracking shots (think record store), and you’ve got tailor-made technical Kubrick. Listen to the condemnation of a selfish government and doomed society and you have philosophical Kubrick.

Analysis: A Clockwork Orange was punk cinema years before The Sex Pistols never learned how to play their instruments. It’s in-your-face and ugly in its depiction, but technically brilliant and laced with the dark wit that dominated the earlier works of Kubrick. This is a fantasy film telling the story of a mind warped on fantasy. There are disorienting car chases complete with obvious green screen. Sexuality on display wherever you look. The ugly driven out of their homes and into the tunnels. Vanity is no longer a sin but an influential way of living.

Compared to other Kubrick adaptations, most of novelist Anthony Burgess’ novel remains intact with minor changes. His dystopic world is brilliantly realized on film, and nothing like it had ever been seen before in that medium. It’s brought to life by Kubrick’s eye, McDowell’s’ eyelashes, and the eye of the storm that is masculinity at its worst. A true representation of the “toxic” association that gets attached to men behaving badly (to say the least).

Its legacy remains intact. You can see flourishes of its mood in films like Alex Cox’s “Sid and Nancy” or Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. It creeps into pop culture by way of shows like The Simpsons and even the music of … Rob Zombie (“YEEE-AH!”)? It’s still scary as Hell and hasn’t lost any impact. Like the ultra-violence it depicts, it’s not going anywhere. Unlike the ultra-violence, we wouldn’t have it any other way. –Justin Gerber


03. The Shining (1980)

the shining Ranking: Every Stanley Kubrick Film from Worst to BestRuntime: 2 hr. 24 min.

Press Release: Based on Stephen King’s best-selling 1977 novel of the same name, The Shining follows the downward spiral of troubled writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), who accepts the job as the winter caretaker at Colorado’s prestigious albeit very remote Overlook Hotel. Joined by his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and his psychic son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), Jack plans to spend most of his time finishing his play and conquering his writer’s block. However, there are many secrets and skeletons to the hotel, and as the snow piles on, the walls start talking and madness reigns.

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers, and Danny Lloyd

Score: In an alternate universe, The Shining features a complete score by the film’s original composers, Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. But not this one. Instead, Kubrick opted to go with a scattered palette of music, from Polish legend Krzysztof Penderecki to Hungarian hero György Ligeti, meticulously pieced together by music editor Gordon Stainforth. Naturally, this decision didn’t sit too well with Carlos, who had previously scored A Clockwork Orange, and she vowed to never work with him again. Not surprisingly, she wouldn’t be the only member of the film’s cast and crew to reach this conclusion.

Sour grapes, perhaps, but the right grapes to swallow, as the more chaotic approach considerably added to the film’s already bizarre aesthetic. The way Stainforth and Kubrick weave through patches of music is downright jarring, swinging madly from big band ballads (Al Bowlly, Henry Hall) to terrifying avant-garde instrumentals (Béla Bartók, Herbert von Karajan), and it becomes very emblematic of Torrance’s psychological breakdown. It’s not at all far-fetched to say that 90% of the scares toward the end derive strictly from Penderecki’s unquestionably terrifying composition, “Utrenja”. Chills.

And to be fair, Carlos and Elkind still factor heavily into the film, as Kubrick wound up using their theme for the main titles and another track dubbed “Rocky Mountains”. Granted, the former is a reinterpretation of Hector Berlioz’s “Dies Irae”, but it’s since become the most iconic piece of music from the film and arguably the go-to audio cue outside of Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny!” moment. For those interested in hearing Carlos’ shelved music, consult her 2005 release, Rediscovering Lost Scores, which features a number of compositions written solely for the film. It would have been interesting.

King vs. Kubrick: The Shining is not a direct adaptation of King’s work, and that’s something that has never sat well with the Maine author, who’s gone back and forth on the now-iconic film over the years. Because what Kubrick did was chisel down the story to its bare essentials, using the novel as a foundation to build upon — like a scrapbook of sorts. As such, there are a number of essentials stripped right out of the book — from the overall premise to Jack Torrance’s alcoholism to Danny’s supernatural visions to the hotel’s sordid past — but the execution is much, much different.

King has long argued that Nicholson’s Torrance goes through a much different transformation by bringing his madness to the hotel as opposed to the hotel bringing it out of him. Though, several critics have since countered this argument, specifically journalist Laura Miller, who wrote in October 2013 that, “…in Kubrick’s The Shining, the characters are largely in the grip of forces beyond their control. It’s a film in which domestic violence occurs, while King’s novel is about domestic violence as a choice certain men make when they refuse to abandon a delusional, defensive entitlement.”

Both King and Miller aren’t wrong, and that’s partly the genius of the film. Everything’s awash in ambiguity, and that’s really the greatest difference between the novel and the book. Whereas King lays everything out for his audience, Kubrick isn’t interested in being as forthcoming. Are the ghosts real? Does Jack become a part of the hotel? Was he always the caretaker? We never really know. Nevertheless, Kubrick still manages to capture the conceit of the novel, being Jack’s descent into madness; he just went another way about doing it — and added an elevator full of blood and two twins.

shining Ranking: Every Stanley Kubrick Film from Worst to Best

“There Ain’t Nothing In Room 237!” Naturally, Kubrick’s eerie brand of ambiguity towards The Shining has since led to manic theories, shifting perspectives, and brazen analyses over the years by both fans and critics. Much of this is accurately reflected in Rodney Ascher’s 2012 documentary, Room 237, which more or less serves as a proverbial soapbox for the pop culture crazies who have devised the wildest and most bizarre hot takes from the 1980 adaptation. These include oddball arguments that Kubrick subtly confessed he was involved in faking the Apollo 11 moon landing to how the film’s actually about the genocide of the Native Americans or maybe even the Jews. Some of it’s compelling, most of it’s ludicrous, but all of it’s proof that there’s a palpable madness to Kubrick’s film, one that goes way beyond the traditional ghost story. And as a film, it’s a fascinating portrait at how there’s really no limit or box to pop culture criticism, and that’s very reinvigorating.

Thee Moment: What the film and the book do have in common is the nightmare in room 237, even if it’s actually 217 in the book. Both mediums present a terrifying scenario — Jack coming face to face with a beautiful woman in a bathtub, only to make the ghastly discovery that she’s a rotting corpse — and both are fairly similar. However, the most iconic imagery of the film happens to be the work of Kubrick and not of King, and that’s the two Grady twins. Now, this writer feels their first appearance in the game room, where Danny is throwing darts, is truly the scariest moment in the film, if only because it suggests that the spirits are there even while the hotel staff is roaming around the halls. But, most would point to the Hallway Scene, and for all the right reasons: Danny’s expression, the way the Steadicam naturally weaves through the unnaturally tight corridor, and the cold monotony of the children’s voices. There’s also something about the mirror effect the twins have, but you be the judge…

The Master at Work: It’s difficult to say whether this was Kubrick at his most insane, especially given all the accounts surrounding his other projects, but it certainly was one of his darkest chapters. Principal photography took over a year, mostly due to Kubrick’s insistence on multiple takes and other methodical approaches (like sprawling games of chess), and seemingly everyone broke down. Duvall argued consistently with the filmmaker and became physically ill during filming (even losing hair); Crothers crumpled into a ball of tears after doing over 60 takes of his paralyzed stare; and Nicholson grew so frustrated with the rewrites that he stopped looking at the scripts until they were minutes away from shooting.

Now, it can be argued that these hurdles and mind games were all a part of Kubrick’s big plan, and it can also be argued that the resulting turmoil added to the film’s overall aesthetic, but really, the only truth that can be gleaned from any of this outstanding chaos is that it landed Kubrick in the Guinness Book of Records for most takes at 127 and legendary talents like Nicholson and Carlos refused to ever work for him again. Otherwise, it’s impossible to say whether his unruly process was certifiably genius or verifiably insane. A little of column A and B?

Kubrickian Scale: A solid 10. This film could belong to no one else.

Analysis: With the exception of possibly Eyes Wide Shut, The Shining is by far Kubrick’s most perplexing film, and that confusion is the direct cause for much of its terror. Because really, as humans, we fear what we don’t understand, and there’s very little to understand in Kubrick’s King adaptation. But when you think about the idea of a ghost story, namely how and why it’s often dubbed “a ghost story,” it’s often because whatever occurrence happened cannot be explained. Say what you will about its implicit or explicit meanings, but there’s little argument over whether or not The Shining captures that feeling of uneasiness.

In some respects, it’s a Rubik’s cube of horror, one that potentially meditates on the inevitable madness of human beings, and how such madness is often meekly ascribed to its surrounding cultures. This is why King’s past protestations are moot; it doesn’t really matter whether Jack Torrance’s descent is caused by spirits or by his own inherent rage. What Kubrick’s narrative suggests is something far more elusive — that it could be any one of those things, that it could be both even. And that idea is not only unnerving but supremely universal, because again, we never really know why madness persists. It just does.

Thematic assumptions aside, The Shining is also a terrifying slice of cinema. Kubrick’s use of the Steadicam, his distorted set pieces, and juxtaposition of color make for a timeless psychological experiment that eschews the traditional novelties of horror. Seeing how everyone was at wit’s end behind the scenes, the performances are one-of-a-kind, too, particularly Nicholson, whose cartoonish mannerisms toward the finale oscillate manically between camp and carnal. It’s a brilliant parallel to the film’s unexpected tones in that you never know what to quite expect around the corner or down the hall at the Overlook.

And that will always be scary. –Michael Roffman


02. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

dr strangelove xlg Ranking: Every Stanley Kubrick Film from Worst to BestRuntime: 1 hr. 35 min.

Press Release: Sayonara, civilized world. In a bit of macho madness, General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) sets in motion a series of events that could lead to the activation of a Doomsday Device, which would obliterate the free world. Oh, important thing – this is comedy. Come to think of it, the darkest of comedies. Some precious bodily fluids here, a couple of Coca Colas there, and one B-52 bomber’s tragic run later… Nuclear holocaust, baby. Based on Peter George’s 1958 novel, Red Alert, Kubrick, Terry Southern, and Peter George’s Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is the premiere bomb-happy satire and a black comedy of atomic proportions. If this rings psychotic or perhaps you’d like the serious version of this Cold War premise, try Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe (produced the same year by the same studio).

Cast: Peter Sellers, Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Peter Sellers, Slim Pickens, and Sterling Hayden

Score: The score was credited to Laurie Johnson, an old school English composer of film and television. Perhaps you recognize him from The Avengers theme?

This was Johnson’s only collaboration with Kubrick. But Johnson’s sexually sensitive scoring, and straight military marches were a perfect companion to Strangelove’s fatalism. The classic Kong bomb run music was a variation on “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye,” a 19th century English anti-war ditty. (Further reading: hear old Johnny’s extra ironic usage in Die Hard with a Vengeance). The music showcased Kubrick’s affinity for old-fashioned sounds, juxtaposed wittily over contemporary material.

However. Because we simply can’t not argue this: for our money, the film’s musical star was and still is Vera Lynn and her crushingly beautiful rendition of “We’ll Meet Again” over the end credits. Oh, the agony. The song’s true history is almost cruel. It was a sort of de facto British war tune that embodied the sad realities of going off to battle – not many soldiers would meet their families or loves again. The song’s use was an apparent suggestion from former Sellers colleague and comic writer Spike Milligan, and the rest is history. No not film history, living history. Humanity becomes history, and all we’re left with is the bittersweet sounds of Miss Lynn.

Pie in the Sky: It was the end of the world and all they had was custard cream.

Dr. Strangelove’s alternate ending is the stuff of Hollywood “what if?” legend. Like the last act of Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors or that first draft of Rogue One, Dr. Strangelove’s original finale has enough clout to have kept gossip and message boards stirring for years. Originally, Kubrick was gonna end on a zanier note with elected officials and head honchos fighting in the war room with pies. Because when the final solutions come, what else is there to do but have a pie fight, right? It might have been an amazingly bold stroke for an already jam-packed comedy, and you have to wonder. It’s not on any disc releases. Video’s impossible to find, because according to interviews with the editor, Anthony Harvey, it’s long lost. But thank god for production stills. BFI has a wonderful assemblage, and the alternate ending, while perhaps a bit too Three Stooges for even this film, still looks funnier than hell.

Why’d it get cut? Bad timing. No, not in the editorial sense – Strangelove was screen tested around the time of the Kennedy assassination in late 1963, and there was a line that apparently made audiences pucker up. President Muffley is knocked out with a pie in the keyster, and George C. Scott’s Turgidson screams, “The president has been struck down in his prime!” Additionally, it seems like Kubrick felt the absurdism was out of place anyway, and the pies were unreal even for this movie. Actors were smiling. It was cartoony. Those two factors gave sufficient reason for the cut, and Kubrick never second guessed because they were rushing to a January ’64 release date. So, hey, Columbia Pictures, if you have the time, could you find that footage? We’d love to see it.

dr strangelove 1963 025 george c scott custard pie 00n 03b Ranking: Every Stanley Kubrick Film from Worst to Best

Bigger Than John Wayne: So, hey there, pardner. You like Strangelove and its freaky jokes? Well, you have got to get on Terry Southern if you haven’t already. The transgressive writer man was something of a counterculture icon who’s been lost in the echoes of time and taste, and his contributions to the Dr. Strangelove script were divine. To wit: thank Southern for the line about precious bodily fluids. He had a way with these dirty, disgusting, and just left-field word choices (SNL couldn’t deal with him when he moonlit in the ‘80s, failingly pitching gross, sexual, political material, and borrow this writer’s copy of Blue Movie if you want.) Naturally, he was perfect for Kubrick’s arsenic sensibilities. While Strangelove’s production is well accounted for, Southern’s essaying produced some wild and shaggy anecdotes about this film, and the stories about Slim Pickens are, well, bon appétit.

Quickly: Peter Sellers was set to play Major Kong, but bond people and doctors forbade the funnyman from taking on a fourth role after an accident. Acting fast, Kubrick wanted a real-life, boot strappin’ cowboy and asked Southern for advice on casting. Kubrick hadn’t been in the US for 15 years at that point. The duo pursued “Hoss Cartwright” from Bonanza, but the actor, Dan Cartwright, called the script “pinko” and balked. Kubrick then recalled his experiences on Marlon Brando’s One Eyed Jacks, specifically working with a former cowhand named Slim Pickens. The movie shipped out Pickens to the UK Victor Lyndon, the associate producer met him, but his English accent was no match for Pickens’ Southern drawl. Send in Texas-born Southern. Southern basically wrangled Pickens, and the little stories and subsequent exchanges, are incredible. Slice-of-life would be the politest characterization. Embarrassingly funny might be more apt. Here, this is Southern capturing his first meet with Pickens and what Pickens said when offered some Wild Turkey.

“Wal, you know ah think it was jest this mornin’ that ah was tryin’ to figure out if and when ah ever think it was too early fer a drink, an’ damned if ah didn’t come up bone dry! Hee-hee-hee!” He cackled his falsetto laugh. “Why hell yes, I’ll have a drink with you. Be glad to.”

Golly! The whole encounter’s amazing. Southern captures Pickens’ accent for all its grandiose and laid-back tics. Sure, some of it’s a little retrograde and piggish, but it sure makes for compelling reading. Pickens was every bit the yee-haw Wayne type the film needed, and Southern was just the man to write about him. Seriously, read all of Southern’s recount if you can!

Thee Moment: Ground control to Major Kong. We have a big problem here…

Kong going ape shit, riding the bomb giddily, and activating Doomsday is the stuff of legend. It’s the ultimate comic euphemism for men and the ego between their legs that they love to caress, embrace, and ultimately ride to their own demise. What’s the line from Toys? War is the domain of a man’s small penis or something to that effect? Not Kong’s problem now! Uh, but yeah, the gag is legendary, and the film’s total apotheosis of pride, stupidity, and again, thinking with your penis. A “nuclear orgasm” as its called in a 2000 documentary. The ultimate deathblow by Kubrick – for laughs. It’s still recognized as a high mark of comic insanity. It was spoofed on The Simpsons. And Kong’s scream was just sampled by Run the Jewels. It is the pre-eminent Strangelove moment.

The Master at Work: Yes, Kubrick allegedly obsessed over thermonuclear war, read over 50 books on the subject, and was interested in a reality-based thriller surrounding the bomb. (Which, thank goodness, the script was written in the wee hours, which fostered the film’s squirrely take.) But Kubrick’s devotion to being disturbed by news like the Cuban Missile Crisis, is nothing to the masterful madness of Peter Sellers. He was perhaps the most attention-seeking, or rather, demanding talent on the set. His participation was half the production’s cost. He resisted Kubrick’s pleas to play Kong. He made the crew laugh so much that multiple takes became required. He had to mine the likes of real people like Adlai Stevenson, Terry Thomas, and ex-Nazis to keep straight three distinct personas. But the “funny in the head” line as Muffley? Improvised. Strangelove’s Alien Hand Syndrome as a metaphor for struggling with impotence and a visual allusion to Nazi salutes? Improvised! Now that’s comic mastery. And Kubrick would quip that Sellers was worth the cost – three actors for the price of one.

Kubrickian Scale: 10 to 1. Err, 10. The forceful framing, high contrast photography, and willingness to allow his mostly male cast to look ugly as hell was super-duper Kubrick. And this would not be the only time Kubrick went anti-war. Strangelove couples fascinatingly with Fear and Desire and Full Metal Jacket.

Analysis: So long, and thanks for all the nuclear fission.

Dr. Strangelove sits loud and proud atop Stanley Kubrick’s oeuvre as a his most-mordant masterpiece. In a career defined by human subjugation, square-tight imagery, and a cynical eye for systemic failure, it’s still kind of impressive that Strangelove works well within all of the director’s trademarks as an anarchic comedy. Because when shit’s about to hit the fan, who doesn’t nervously reassure themselves, that, you are fine and I am fine? Yes, Dmitry.

When Kubrick finished Lolita, it’s like the director couldn’t help but keep courting controversial material, and his grim fascination with the rise in global nuclear armament led to a very keen sort of dread (one the American public holds heavily even today). But comedy might have been the best route. Think about it. Nuclear war, global warming, death, taxes, and other tragedies. Is it not normal to just want to nervously laugh through those conversations? And it’s that levity that Kubrick channels sublimely as he created the ultimate absurdist satire. And the film’s humor and production assembled like kismet.

The script’s a knockout. Peter George’s framing with Southern’s weirder inclinations and Kubrick’s nervy ideation are a perfect trio. And Kubrick really had the gall to commit to this thing – he pulls no punches and balances grave circumstances with the silliest moments. Who stammers an apology and avoids the bigger issue when billions of lives are at stake? These guys. And speaking of that, the casting makes it impossible to pick a funniest character, because between George C. Scott, Slim Pickens, and Sterling Hayden, it’s still hard to pick nutjob of the year. They’re all inspired loons with their fingers on the button, arguing pettily (NO FIGHTING IN THE WAR ROOM!). And let’s not forget the diverse genius of Peter Sellers, still fascinating and ferocious in three roles – it’s the kind of feat that should be required in acting classes forever. These “commie stooges,” as the film puts it, really did something special. Put it all together, and you have one of the most explosive comedies of all time. I mean, this film’s good, see, I mean it’s reeeally sharp, and it can barrel in so low … oh you oughta see it sometime. It’s a sight. Varrrooom! Its jet exhaust … frying chickens in the barnyard! –Blake Goble


01. 2001: a space odyssey (1968)

2001 Ranking: Every Stanley Kubrick Film from Worst to BestRuntime: 2 hr. 22 min.

Press Release: From the minds of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick comes a story unlike any other — 2001: a space odyssey. Journey across the savannas of Africa as we witness the dawn of mankind, look ahead towards Jupiter as we climb aboard the United States spacecraft Discovery One, and accept the unexpected as we leave our solar system. It’s an existential spectacle for the ages.

Cast: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, and Douglas Rain as the voice of the HAL 9000

Score: Once again, Kubrick abandoned another original score — this time by Spartacus and Dr. Strangelove collaborator Alex North, who didn’t find out until opening night (rough) — in favor of an eclectic collection of compositions. Though, unlike his scatterbrained approach to The Shining, the marriage of sound and screen in 2001 is almost scientific. Each composition is wired to specific facets, motifs, or themes throughout the film: György Ligeti’s four avant-garde instrumentals pertain to events involving the ominous, all-knowing monolith; Johann Strauss II’s historical waltz “The Blue Danube” captures the majesty of human innovation; Aram Khachaturian’s “Gayane Ballet Suite (Adagio)” embellishes the abyssal nature of space (and was later re-appropriated by the late James Horner for Aliens); and Richard Strauss’ philosophical piece “Also sprach Zarathustra” serves as a bookend to the film’s transformational sequences.

At the risk of sounding too hyperbolic, there’s perhaps no other film whose soundtrack is more important, more iconic, or more intrinsically tied to each scene than that of 2001. Despite the fact that a number of these compositions existed long before Clarke and Kubrick ever put their heads together — both “Also sprach Zarathustra” and “The Blue Danube” date back to the late 19th century — it’s damn near impossible to hear them without seeing or thinking about the film. They’ve since become embroidered into the fabric of modern pop culture, especially “Also sprach Zarathustra”, which has become the de-facto song to use about anything involving wonder or discovery. Though, given that Strauss was initially prompted to write the piece after reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s existential book of the same name, any thematic ties technically have more to do with the piece itself than the film. But c’mon, they’re usually referencing 2001.

Page to Screen: Following his work on Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick decided he wanted to ditch Earth and make “the proverbial good science fiction movie.” Thanks to an introduction by Columbia Pictures staffer Roger Caras, Kubrick found his map to the stars in Clarke, who gave him a bunch of his short stories to peruse for ideas. Seeing how Kubrick wanted to wrestle with “man’s relationship to the universe,” he opted for “The Sentinel”, which focuses on an alien artifact left on the moon, aka the monolith. With a firm base in place, the two decided it would be best to write the novel first and then focus on the screenplay later. Though, as time marched on — it should be noted they would devote four long years to this project, from conception to theaters — the novel and the screenplay wound up being developed concurrently.

Even still, there are considerable differences between the two mediums. Since the book was based on earlier drafts of the screenplay, which evolved as production ensued and Kubrick realized what he could and and could not do (hey, even an auteur of his caliber had limits), little details like swapping Saturn for Jupiter split the difference. However, what truly sets them apart is that the film is a visual beast that relies on thematic imagery to tell its narrative, while the book is incredibly verbose, explaining the vague treasures that are often left to the mind on screen. In other words, the book serves as an operandi modus for pretty much everything that happens, from the mythology of the monolith to why the HAL 9000 system goes AWOL on David Bowman and Frank Poole, and should certainly be read after the film.

As Kubrick told Playboy in 1968, “How much would we appreciate La Gioconda today if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: ‘This lady is smiling slightly because she has rotten teeth’—or ‘because she’s hiding a secret from her lover’? It would shut off the viewer’s appreciation and shackle him to a reality other than his own. I don’t want that to happen to 2001.” Decades later, most viewers have no clue there’s an accompanying book to the film, which, in hindsight, is mildly depressing given that the context is quite astonishing and revelatory. Sure, Clarke’s clearly the Mark Frost to Kubrick’s David Lynch in this scenario, but it was Clarke who brought the legitimate science to the fiction and that science is an absolute blast to parse through and worth exploring further in the following sequels: 2010, 2061, and 3001.

A Space Parody: Iconic films breed iconic parodies, and there’s no shortage of them for 2001. From the monolithic album cover for Who’s Next to Y2K-themed commercials for Apple to subtle nods in other outstanding films like Hal Ashby’s Being There, the DNA of Kubrick and Clark’s science fiction epic can be found almost everywhere. As the old adage goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the countless, seemingly never-ending references to the film only solidify the notion that 2001 is a timeless pop-culture artifact. Having said all that, the greatest parodies of 2001 came straight outta Springfield — twice, in fact — and both involve Homer J. Simpson. The first arrived in November 1991 with “Lisa’s Pony”, which opens with a familiar “Dawn of Man” sequence that finds Homer sleeping rather than evolving, while the second followed in February 1994 with “Deep Space Homer”, which not only spoofs the match cut but also pairs “The Blue Danube” with Homer’s weightless snacking.

Thee Moment: From beginning to end, 2001 is a two-and-a-half-hour string of essential moments. There’s the 10-minute-long “Star Gate” sequence that still shatters minds nearly half a century later. There’s the chilling appearance of the monolith on the moon. There’s the whole “Blue Danube” space flight sequence that changed science-fiction cinema forever. And, of course, there’s the Star Child itself, wrapping up the whole shebang with one of the most confounding endings in the history of cinema. But, there’s just no substitute for the match cut that occurs right at the very beginning, immediately after our fearless ape learns how to use a nearby bone as both a tool and a weapon. It’s a sign that the primate has evolved, that it’s possibly been influenced by the nearby monolith, which had been curiously taking up some of their real estate. So, when he tosses that bone up in the air, and it cuts to a similar shaped spaceship in the blink of an eye, it’s as if we just finished reading the introduction to Kubrick and Clarke’s thesis on The History of Mankind. It says everything you need to know about 2001.

The Master at Work: The research that went into 2001 is unbelievable, and the film speaks to Kubrick and Clarke’s dedication to be as honest and faithful as possible to the science of the past, present, and future. All throughout the production, the obsessive filmmaker never stopped consulting with the right people for the right job, which traditionally led to the right resources, from forward-thinking mathematicians to cutting-edge designers to high-profile engineers to legendary astronomers, all of whom would ensure 2001 looked and felt as accurate and realistic as possible. This ranged from commissioning one of the special effects designers behind the groundbreaking short-form documentary Universe, which had even sent shock waves to the folks at NASA, to a deep rumination on extraterrestrial life with a mastermind like Carl Sagan.

Kubrick gave it his all, overseeing literally every facet of the production, and that includes the 205 special effects shots that took nearly two years to accomplish. He was ahead of the game, pioneering technology and techniques that hadn’t fully been incorporated into the Hollywood system at the time. For instance, the expansive use of front projection with retroreflective matting, which enabled him to create the lush backdrops for the dawn of man and moon sequences, was a game changer and influenced a number of films shortly thereafter. And that’s all without mentioning the ambitious models and sets that were constructed for the film, specifically the 27-ton “ferris wheel” that served as the Discovery centrifuge, which Bowman jogs through and where Poole eats his meal as he catches up on the news. It’s still unreal.

Essentially, 2001 was where Kubrick truly earned the terms “auteur,” “genius,” and “legend.”

Kubrickian Scale: 9000.

Analysis: On September 12, 1962, the late President John F. Kennedy delivered what has since been dubbed his “We choose to go to the moon” speech at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas, where he said, among many things, “There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again.” Of course, he was mostly kicking off the dick-swinging moon race between the United States and Russia, but there’s an aching vitality to the line: “Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind.” In fact, one might argue it’s the most important line ever uttered by a politician on the matter of space exploration, as it speaks to the universal truth that so many officials, lawmakers, and taxpayers shy away from: Our future is in the stars.

In hindsight, there’s something depressing about watching 2001: a space odyssey today. For one, it’s 2017, and it feels like we’re even further away from something like Discovery than we might have been in 1968. For Christ’s sake, we haven’t even reached Mars yet, and while NASA continues to set dates and push the idea that deep space exploration remains on the table, public interest on the subject continues to wane. Instead, the people and the government continue to invest themselves in more and more petty political issues, often involving archaic concepts and inherent truths that stem from an overwhelming religious right that wants to derail the very fabric of scientific analysis. With that in mind, one can’t help but feel weirdly nostalgic while watching 2001, a film that’s nearly half a century old and yet looks and feels and acts more modern than anything out today.

Here’s the thing, though: 2001 couldn’t happen in today’s day and age, and that’s another dreadful thought to swallow. The closest approximation we’ve seen to a forward-thinking film of this kind in recent memory has been Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, a notable inclusion in the heady sci-fi genre by a director who had to work his ass off to make it happen, and yet it’s still a depressingly distant echo by comparison, plagued by exposition for dumbed-down audiences. Now, it would be unfair to say those same audiences don’t want to think anymore, because, sure, that’s not entirely true. But, they’re certainly not making a strong case to prove otherwise, as evidenced by the ludicrous, outstanding box office receipts for hot garbage like Jurassic World or Minions or whatever Pirates sequel Johnny Depp has lost himself in. It’s a grizzly situation.

Fortunately, Kubrick built 2001 to last, and that’s certainly been the case for the landmark film. In addition to influencing pretty much every groundbreaking director in the last 50 years — from Martin Scorsese to Steven Spielberg, George Lucas to the aforementioned Nolan — the film has also changed the way we look at media and technology, especially the iPad you’re holding right now to read this article. But, above all else, 2001 avoids being relegated to a ’60s time capsule because it attempts to answer the infinite questions that subconsciously circle around in everyone’s heads day in and day out. And while we’ll probably never really know how close Kubrick and Clarke came to connecting the dots, the film will always be a measuring stick that everyone from filmgoers to scientists will turn to from now until the entire universe melts away.

Odds are it’ll still look better than anything else. –Michael Roffman

view all