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FILM COMMENT : How We've Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Reissue : The restored 'Dr. Strangelove' remains a potent film after 30 years. : The Kubrick classic, taken with the decidedly mixed pleasures of 'Easy Rider,' illustrates the blessings of re-releases and the differing philosophies that motivate them

July 10, 1994|KENNETH TURAN | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

There is a time, says the Bible, which ought to know, for every purpose under heaven, and in the world of theatrical movies, the past several years have been the time for elaborately ballyhooed re-releases of classic films.

Though Disney, with its practice of periodically unleashing the gems of its animation library, has been re-releasing for decades, it was Columbia's decision to give new life to "Lawrence of Arabia" in 1989 by adding once-discarded footage that probably kicked off the current craze.

And a craze it's been, with the list of films getting a second chance, with or without restored scenes, including "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Midnight Cowboy," "Blade Runner," "The Guns of Navarone" and "La Strada." Both "Woodstock" and "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" are currently playing in Los Angeles in new prints, and "The Conformist," "Mickey One" and "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" are due in the foreseeable future.

Even given this logjam, this coming week is a banner one for the cause. For, to mark the 30th anniversary of "Dr. Strangelove" and the 25th of "Easy Rider," new prints of both films will get first-run theatrical treatment, the former at the Nuart in West Los Angeles starting Wednesday and the latter at the Sunset 5 in West Hollywood starting Friday.

Both films share more than their concise 90-something-minute length. Each has Terry Southern as one-third of a screenwriting team (he was Oscar-nominated both times), and each contains one of the great symbolic images of the decade: from "Easy Rider," Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda riding their outlaw choppers across the American landscape, and from "Dr. Strangelove," the irrepressible Slim Pickens as Maj. T. J. (King) Kong grandly waving his Stetson and riding a nuclear bomb like a bucking bronco.

In other ways "Dr. Strangelove" and "Easy Rider" have surprisingly little in common, though, and taken together they point out both the blessings of this wave of reissues as well as the different philosophies that motivate a film's revival.

Where "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" is concerned, a respect for quality is the driving force. In a new print made from a negative created from director Stanley Kubrick's personal copy, it emerges as, if anything, a more potent piece of filmmaking than it appeared three decades ago.

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Seeing it today, with all its audacious black humor undated, one is not surprised that "Dr. Strangelove" is cited by directors as dissimilar as Steven Spielberg ("one of my favorite movies of all time, without a doubt") and Oliver Stone ("I suppose many of our fears of big government are rooted in that theme, in Kubrick's paranoia") as a key career influence.

Kubrick scholar Norman Kagan notes that the director "had been interested in the problems of the nuclear arms race for six years before starting 'Dr. Strangelove,' including reading over 70 books on the subject of nuclear combat and control, and subscribing to Aviation Week and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists."

But though Kubrick's initial thought behind buying the rights to "Red Alert," Peter George's thriller about accidental nuclear war, was to make a serious film on the subject, he found he simply couldn't do it.

"My idea of doing it as a nightmare comedy came in the early weeks of working on the screenplay," Kubrick told one interviewer. "I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep from being funny; and those things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question."

From its opening sequence of the midair refueling of a giant B-52 bomber played against a soft instrumental version of "Try a Little Tenderness," the film's strength is this ability to be at once funny, chilling and intellectually engaging.

Certainly the story line is more than unnerving. A rogue American general in the Strategic Air Command decides on his own initiative to send planes to attack the Soviet Union and is able to do so just as that country secretly activates a doomsday machine that will automatically destroy the world if so much as one bomb falls on the U.S.S.R.

What makes this horror funny is the controlled comic exaggeration of both the Kubrick-George-Southern script and the acting that animated it. As a satire on the military mind, filled with lines like "Gentlemen, no fighting in the War Room," "Strangelove" is one of those rare Hollywood scripts, both pithy and outrageous, that was not second-guessed by studio worriers.

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