Dr Strangelove: in praise of one of cinema’s great film sets

To mark the passing of the production designer Ken Adam, we praise one of his finest film sets: Dr Strangelove's war room...

Sex, death, paranoia. It’s all there in Stanley Kubrick’s stunning cold war satire, Dr Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.

One of the most darkly funny films ever made, Dr Strangelove is all the more powerful because Kubrick doesn’t shoot it like a comedy. Like all his films, it has an obsessive commitment to creating its own reality: stock footage of phallic aircraft are juxtaposed with Peter Sellers’ trio of eccentric performances. Battle scenes shot with handheld cameras sit next to locked-off shots of coolly-lit interiors straight out of a science fiction film.

Kubrick’s collision of intense light and shade, realism and absurdity creates an unease which permeates the entire movie. Dr Strangelove is about a world dragged to the brink of extinction not through a breakdown in diplomacy or the machinations of a power-mad dictator, but a bunch of paranoid, inept and sexually-repressed politicians and generals.

Key to Dr Strangelove‘s brilliance is the production design of Ken Adam. By 1964, the 43-year-old former World War II pilot turned set designer had already worked on such films as Ben-Hur, Night Of The Demon and James Bond’s cinema debut, Dr No. It was the latter film, with its extraordinary angled interiors, which caught Kubrick’s eye, and Adam was soon signed up to work on Dr Strangelove.

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Adam’s brief was to create an underground chamber in the Pentagon, the War Room – a setting that doesn’t exist, but had to look convincingly like a real military installation. Kubrick was insistent that the room have a steeply-sloped ceiling, since he argued that a triangular construction would be more resistant to the shockwaves from a nuclear bomb. Adam, who’d trained as an architect after serving as a pilot in WWII, took this idea and ran with it; Kubrick loved Adam’s initial sketches so much that Adam – who’d heard that Kubrick was incredibly difficult to please – was taken aback.

“He loved it,” Adam recalled in a making-of documentary. “He said, it’s exactly right. I said, ‘Everybody’s telling me this man is so difficult to work with, and in my first conversation with him I seemed to be getting it!” 

Kubrick and Adam got along so well that Adam would frequently drive the director from his home in Hertfordshire to the Dr Stranglove production at Shepperton Studios. But even at this early stage, warning signs were flashing: Kubrick, clearly a nervous passenger, insisted that Adam drive his E-Type Jaguar at a maximum of 30mph for the entire journey.

“It was miserable,” Adam said, “But you get to know each other pretty well…”

The friction really started during filming. Adam had designed the War Room set with two levels, which meant that actors could stand on an upper level and emphasise the space’s colossal scale. Two weeks into filming, Kubrick decided it didn’t work.

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“Ken, you know – I’ve been thinking about that set,”  Kubrick told the designer. “What are we going to do with the 70 extras on the upper level? I think you have to rethink your concept.”

Initially thrown, Adam quietly swallowed his horror and set about reworking his design. Kubrick’s exigent nature soon resulted in a masterpiece. 

Even today, the War Room looks strikingly modern. It’s beautiful and also eerie. One wall is festooned with huge maps of the world. On the opposite side sits a long buffet table stocked with fine wines and expensive-looking finger food. In the centre of the jet-black floor sits a circular table some 22 feet across. It’s lit from above by an ethereal ring of white light, suspended by cables stretching up to the angled ceiling.

To get an idea of the sheer size of the War Room set, bear in mind that it was built on Shepperton’s Studio B, which measured 12,000 square feet with a 35-foot-heigh ceiling. According to George Case’s book Calling Dr Strangelove, it took 150 workers to build the War Room set, with the sheer amount of lighting required to highlight those huge maps (the “Big Board” as George C Scott’s General Turgidson calls it) creating its own unexpected problems. Said Ken Adam:

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“What I didn’t realise was that there was so much heat generated by all these bulbs – there were at least a thousand – that [the maps were] blistering away… so we had to come up with various air-conditioning ventilation units to cool it down.” 

Filming under the intense heat of the lighting was decidedly uncomfortable, and actors were forced to wear felt coverings on their shoes to avoid scratching the black gloss paint on the floor – which might partially account for George C Scott’s now legendary tumble in a scene which remained in Dr Strangelove’s final cut.

The starkness and sobriety of Adam’s design creates an intense atmosphere that remains even as it’s pricked by Kubrick and Terry Southern’s witty, pitch-perfect script. As Kubrick himself points out, Adam’s round table of generals and politicians gives the air of a poker game.”…the generals are playing with the world like a game of cards,” the director noted.

Vital to that poker-faced tension was Adam’s ingenious overhead lighting – positioned precisely by Kubrick to illuminate every actor precisely from above. The use of natural light caused a fair bit of friction between Kubrick and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, but there’s little doubt that the careful design of the set and its lighting brings an electrifying sense of drama to these long War Room sequences.

Indeed, there’s a wonderful tension between the dialogue (much of it improvised) and the production design in these bunker scenes. As the ineffectual president Merkin Muffley (Sellers, of course) bickers and negotiates futilely with his aides and Russia’s premier Kissov (“H-hello, Dmitri?), the weight and presence of the War Room reconnects us to the horrific reality: the planet is mere minutes away from nuclear armageddon. 

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Over the course of his long career, Ken Adam became closely associated with the James Bond series, working as he did on seven of them. His set design for You Only Live Twice – Blofeld’s remarkable volcano lair, built for a cost of $1m – is rightly hailed as an icon of cinema, and arguably one of the high points of the Bond franchise as a whole.

Yet it’s War Room, I’d argue, that is Adam’s most lasting contribution to cinema. Beautiful in its own right and repeatedly copied and referenced in other movies, it also plays an intrinsic part in Dr Strangelove‘s story. Acting as the ominous straight-man to Sellers’ unfettered performances and Kubrick’s quietly insinuating camera, Adam’s War Room is the hub around which one of the all-time great satires turns.

Ken Adam sadly died on the 10th March 2016 at the age of 95. His work in Dr Strangelove stands as a lasting testament to the genius of his design.