Kubrick Becomes a Film-Industry Leader

A remarkable series of three artistically stunning and financially successful films established Stanley Kubrick as a director of nearly unlimited capabilities.

Summary of Event

When Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy about the accidental start of World War III, Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, was released to a general audience on January 30, 1964, the film was more thoroughly the creation of its director than was usual for a major production of the time. From his first short sports documentary, Day of the Fight
Day of the Fight (Kubrick) (1950), Kubrick kept tight artistic control over his films; in turn, he insisted on a costly level of perfection that usually paid off at the box office. The product neither of a film school nor of a studio’s careful grooming, Kubrick was a self-taught still photographer and avid film watcher whose work promised to combine artistic and financial success. Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick)[Doctor Strangelove]
2001 (Kubrick)[Two thousand one]
Clockwork Orange, A (Kubrick)
Cinema;stylistic innovation
[kw]Kubrick Becomes a Film-Industry Leader (Jan. 30, 1964-1971)
[kw]Film-Industry Leader, Kubrick Becomes a (Jan. 30, 1964-1971)[Film Industry Leader, Kubrick Becomes a]
Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick)[Doctor Strangelove]
2001 (Kubrick)[Two thousand one]
Clockwork Orange, A (Kubrick)
Cinema;stylistic innovation
[g]North America;Jan. 30, 1964-1971: Kubrick Becomes a Film-Industry Leader[07950]
[g]United States;Jan. 30, 1964-1971: Kubrick Becomes a Film-Industry Leader[07950]
[c]Motion pictures and video;Jan. 30, 1964-1971: Kubrick Becomes a Film-Industry Leader[07950]
Kubrick, Stanley
Sellers, Peter
Trumbull, Douglas
McDowell, Malcolm
Hayden, Sterling
Pickens, Slim

The filming of Lolita
Lolita (Kubrick) (1962), Vladimir Nabokov’s risqué story of a man’s obsession with a pubescent girl, had introduced Kubrick to actor Peter Sellers and to the experience of directing a comedy. These two developments proved crucial to Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick’s film adaptation of Peter George’s thriller Red Alert
Red Alert (George)
Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];Red Alert (1958). Struck by the absurdity that he saw beneath supposedly rational military and political thinking about thermonuclear warfare, Kubrick quickly abandoned his plans for a serious movie. Dr. Strangelove’s satirical Satire nature prevented Kubrick from securing the cooperation of the armed forces in producing the film. He therefore had to rely entirely on his imagination and nonclassified material to build the film’s main sets: a lone B-52 bomber, the U.S. president’s “war room,” and the fictional Burpleson Air Force Base.

From that Air Force base, deranged general Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders a first strike against the Soviet Union to prevent Communist pollution of America’s “precious bodily fluids.” Aghast at this insubordination, President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) warns the Soviets and orders an assault on the base, where British group captain Mandrake (played by Sellers in a second role) finally deciphers the secret recall code for the strike force of bombers, minutes after Ripper’s suicide. One B-52 cannot be recalled, however, because a Soviet missile has destroyed its radio; manually opening the damaged bomb doors, the plane’s bomb-busting cowboy, Major Kong (Slim Pickens), personally rides the nuclear warhead to its target.

Kubrick brings home the film’s ultimate message that it is dangerous to cede moral responsibility to a machine, when he reveals that the Soviets have automated retaliation through a “Doomsday Machine,” which sets off a chain reaction of nuclear explosions. The ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove (also played by Sellers) then explains that a select few will survive in deep mine shafts—and fight over these shelters in the next war.

While directing Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick involved himself in hands-on supervision of the film’s trend-setting, precision-crafted sets and models. For his next movie, he urged his specialists to still further frontiers in special effects. The results of his insistence on precision and innovation paid off with his landmark science-fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Epic Cinema;epics
Epic films
Science fiction
Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];2001[Two thousand one] in narrative design, 2001 tells how an alien race brings intelligence to humanity’s ape-shaped ancestors, who in turn evolve into space-age humans that finally search for the aliens. A gigantic spacecraft is built and, rather like the Doomsday Machine, is placed under the control of an all-powerful computer, which later malfunctions and has to be disconnected by the spaceship’s sole surviving astronaut, Dave (Keir Dullea Dullea, Keir ). After a journey across a series of bizarre false-color landscapes full of flashing lights, Dave reaches his goal and is reborn, even though the film does not show what awaits him at the end of this mission. What captured the imagination of 2001’s huge international audience was less the story than Kubrick’s brilliant cinematography. The film’s 205 special-effects sequences, which Kubrick personally supervised, earned 2001 an Academy Award. Academy Awards;Best Effects, Special Visual Effects

With A Clockwork Orange (1971), Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];A Clockwork Orange[Clockwork Orange] Kubrick moved to the more immediate future, applying his craftsmanship to compose sets that depicted psychological, social, and political horrors with the same technical edge he had brought to the presentation of outer space. Based on Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel, A Clockwork Orange follows the crime spree of the juvenile delinquent Alex (Malcolm McDowell). Along the road to its antihero’s eventual imprisonment, the film travels through near-surrealist sets that externalize the mental depravity of a morally bankrupt society: The Korova milk bar, for example, has bar tables made of naked female mannequins. Released from prison after he undergoes aversion therapy that disables his violent instincts, Alex is helpless to defend himself against torment meted out by his former victims. After enduring extraordinary punishment, he is restored to his original, violent self by a frightened government.

While 2001 entranced with its futuristic technology, A Clockwork Orange stunned Kubrick’s audience with its carefully choreographed acts of violence. To carry further this juxtaposition of technical brilliance and horrifying subject matter, Kubrick, who had used Viennese waltzes Cinema;sound tracks to accompany the elegant movement of his spaceships in 2001, employed classical music to accompany Alex’s crimes: While Alex races from assault to rape, the music of Gioacchino Rossini fills the ears of the audience.

After A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick’s films lost some of their magnetic appeal. Barry Lyndon
Barry Lyndon (Kubrick) (1975), a brilliantly photographed period film, left audiences indifferent to the protagonist. Critical response to the supernatural thriller The Shining
Shining, The (Kubrick) (1979) was mixed, despite a star performance by Jack Nicholson as the film’s demoniac killer. However, Full Metal Jacket
Full Metal Jacket (Kubrick) (1987), Kubrick’s response to the Vietnam War, is arguably a masterpiece, and it joined the director’s earlier World War I film, Paths of Glory
Paths of Glory (Kubrick) (1957), as among the most important war films ever made. Kubrick’s work was always of unusually high quality. The combined artistic and financial success of his three technically perfect and thematically innovative films earned him an international artistic reputation and a position of leadership in the film industry.


Stanley Kubrick’s almost unprecedented ability to preserve his artistic independence and to exert great control over all aspects of the production of his films, even when working on major projects, earned him the respect and admiration of many younger American filmmakers, such as Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg, who looked to his example as an alternative to obeying the dictates of the still-powerful Hollywood Hollywood studio system;directorial independence studios. Indeed, even with Dr. Strangelove, which cost a substantial $1.5 million, Kubrick reserved for himself the right to decide on the final shape of the film; such power was not usually granted to an American director. Extensive creative control was more commonly possible for young European directors such as Federico Fellini and François Truffaut, who evoked some envy in young Americans for their ability to film and release works that were truly their own.

Unlike fellow American director Roger Corman Corman, Roger , who escaped from Hollywood by concentrating on low-budget films (and was rewarded for his act of defiance by the discipleship of such future major American filmmakers as Coppola and Martin Scorsese and actors such as Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson), Kubrick never compromised on quality. Working with large budgets, Kubrick contained costs through meticulous preproduction planning and thus freed resources to fulfill his goal of technical perfection. This strategy quickly endeared him to the film industry. His analysis of three years worth of architectural magazines to find the best-looking locations for A Clockwork Orange, for example, meant that he had to build only one set from scratch. His planning also allowed Kubrick to keep unusually tight shooting schedules, which reduced his costs further and thus ensured him even greater artistic freedom.

Like Corman, Kubrick was one of the first American directors to move production abroad. Beginning with Paths of Glory, Kubrick shot all his films but The Shining exclusively in Europe, mostly in British film studios. Using the relatively inexpensive expertise of British film technicians, Kubrick set new standards for precision and craftsmanship. The success of Dr. Strangelove, 2001, and A Clockwork Orange led to a substantial expansion of Anglo-American cooperation in the film industry. Characteristically, this relationship continued to operate along Kubrick’s principles: American star actors provided international appeal, and British star craftsmanship set the films apart technically.

Kubrick’s independence enabled him to choose projects beyond the traditional genre limitations within which Hollywood directors had traditionally built their fame. Again, aspiring American filmmakers looked to Kubrick for inspiration. George Lucas Lucas, George , for example, achieved prominence in science-fiction films after a period of genre-hopping in the wake of his character study American Graffiti (1973).

Ironically, Kubrick’s thematic choices reveal an uncanny instinct for topicality documented by the near-simultaneous release of competing films with similar subjects. During his most influential period, Kubrick’s films regularly trounced the competition. After the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962, had raised popular concerns about nuclear war to a new pitch, Dr. Strangelove handily outperformed Fail-Safe
Fail Safe (Lumet) (1964), Sidney Lumet’s deadly serious treatment of the subject. When the 1960’s brought a general interest in science fiction, 2001 set a standard for audience appeal not paralleled until Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) opened the floodgates for lavishly produced space operas. The gorilla suits worn by the actors in “The Dawn of Man” opening sequences of 2001 easily outshone their counterparts in Franklin Schaffner’s contemporaneous Planet of the Apes (1968).

Indeed, rarely has a film dominated a genre for as long as did Kubrick’s 2001. Even when the late 1970’s saw the emergence of the next generation of special-effects-driven science-fiction films, 2001 was still considered a shaping influence. This connection was underlined by the work of special-effects artist Douglas Trumbull, who learned so much working for Kubrick that he himself became one of the field’s masters a decade later. Trumbull provided the special effects for Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).

Some of Kubrick’s work, however, was met with criticism. Commentators were never comfortable with Kubrick’s choreography of violence in A Clockwork Orange, and fears that the film might promote what it said it condemned soon proved accurate in Great Britain, where hooligans dressed up in antihero Alex’s elaborate costume and sought to ape his violence. Distraught, Kubrick withdrew the film from distribution in Great Britain in 1973, but the damage had been done. Feminist critics, with some justification, took exception to what they charged was the film’s reveling in violent rape scenes, in which masterful cinematography and a powerful sound track apparently conspire to celebrate the event.

As critics and audiences continued to discuss and view Kubrick’s films and eagerly awaited each new release, the director’s influence within the film industry remained substantial. A successful model for many aspiring filmmakers, Stanley Kubrick gave cinema an enduring legacy. Dr. Strangelove (Kubrick)[Doctor Strangelove]
2001 (Kubrick)[Two thousand one]
Clockwork Orange, A (Kubrick)
Cinema;stylistic innovation

Further Reading

  • Agel, Jerome. The Making of Kubrick’s “2001.” New York: New American Library, 1970. Best description of the creation of 2001, with detailed references to special-effects techniques, which are analyzed for effect and innovation. Includes critical essays, reprints of film reviews, and a Playboy interview with Kubrick. Offers many photographs of Kubrick directing. Trumbull’s contributions are highlighted as well.
  • Bizony, Piers. “2001”: Filming the Future. London: Aurum, 2000. Monograph on the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Includes a foreword by the author of the novel upon which the film is based, Arthur C. Clarke.
  • Castle, Alison, ed. The Stanley Kubrick Archives. Los Angeles: Taschen, 2005. A treasure trove of archival material, from interviews to photographs and sketches of costumes and set designs, covering all of Kubrick’s films. Bibliographic references, audio CD with interview, and a filmstrip cut from one of Kubrick’s films.
  • Ciment, Michel. Kubrick. Translated by Gilbert Adair. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983. In-depth thematic study of Kubrick’s artistic development up to The Shining. Ciment pays special attention to Kubrick’s recurrent themes, innovative filmic techniques, and cinematographic accomplishments. Analytical in tone, yet clearly written. Numerous illustrations (some color) include film frame enlargements. Three interviews with Kubrick, four with key colleagues. Filmography, bibliography.
  • Coyle, Wallace. Stanley Kubrick. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980. Comprehensive look at Kubrick’s work complements a detailed bibliography, the book’s primary focus. Secondary strengths are synopses of and full credits for every Kubrick film up to The Shining. Brief biography, index, helpful information about individual films. Ideal overview.
  • Kagan, Norman. The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972. Sympathetic account of Kubrick’s work that often quotes the director. Production, narrative shape, and critical reception are discussed in separate chapters for each film from Paths of Glory to A Clockwork Orange. Identifies major themes and offers a full filmography for the works presented. Valuable also for its many still photographs.
  • Philips, Gene D. Stanley Kubrick: A Film Odyssey. New York: Popular Library, 1977. Perceptive, analytical discussion of all Kubrick’s films up to Barry Lyndon. Generally highly sympathetic, but not groveling. Philips’s interview with Kubrick in England is a valuable addition. Extensive bibliography and full filmography for all works presented; many well-chosen photographs.
  • Walker, Alexander. Stanley Kubrick Directs. Rev. ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972. Expanded version of the first major book on Kubrick’s career. Very good on the earlier works; seeks to identify general themes throughout. Includes an extended interview; complete filmography with full credits up to A Clockwork Orange. Many still photographs are used to show Kubrick’s development of plot and themes.

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