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5 November 2014

Is this the best film set ever designed? On Dr Strangelove’s War Room

Ken Adam’s design for the War Room in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove is one of Hollywood’s most iconic images. David Hayles talks to the man who brought it into being.

By David Hayles

“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!”

It’s one of the great film quotes of all time, from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb. And the location it occurs in has been described as the best film set ever designed, by no lesser an authority than Steven Spielberg.

It’s worth considering that the compliment comes from a director responsible for the likes of Close Encounters of the First Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark, films which sport production designs, by Joe Alves and Norman Reynolds respectively, that aren’t too shabby themselves.

“Being told that, in Hollywood, was, of course, flattering,” says Ken Adam, 93, from his home in London. He considers designing the War Room – a cross between a bomb shelter and a Hollywood musical set – his own proudest achievement.

And what was it like working with the notorious perfectionist Stanley Kubrick on Strangelove? Adam pauses, then laughs ruefully. “Very, very difficult,” he admits. “But at the same time, also helpful, because I was working with a great talent and that became clear in our relationship – it resulted in a lot of new ideas which improved the overall concept of the film.”

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Dr Strangelove is a film that, on paper, should never have worked – a nutty, star-studded comedy, about the threat of a nuclear apocalypse. But, against the odds, it works wonderfully well, and established Kubrick, riding high off the controversial success of Lolita in 1962, as a cinematic force to be reckoned with. The New York Times critic astutely described Strangelove as “the most shattering sick joke I’ve ever come across”.

Its success is due in part to the tone that Kubrick struck, along with co-writer Terry Southern: the whole thing is played straight, so that it reaches beyond satire, and becomes horribly ominous. Adam’s infamous war room only adds to that – huge, impersonal and eerily claustrophobic, it acts as a sobering counterpoint to the lunatic antics of the world leaders sitting below the enormous circular lamp, squabbling over the fate of the world as if it was a discussion over who should pay for what on a dinner bill. And Peter Seller’s titular character – a ludicrous, twitching scientist, like something out of a German expressionist film of the 1920s – is marvellously at home in the doom-laden monochrome surroundings.

Draft of the War Room from Dr Strangelove by Ken Adam © Deutsche Kinemathek – Ken Adam Archive. Click to zoom into a larger image

Was the War Room inspired by a real life counterpart? “I don’t know what the government facilities are like,” Adam says. “And I certainly didn’t base the war room on them!” Kubrick had been impressed with Adam’s design for the scientist’s laboratory with its slanting concrete ceilings in the 1960 James Bond film Dr No – which the War Room, in some respects, would resemble.

Adam, whose first film credit was for the cult British horror film Night of the Demon, went on to work on over 70 films, including the Bond films Goldfinger and Moonraker, and won two Oscars. He worked on one more film for Kubrick, Barry Lyndon, an experience he says caused him a nervous breakdown.

Born in Berlin, his family – Jewish – emigrated in 1934 and settled in London. Adam flew for the RAF – the first German fighter pilot to do so – and the action and danger of this experience, he claimed, played a huge role in his design work, particularly the Bond films.

He recently donated his entire life’s work – over 5,000 objects including original sketches, the War Room’s among them – to the Kinemathek in Berlin. The collection will go on display next month, as part of a major exhibition about Adam titled “Bigger than Life”.

The name of the exhibition is appropriate, because, as Adam says “Cinema is there to heighten the imagination, and I have always tried to make sure it does so.”

His work has sparked the imagination beyond cinema – the Swedish Architectural firm Albert France Lanord used the Dr No/War Room sets as its template for the “White Mountain Office” in Stockholm – a mixture of stark science fiction and nature – curved metal built into jagged rock faces. Appropriately, it is home to an internet provider – after all, wouldn’t a modern Bond villain now utilise the internet for world domination?

And the War Room continues to inspire: online room rental giants Airbnb have a replica of the War Room at their head office in San Francisco; Berlin-based designers Kenzo recently fashioned a lamp after the set’s ring-shaped lighting; and it was ripped-off – that is, homage was paid to it – in Zach Synder’s 2009 film Watchmen (even down to the green baize covering of the circular desk that Adam wanted to emulate a poker table).

Fans of Strangelove are probably relieved that Kubrick saw fit to remove a scene from the final cut, where a slapstick custard pie fight break out in the War Room – not least because stills of said scene show the iconic location splattered with gunk. Gentlemen, you can’t have a custard pie fight in here! This is a Ken Adam set.

Stanley Kubrick: The Masterpiece Collection Blu-ray is released on Warner Bros. Home Entertainment (WBHE) on 10 November and Bigger Than Life: Ken Adam’s Film Design is at the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin from 11 December

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