“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!"
Shouts Peter Sellers as President Muffley in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb”. He is addressing George C. Scott’s warmongering General Turgidson who has just grabbed Peter Bull’s Russian Ambassador.
Kubrick’s contribution to cinematic iconography is legendary: virtually every shot in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, his long tracking shots through the trenches in “Paths of Glory”, the oysters and snails scene in 'Spartacus', his slow-motion acts of violence set to classical music in “A Clockwork Orange”, the lifts opening to disgorge an ocean of blood in “The Shining”, the candlelit mannerisms of “Barry Lyndon” and the long, brutal takes of “Full Metal Jacket”.
But in that single line of dialogue he and his scriptwriters Terry Southern and Peter George did what we writers are constantly striving to achieve: in the fewest words possible they summed it all up.
True, the line doesn’t have the easy pop culture pleasing qualities of “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates”, “I’ll have what she’s having.” and “You had me at hello.” nor the genre transcending qualities of “May the force be with you” and “Live long and prosper” and certainly not the generation defining qualities of “As if!” and “The first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club.” It will never top the tables of the most quoted film lines ever like “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” and “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
But “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!” does what “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” did: it takes a complex issue and simplifies it without losing any of the complexity.
The line speaks to us of the unpleasant brutishness of fighting but the gentlemanly pursuit of waging war; of the disconnect between those who suffer and those who cause the suffering; of the difference between a perceived ignorance and those who assume a high-mindedness.
It was a line written at the height of the Cold War at a time of the Bay of Pigs and nuclear proliferation and yet it reminds us of Tony Blair’s and George W. Bush’s bromance and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean.
It is a line that resonates with that other great oxymoron of conflict: The bigger the lie the more people who will believe it. A concept attributed to the English by Goebbels, refined by Hitler, and used to great effect in the campaign for the UK to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s US presidential campaign.
In all its beautiful absurdness “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!” is as relevant now as it was half a century ago and will be as relevant half a century hence.
It is, quite simply, a line that sums it all up.