Blog Directory CineVerse: How I learned to stop worrying and love Dr. Strangelove

How I learned to stop worrying and love Dr. Strangelove

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, released in January 1964, remains perhaps the greatest black comedy and political satire ever filmed. The film's central plot—with a screenplay authored by Kubrick, Terry Southern, and Peter George loosely inspired by Peter George's novel Red Alert—centers around a mentally unstable U.S. Air Force general who commands a sudden nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, setting off a sequence of absurd and chaotic events. The movie delves into the potentially catastrophic outcomes stemming from human error, political and military miscalculations, and the peculiarities of Cold War-era nuclear policy.

Dr. Strangelove adeptly and bravely combines humor with a profound critique of the nuclear arms race and the risks of accidental nuclear warfare. Its release coincided with a tense period in the Cold War, amplifying its impact and relevance. The film's importance extends to its pioneering narrative style and technical accomplishments.

Click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion of Dr. Strangelove, conducted last week.

Why and how does Dr. Strangelove remain one of the most cherished and respected films of all time, especially as a black comedy? Why is this movie deserving of celebration 60 years later? It’s arguably the finest political satire and black comedy ever made, and one of the most distinctively original and emotionally conflicting movies of all time—conflicting in how it can consistently conjure laughs with its absurd characters and comedic situations while also shocking and horrifying us by depicting an Armageddon scenario and the very real possibility of nuclear annihilation due to human error and stupidity. By cleverly using humor and parody, it can entertainingly address a nightmarishly realistic scenario that could result in the death of untold millions and the end of mankind—subject matter that is otherwise terrifying to contemplate.

Dr. Strangelove also represents a winning collaboration of several top talents at the heights of their skills, especially brilliant director Kubrick, chameleonic performer Peter Sellers, acclaimed actors George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden, and satirical novelist Southern.

This picture boasts some of the most colorfully ridiculous characters in movie history—among them General Jack D. Ripper, General Buck Turgidson, Major Kong, President Muffley, and Dr. Strangelove himself—as well as eternally quotable comedic lines, among them: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”, “Mein Führer, I can walk!”, “You're gonna have to answer to the Coca-Cola company,” “Shoot, a fella' could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff,” “The whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost, if you keep it a secret—why didn't you tell the world, eh?” and “I can no longer sit back and allow communist infiltration, communist indoctrination, communist subversion and the international communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.”

Roger Ebert wrote: "Dr. Strangelove's" humor is generated by a basic comic principle: People trying to be funny are never as funny as people trying to be serious and failing. The laughs have to seem forced on unwilling characters by the logic of events. A man wearing a funny hat is not funny. But a man who doesn't know he's wearing a funny hat ... ah, now you've got something. The characters in "Dr. Strangelove'' do not know their hats are funny.”

Consider how the film endures as an exemplary work that ranks high on several lists. It places #3 on the AFI’s list of the funniest American films and #26 on the AFI’s best American movies list; on various greatest films of all time lists, it has been named #5 on the Sight and Sound Poll of 2002; #14 by Entertainment Weekly; #26 by Empire magazine; #24 by Total Film magazine; #42 by the BBC; #47 based on a Time Out readers poll in 1998. And its screenplay placed as the 12th best ever by the Writers Guild of America.

Despite its 60-year vintage, the picture remains a timeless and cautionary tale because we continue to live by the tick-tock of the doomsday clock and under the constant fear of nuclear destruction, even decades after the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Even elements that threaten to date the film, including the presence of only one female character—a lusty and male gaze-amenable type at that—chauvinistic attitudes among the male personalities that dominate the story, and references to mid-1960s military concerns like the missile gap, reinforce the movie’s key themes and its satirical stylings.

Dr. Strangelove exhibited innovation and groundbreaking elements across various aspects. For starters, the film effectively employed satire to tackle the weighty and delicate subject of nuclear war. It critiqued the political and military establishments of the Cold War era, offering a sardonic perspective on the arms race and the potential for catastrophic outcomes. By fusing two subgenres—black comedy and political satire—it demonstrated that humor could effectively address serious geopolitical issues, challenging conventional expectations regarding the treatment of such topics in film.

The movie also proved to be suspenseful, dramatic, and scary, despite its absurd and chaotic treatment of events linked to nuclear war. Viewers bite into an apple with a surreal comedy outer skin obscuring a rotten core underneath and must digest an unsettlingly realistic depiction of an event that could trigger World War III and the end of civilization. There are taut moments in Strangelove that make it a topically relevant thriller, not a wall-to-wall funny fest. Kubrick’s work presents a disturbingly plausible situation that was top of mind for many Americans at this time, capitalizing on the all-too-real fears of the Cold War, only months removed from the Cuban missile crisis and the 1961 Berlin crisis.

Kubrick's choice to cast Sellers in multiple roles highlighted the actor's versatility, which was earlier demonstrated in the films Lolita and The Mouse That Roared, two other works featuring multiple Sellers characters. Sellers adeptly portrayed three distinct personalities, including the titular Dr. Strangelove, President Merkin Muffley, and Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake. This inventive use of a single actor in diverse roles likely inspired later thespians including comedians Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, Lily Tomlin in The Incredible Shrinking Woman, Eddie Murphy in Coming to America and The Nutty Professor, and Mike Myers in Austin Powers.

Dr. Strangelove is also replete with innovative visuals. The film's cinematography, employing wide-angle lenses and distinctive camera angles, contributed to its visual impact, as did the memorable special effects—including its depiction of the B-52 bomber and the nuclear bomb—and production designer Ken Adams’ inspired designs, particularly the iconic and expressionistic war room set design.

For proof of its influence, ponder subsequent works that have drawn inspiration from Dr. Strangelove, including Fail Safe (1964), released immediately after Strangelove and featuring a very similar story; The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (1966); and numerous black comedies and political satires like Catch-22 (1970), Airplane! (1980), Brazil (1985), Mars Attacks! (1996), Wag the Dog (1997), The Pentagon Wars (1998), In the Loop (2009), The Death of Stalin (2017), and Don’t Look Up (2021).

Dr. Strangelove represented a turning point for Stanley Kubrick, a filmmaker who imbues the production with a strong vision and impressive skill at balancing its disparate tonal elements. Kubrick adopts a more objective and dispassionate approach to directing a film like Dr. Strangelove than many other filmmakers would have. Criterion Collection essayist David Bromwich wrote: “Kubrick looks on people as something other than the earnest strivers and helpers we like to imagine we are. In all of his films, individuals are photographed almost neutrally, without flattering close-ups. He would no more deliver these than he would enforce a pointed cut to elicit a predictable laugh or a groan. His is an abstract method, depopulated to the largest practicable extent, so as to approach a geometrical purity.”

The director cogently juxtaposes images and music in creative ways that add humor and irony to otherwise nonhumorous scenes. Case in point: He marries the footage of the aircraft coupling during the opening credits to the song Try a Little Tenderness, and he pairs footage of nuclear mushroom clouds with the Vera Lynn ballad We’ll Meet Again for a great non-sequitur. He would repeat this method in 2001: A Space Odyssey when he employed The Blue Danube Waltz and in A Clockwork Orange with the song Singin’ in the Rain.

Interestingly, Kubrick only used four primary sets/locations in this narrative: the War Room, Ripper’s office, the B-52 bomber interior, and the Air Force base perimeter. Additionally, he wisely chose to shoot in black-and-white, lending a documentary-like realism to the film that would have mimicked what viewers were used to seeing on their television news at the time.

The director encouraged improvisation and ad-libbing from his performers and often shot numerous takes of the same shot or scene to capture different elements and approaches from the actors, sometimes benefitting from happy accidents like the shot where Scott trips but gets up and finishes his line in more comedic fashion. And Kubrick was rightly praised for his attention to detail in this film; ponder how, despite no Pentagon cooperation, he and his crew were able to recreate the actual controls and design of a B-52 aircraft.

Curiously, the movie is brimming with numerous sexual references and imagery. Consider the suggestive names of many characters:
  • Buck is a euphemism for a “manly man,” and Turgidson plays on the word “turgid,” which means full of fluid to the point of hardness.
  • President Merkin Muffley has a name that is evocative of female pubic hair, as if to say he’s lacking in male machismo; his character is loosely based on politician Adlai Stevenson.
  • Jack D. Ripper is an obvious play on Jack the Ripper, a sexually sadistic serial killer; Ripper’s use of the word “essence” is a synonym for semen; he is depicted as an impotent character who blames his sexual dysfunction on a communist conspiracy.
  • Mandrake is the name of a mythical herb or root believed to increase male potency; Mandrake is also evocative of the prim and proper English officer played by Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai.
  • Colonel Bat Guano’s moniker can be interpreted as “bat shit,” slang for insane.
  • The titular character, who proposes an outrageous male-friendly strategy for perpetuating the species at the conclusion, is himself an amalgam of several people, including rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, nuclear physicist Edward Teller, RAND Corporation strategist Herman Kahn, and Rotwang the black-gloved mad scientist in Metropolis.
Examples of the rampant sexual metaphors, innuendos, and messages used throughout the movie include the refueling of the jets, which serves as an obvious symbol of sexual coupling; Ripper’s dangling cigar, an evident phallic object; the Coke machine spewing cola in a sudden, orgasmic burst; Buck’s girlfriend Miss Scott appearing as the centerfold playmate in the magazine being read aboard the B-52 bomber; the B-52 crew’s complex procedure that arms the bomb for use, suggestive of a “foreplay” ritual of sorts; the plane being rendered impotent at the last moment when the bomb doors fail to open; Major Kong straddling the nuclear bomb as if it were a giant phallus; Dr. Strangelove’s arm saluting gestures and sudden erect standing posture, further phallic symbols; the intended bomb target being the island of Laputa, which in Spanish means “the whore”; the pilot viewing an issue of Playboy; Plan “R” for Romeo, implying that war equals love; and the flight crew’s survival kits being stocked with ample quantities of chewing gum, prophylactics, lipstick, and nylons, intimating that having sex will be as important for survival as eating and breathing.

Despite its comedic sheen, Dr. Strangelove several serious messages and morals. Among the important thematic takeaways? The absurdity of nuclear conflict, the folly of the arms race and the Cold War, and the ironic fallacy of nuclear weapons being “deterrents” due to the theory of mutually assured destruction.

Front and center is the notion that man’s impulse to wage war is linked to his sexual drive; a man’s sexual dysfunction or frustration (in this case, Ripper’s) can have disastrous repercussions. Per Slant Magazine critic Clayton Dillard: “Nearly every scene features a scenario or line of dialogue that suggests a world where all men are perpetually on the verge of whipping out their dicks…Dr. Strangelove is unique as an American studio film in that nearly every scene addresses its alignment of military action with sexual impotence and bodily excretion. It’s possibly the filthiest studio comedy ever made, even though there isn’t a single gross-out gag, curse word, or graphic image in its entire running time.”

Kubrick’s cautionary tale is also a reminder of the paradox of being human, according to film scholar Michael Broderick. Man is technologically advanced, intellectual, and sophisticated, capable of creating machines designed to improve life; but deep down inside, man remains a primitive, utterly fallible creature whose perfectly logical creations can backfire on him and whose id-like tendencies and base instincts can prove his undoing.

The film also warns that bureaucracy, red tape, and established protocol can have disastrous consequences. For proof, consider how the B-52 bomber crew follows their orders at all costs; Mandrake has to humor Ripper to try to get the retreat code; Turgidson is compelled to cover his military ass and discourages collaboration with the Russians while the world is on the verge of meltdown; President Muffley attempts to maintain polite diplomatic banter with Russian Prime Minister Kissoff while on the hotline; and Bat Guano resists shooting the Coke machine because it’s private property. “The deep preoccupation of Dr. Strangelove is, in fact, not war itself but rather the political development of which modern war has been the largest symptom: the bureaucratization of terror,” Bromwich posits.

Lastly, Strangelove suggests that resistance to the inevitability of destruction is futile. “It is this contrast (in the final mushroom cloud shots)–this contradiction between the beauty of the images and what they represent – where the question of who exactly is this “I” who learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, is finally answered. It is the narrator – the camera itself – who has finally stopped worrying and beholds the images delicately, tenderly, lovingly. The duality and the anxiety that the camera, and we, have struggled with (rooting for Kong but hoping the president and Mandrake will save the world) are assuaged in the final scene. The camera has stopped worrying, has stopped resisting, and now loves. The “explosion” has happened and we must accept the post-apocalyptic, meaning post-coital, world. It is the camera that is the “I” in the title, and in this case that “I”…is most certainly, and very horribly, male,wrote Nafis Shafizadeh of Senses of Cinema.

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