Strangely Loving the Bomb by Benson Beneker
When starting the script for “Dr. Strange Love”, Stanley Kubrick set out to create a thriller about a nuclear incident during the then present cold war. Kubrick was recommended the 1958 novel Red Alert by Peter George and used it as the source material for his screenplay. During the weeks to come Kubrick tried constructing scenes based around the material and found that he had to leave out large chunks that seemed absurd or paradoxical. These chunks, if left in, made the whole affair seem silly and from this he found the film he would make. Using physical humor, societal satire and a touch of dark comedy, Stanley Kubrick has made a bolder statement about the cold war than any serious thriller could have ever had hoped to make.
“Dr. Strangelove” begins with a delusional army commander, who by means of a loop hole found in the plethora of security fail safes, manages to send an entire squadron of B-52 bombers towards their targets in Russia. The plot follows three groups of characters: The first is a rogue army commander himself, General Ripper, whose belief in the fluoridation of the water supply in the late 40’s was an elaborate communist conspiracy leads him to give out an order to bomb Russia. He is joined by Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake, played by Peter Sellers. Ripper is the only man with the three letter call-off code and he has had all of the base’s communications shut down, making Mandrake the only person eligible to obtain the code. After confessing his theory of Soviet contamination in an effort to make the American male impotent, General Ripper commits suicide only leaving clues of the code behind him. Mandrake is able to deduce the three letters needed.
The second group of characters is the staff at the pentagon, including the president. Determined not to fall into mutually assured destruction they reach out to the Russian ambassador and the Premier of Russia. They are able to come to terms with the fact that the attack is not a device of the leadership of the U.S. but of a rogue general. The president and his generals give out the defense information for the planes so that the Russian military can take down the planes if the code does not come through. They do eventually receive the code from Mandrake and all but one of the planes turns back. The ambassador of Russia also alerts the pentagon to the development of a doomsday device Russia had been working on. If an attack is successful against the Soviets the device will trigger itself and erase all life from the face of the planet. The presence of a device like this is questioned by the president. His doubts are proved wrong by his staff scientist, ex-Nazi Dr. Strangelove, also played by Peter Sellers. Dr. Strangelove provides a possible situation where the American people can live on if this doomsday device is deployed. It is a society existing deep within America’s mine shafts with 13 to 1 woman to man ratio. This peeks the interest of the testosterone fueled General Turgidson.
The final group of characters is the crew of one of the B-52 bomber en route to their target. Oblivious to the current situation, they take the order to strike their target circumventing all efforts to take them down including combat brought on by the Russians. Their final obstacle is the bomb bay doors not working. The planes captain, Major T.J Kong played by Slim Pickens, whilst sitting on top of the nuke, manually overrides the doors and falls out with it.. All of these plotlines occur linearly through out the film. The film ends as Dr. Strangelove concludes his mine shaft scenario and the Russian doomsday machine is deployed before any action can be taken. A series of hydrogen bomb explosions are shown with Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again” playing behind it. Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” cleverly showcases the futility of war, war preparation and the overall cost of man’s stubborn virility.
A lot of the humorous devices in the film are not spoken but are seen or heard. The film opens with an ominous narration declaring the dangers of the cold war, but is then followed by peaceful instrumental version of “Try a Little Tenderness”. This moment also gives evidence to a point I will be making later about the sexuality of man in the film. Dr. Strangelove’s alien hand syndrome (a loss of the ability to control the movements of one hand) offers a rather silly break from the heavy tones of the film. The good doctor tries to express his expertise while fending off the Nazi salutes and strangulations of his uncontrollable right hand. This demeaning condition also belittles and pokes fun of the super seriousness of cold war era government and science. The humor is not entirely relevant to the satire at hand but does offer a good amount of relaxation. Other forms of non-verbal comedy appear in the film as well. For instance, as soldiers sent by the pentagon are attacking Ripper’s base, there are several lengthy shots with an army billboard in the background that clearly says, “PEACE IS OUR PROFFESION”. This is a direct satire of the current conflict at hand as well as the battle taking place in front of it. The billboards placement speaks to the silliness of the militaristic state of mind present in the era of the cold war. We have all of these big wigs speaking of how we are protecting freedom against the clear enemy, communism, but here they are fighting one another because of a tangled mess of bureaucratic security procedures.
A great deal of the satire takes place in the president’s war room. The entire situation is both foreshadowed and satirized by a quote from the Major Kong at the beginning of the film. Kong, having received the order to attack says to his co-pilot that they may not know the details but, “Something important is going on down there”. The scenes that take place in the war room contain some of the most heavily quoted lines by cinema buffs. The scenes play off of the juvenile tendencies of General Turgidson, the strict seriousness of the president and their interaction with the Soviet forces. The president’s phone call to the premier of Russia subjects these two figureheads of the free world to a very droll ordinary conversation. The president quietly asks the premier to turn down the music at the party he is at in Moscow. The president also apologizes for only calling when there is an emergency and expresses how he does like to talk to the premier.
The underlying main theme of the film remains to be the stubborn and immature sexual minds of men. The film’s entire apocalyptic genesis sprung forth from one man blaming his impotence on communists. The opening shot includes the crew of the B-52 bomber, the pilot himself reading a playboy while the plane is being fueled (perhaps another stab at sexuality). The cold war arms race was essentially a pissing contest, but instead of a wet streak on a wall we now have men with weapons of mass destruction. The testosterone fueled fallacy that a man’s masculinity is only confirmed when he proves himself better than another man seems to be engrained in the minds of the world’s leaders. This sort of primitive ideology leads to immature decisions that focus on bigger and better guns rather than diplomacy. This absurd focus on not being behind falling behind the other country set off pre-emptive measures on both sides to undertake projects of unimaginable horror i.e. the Russian doomsday device. The creation of the device was to forego the potential gap of the Americans building one and the Russians not having one. Even at the end when destruction is imminent and almost all hope is lost, their minds turn to sex. Dr. Strangelove, whose name alone supports the theme of sexuality with its peculiar innuendo, provides a scenario where America’s government lives on in mine shafts with a 13 to 1 man to woman ratio. General Turgidson’s face lights up with a gaped mouth grin that belongs on an ogling teenager. The mentality brought on by this idea is alluded to in the subtitle of the film, “How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb”. The key word there is love. The sexually oriented mind proves to be international when the ambassador also takes delight in the idea. Turgidson’s mood changes now that a soviet likes the idea and demands that president not allow a mine shaft gap. He successfully changes a moment of potential unity into competition. The theme of sexuality can also be observed in Major Kong’s delivery of the bomb. As he sits a top of the bomb in the plane he begins the laborious task of fixing the electricity to open the doors. This can be interpreted as a metaphor for foreplay and as soon as it’s turned on the doors open and Major Kong begins to hoot and holler as he rides the bomb to his end.
“Dr Strangelove” makes use of every comedic device to satirize the then current situation of the cold war. From the one-upping world leaders to an awkwardly cheery Armageddon, the film shines a light of levity on very serious topics. Every bit of whimsy, wit, physical humor diminishes the rationalization and possibility of mutually assured destruction and provides a sense of safety. A sense not commonly felt in era where every American lived in terror of the big bad Soviet Union.