Review of Dr. Strangelove The comically dark and deeply satirical film by Stanley Kubrick

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Nicholas C. Welsh

HIST 120 Sect. 003


Peace is Our Profession:

A Review of Dr. Strangelove

The comically dark and deeply satirical film by Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop worrying and Love the Bomb, holds as much historical punch as it does critique on the Cold War and the nuclear arms race between the US and the Soviet Union. The film, which debuted in 1964, is as poignant today as it was then for its depiction of political ineptitude and communist fear-mongering. The characters in the film, including such stars as Peter Sellers, George C. Scott and Slim Pickens, play their respective roles with a sort of tongue-in-cheek hilarity that makes this otherwise dark parody into a rip roaring good time whose message is not lost, but further underlined. The film is fully aware of itself and its position as a historical document and its accuracy displays itself fully as it parodies the system of defense that figured so prominently into the world at that time. As a whole, Strangelove effectively combines parody, and comedy with an otherwise incredibly dark topic to create one of the best films of the Cold War era.


The film begins, as many do, with a training exercise gone horribly, horribly wrong. Utilizing a loophole in the command structure of the US Strategic Air Command (SAC), Air Force General Jack D. Ripper orders the 34 nuclear armed B-52 bombers under his command at Burpelson Air Force base to actually attack their targets within the USSR under Plan R. The plan’s provisions include the lock down of the base and the inability of contact between the bombers and any command structure not using the correct three letter code on their radios. General Ripper (played by Sterling Hayden) the only man capable of ordering a recall of the bombers, has gone quite mad over the supposed “commie plot” of water fluoridation. The rogue planes are soon discovered by the general staff of the defense department who are called to a meeting by the President in the infamous “War Room” underneath Washington D.C. The next 80 minutes of the film plot out the ridiculousness of the inept generals and diplomats in the War Room, (including Scott’s General “Buck” Turgidson, and Seller’s as President Merkin Muffley), a group of airmen in a rogue, but unknowing B-52, and General Ripper himself. The film’s path ultimately crosses with Dr. Strangelove himself (Sellers again), a deranged ex-Nazi scientist who’s interactions with the President and the Russian ambassador create the defining moment where doomsday looms. The film uses witty dialogue in the War Room to offset the ominous scenes inside Maj. “King” Kong’s (Pickens) B-52 and the scenes of realistic fighting to retake Burpelson AFB. In the end, the general staff’s effort to recall the bombers is successful save for Kong’s B-52 whose radio was destroyed by a Soviet SAM. This bomber ultimately drops its payload on a Soviet ICBM site, unfortunately causing a failsafe, the “doomsday device” to detonate, ending life on Earth as we know it. The film comes to a close in a rather sick manner with "We'll Meet Again Some Sunny Day" playing in the background as nuclear blasts fill the screen.

Doomsday Devices, MAD, and Water Fluoridation: What the film does.

The film as a historical metaphor is set in the then modern day of 1964, this fact is blatantly obvious in respect to the advisory at the beginning of the film stating that any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental and that the US Air Force has safeguards to prevent any of the following from occurring. The film paints a picture of a mad, paranoid General Ripper exceeding his authority and issuing an order to his bomb wing allowing them to actually strike their targets in the USSR. This is achieved by issuing Plan R that provides for an independent retaliatory strike on the Soviet Union after a surprise attack. This type of plan was most likely on the books during an era of paranoia and fear that caused the massive arms race between the US and Soviet Union. This crisis situation caused by one nutty general reveals the ineptitude of the command structure of both the US and USSR. Generals such as the gung ho, raspy, volatile Turgidson advocate a full scale attack on the USSR so as to “catch’em with their pants down!” While others, such as the Soviet ambassador, Alexi de Sadesky, continue to subvert and spy on their enemies despite doomsday knocking at their door. The film underlines the fact that people are ultimately the ones to end themselves, with the introduction of the “doomsday device” and the infamous Dr. Strangelove. After a semi-drunken discussion with the Soviet diplomat on the other end of the “red phone”, a now terrified Alexi (Peter Bull) explains that any attack on the Soviet Union will activate multiple nuclear weapons that have been “seeded” with a coating of Cobalt that will coat the Earth in a shroud of fallout that would last 93+ years. The terrifying truth is that such a device is possible in reality because, as Dr. Strangelove puts it, “when you don’t have to worry about making them fly, there’s no limit to the size of the bomb!” The real tension occurs when there is a standoff between the troops sent to capture Gen. Ripper and his own troops who have been duped into believing that anyone who approaches the base is a Communist. While the two American forces duke it out, technology and so called “fail-safes” take over for the human element and ultimately leave the leaders on both sides with their hands tied, waiting for a single nuclear weapon to cause the eventual state of mutually assured destruction (MAD) to occur. The film effectively mocks the apparent “effectiveness” of the military-industrial-complex and the doctrine of deterrence that both sides were practicing at the time the film was being shot. By juxtaposing the hilarious conversations had by the men in the War Room and the invisible Russian diplomat Dmitri with the stark reality of nuclear annihilation. If it weren’t for the truly funny interactions and lines between Maj. Kong and his crew (the survival kit inventory scene is particularly gut busting) or the constant battle between Gen. Ripper and his terrified, yet defiant, British XO Colonel Lionel Mandrake, or Strangelove and his rebellious Nazi right arm, the film would otherwise be a very, very dark film about nuclear war and MAD.

Historical Accuracy and Characters

The film, for a supposed comedy, is surprisingly historically accurate in its handling of the topic. Down to the last detail, from the models of the B-52s, to the trucks and Jeeps used by the (fictitious) 23rd Airborne, and the weapons carried by the soldiers (except for one scene during the attack on Burpelson where a trooper is clearly carrying a German MP-40 submachine gun, or the over statement of the B-52s radar capabilities), the film portrays the Air Force in the 1960s surprisingly well. The characters are obviously not based on any real people, but instead serve as allegories for countries (in the case of Mandrake) or to criticize stereotypes on both sides (Dmitri and Ripper). In the case of Col. Mandrake, he is highly representative of the unvoiced United Kingdom in the film. He is an airman of the RAF and is a part of the officer exchange program here in the states, unfortunately, as we can see from the scenes in the War Room, the UK, and all of NATO for that matter, aren’t even told about the nuclear strikes. This is very telling about the cavalier attitude that the US and the USSR threw around the possibility of nuclear war. Mandrake, and his panicked, frantic attempts to soothe the madness of General Ripper, is allegorical for the attitude of most of Britain and Europe following the Second World War. He represents the very grounded and solid belief that twice in one century was bad enough and that peace could prevail if cooler heads were in charge (Merriman). Next we have the dual representations of American paranoia (following the Red Scare and McCarthyism). First, in the form of General Turgidson, who is constantly complaining about the admission of de Sadesky, and how the Red will “See the big board!” Next, there is the raving mad General Ripper who is paranoid to the point of going off his rocker at the supposed Communist plot of water fluoridation. In a hyperbolic act of madness, the General issues the nuclear strike on the USSR as a result of his rampant fear and paranoia. On the flip side of this coin is de Sadesky, the stereotypical Commie pawn. Even in the face of nuclear war he continues to spy on the activities in the War Room, taking pictures of the “big board” with hidden cameras. In addition to this continuing act of bitterness on the side of the Soviets is the ridiculous (yet plausible given the fact that many a Soviet minister was were a lapdog to their premiers) exchange between de Sadesky and Strangelove. The good Doctor explains that keeping a doomsday device a secret is counterintuitive given the point of such a device is deterrence and fear. To this accusation de Sadesky doesn’t miss a beat with his response saying that it was to be announced next Monday at the Party Congress as “the Premier loves surprises”. Dr. Strangelove himself is a parody of many of the Nazi rocket scientists who the US and USSR scooped up following WWII (Merriman). This metaphor is drawn out to its fullest by Strangelove’s saluting right arm and (the completely ad-libbed) final line of the movie as he rises from his wheelchair “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!” As a whole, the film effectively uses characters to personify the national mood of both the US and USSR during the Cold War; from the use of Nazi scientists in the rocket race, to the paranoid de Sadesky and Ripper, and the overtly militaristic Kong and Turgidson, each character is hyperbolized to be humorous, yet none lose their satiric punch.

Peace is Our Profession

The brief line “Peace Is Our Profession”, though never uttered by anyone, appears several times in the film and seems to be the central critique that Kubrick attempts to get across. The film uses comedy to reveal the fallaciousness of statements that nuclear weapons create or somehow promote peace. Kubrick is mocking the US and USSR for the continuing arms race and how ultimately weapons of mass destruction or doomsday devices (if left in the hands of people or technology) will only serve their original purpose (to destroy everything) eventually. The characters in the film reflect attitudes held by average people during an age of rampant Red fear and irrational panic. The accuracy of the film (in terms of how it portrays the time) is unmatched save for a few minor slip ups, as it was being shot in present day 1964. A review for the NY Times in ’64 called the films ending cuts both “malefic and sick”, but in my opinion the film does an excellent job revealing the futility of engaging in global nuclear combat. Reviewing this film today reveals just how much punch it still has given the situation with North Korea and Iran’s respective nuclear programs. Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is a masterpiece of dark, utterly sharp wit whose message is a biting critique of the Cold War and serves as a warning to future generations the danger of Atomic weapons.

Word Count 1949

Works used in Research

Crowther, Bosley. "Movie Review - Dr. Strangelove - DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB -" Movie Reviews, Showtimes and Trailers - Movies - New York Times - The New York Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2012.

Merriman, John M.. A history of modern Europe: from the Renaissance to the present. 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. Print

"Pictures & Photos from Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb - IMDb." The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2012.
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