Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films

Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964)

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Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) is producer/director Stanley Kubrick's brilliant, satirical, provocative black comedy/fantasy regarding doomsday and Cold War politics that features an accidental, inadvertent, pre-emptive nuclear attack. The undated, landmark film - the first commercially-successful political satire about nuclear war, has been inevitably compared to another similar suspense film released at the same time - the much-more-serious and melodramatic Fail-Safe (1964). However, this was a cynically objective, Monty Python-esque, humorous, biting response to the apocalyptic fears of the 1950s.

The witty screenplay, co-authored by the director (with Terry Southern), was based on Peter George's novel Red Alert (the U.S. title). [George's work, under his pseudonym Peter Bryant, was first published in England with the title Two Hours to Doom. Early drafts of the script were titled Edge of Doom and The Delicate Balance of Terror.] The novel's primary concern was the threat of an accidental nuclear war. Dr. Strangelove himself did not appear in the novel, however - he was added by Kubrick and co-screenwriter Southern.

The mid-1960s film's nightmarish, apocalyptic theme was about how technology had gone haywire and had dominated humanity. The film's anti-war fears actually became a plausible scenario, shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the heated-up intensification of the Cold War and nuclear arms race. [The satirical film's release was delayed from December 12, 1963 to late January, 1964 due to Kennedy's assassination in late November.]

However, Columbia Pictures had to include a disclaimer at the film's beginning:

It is the stated position of the United States Air Force that their safeguards would prevent the occurrence of such events as are depicted in this film. Furthermore, it should be noted that none of the characters portrayed in this film are meant to represent any real persons living or dead.

The funny (and frightening), dark film cleverly cuts back and forth mid-scene (and increases in rapidity as the film draws to an insane close) from three main set locations, each with their own distinctive camera styles:

  • a locked office in a sealed-off Air Force command base of a psychotic, impotent bomb-group commander who is zealously convinced that the Russians have devised water fluoridation to weaken American men - filmed with a cinema verite, documentary style
  • the cramped, flight deck interior of the B-52 bomber sent to destroy the Soviets with a preemptive strike - led by a Southern-accented, gung-ho major - often filmed using close-up shots
  • the Pentagon's huge underground War Room where an inept US President has convened an advisory staff - including a saber-rattling general (and other military brass), a Soviet ambassador, and a crazed German nuclear scientist speaking to each other over considerable distances - usually seen in long, static camera shots

There were a total of four Academy Award nominations (with no wins) for the film: Best Picture, Best Actor (Peter Sellers), Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It lost the first three Oscars to the popular My Fair Lady (1964), and the Screenplay award to Becket (1964).

Dr. Strangelove is most memorable for Peter Sellers' Oscar-nominated, masterful performances in three distinct roles in two of the three set locales (similar to his various identities in Kubrick's Lolita (1962)):

  • Dr. Strangelove (an eccentric, wheel-chair bound German scientist, a Presidential advisor - similar to real-life Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger, who has an uncontrollable mechanical hand that involuntarily makes Nazi salutes and threatens homicide, similar to Lionel Atwill's local police Inspector Krogh character with a mechanical wooden arm in Son of Frankenstein (1939))
  • Mr. Merkin Muffley (an egg-headed President of the US with a bland American accent, similar to 50s Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson)
  • Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (a stuffy British Exchange Programme liaison officer with a crisp English accent, similar to the Alec Guinness' character Col. Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957))
  • NOTE: Sellers was originally cast to appear in a fourth role, as Major T. J. Kong (played by Slim Pickens in the film), but once he was finally able to acquire the right Texan accent, he broke his leg and couldn't play the part

In addition to numerous sexual images and jokes throughout the film (including large phallic cigars, mating airplanes, guns, Ripper's impotent "loss of essence", and the orgasmic atomic bomb that Kong rides between his legs), many of the absurd, omnipresent names of the male, military characters (caricatures) have sexual connotations or allegorical references that suggest the connection between war, sexual obsession and the male sex drive:

Character Name
Sexual Connotation or Reference
Jack D. Ripper a notorious English psychopathic killer of prostitutes, or a killer in general Sterling Hayden
Mandrake a medicinal plant root or herb, said to encourage fertility, conception or potency - an aphrodisiac Peter Sellers
Buck Turgidson a "buck" is a male animal or stud; "turgid" means distended or swollen; and his delayed love-making to a real-life Playboy centerfold Tracy Reed - the only woman in the entire film George C. Scott
Merkin Muffley merkin = slang for female pubic area or pudendum; muff = a woman's pubic area or genitalia, or specifically, the pubic hair/fur/wig for the female crotch Peter Sellers
Col. 'Bat' Guano bat excrement Keenan Wynn
Soviet premier Dmitri Kissof "kiss-off", literally means 'start of disaster', or to dump or scorn Voice only
Ambassador Desadeski named after the Marquis de Sade - an infamous and perverted sexual lover and sadist in the 18th century (sade-ism) Peter Bull
Maj. T.J. "King" Kong signifying a male beast with a primitive, destructive, obsessive lust Slim Pickens
Dr. Strange-love perverted love Peter Sellers
The bombs Inscribed with "Dear John" and "Hi There"  

Most of the film's recurring images have to do with symbolic analogies for body and sphincter (or body cavity) control --- planes coupling, Coke machines spewing (or not), arms uncontrollably Nazi-saluting, bomb doors not opening, the powerless inability to recall the planes, and more. It has a vast combination of sexual, anal, erotic and infantile imagery, so to speak -- withholding, giving, controlling, failing to control, etc. [The outlandish influence of co-writer Southern, who also contributed to The Loved One (1965), Barbarella (1968), Candy (1968) and The Magic Christian (1969), is characteristically evident in this film's screenplay.]

Plot Synopsis

The irreverent film opens to the whirring sound of the stratospheric wind with a slow tracking shot over a sea of dense cloud cover. Rocky mountain peaks visibly poke through in the distance. The Earth is without sign of man. The narrator (in voice-over) drones ominously, with factual directness, about a top-secret Doomsday Machine being constructed in the Arctic that could reduce the world to nothingness:

For more than a year, ominous rumors had been privately circulating among high-level western leaders that the Soviet Union had been at work on what was darkly hinted to be the Ultimate Weapon, a Doomsday Device. Intelligence sources traced the site of the top secret Russian project to the perpetually fog-shrouded wasteland below the Arctic peaks of the Zhokhov Islands. What they were building, or why it should be located in such a remote and desolate place, no one could say.

The film title credits -- designed by Pablo Ferro -- are his trademark: starkly scrawled, hand-drawn letters, a style he also used for Stop Making Sense (1984) and other films. The credits play over the graceful, mid-air refueling of a long-range, B-52 SAC nuclear bomber - [symbolically interpreted as either sexual foreplay or maternal sustenance]. From above, the silvery, huge, phallic-like nose of the tanker aircraft juts toward the camera before its aerial copulation with the bomber below - like a mother extending its nipple to its young child. On the soundtrack in the background plays the romantic Try a Little Tenderness. After fueling, the tanker aircraft's fuel nozzle breaks away from the aircraft. [The stock footage of the refueling was also used in the awful low-budget film Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964).]

The B-52 bomber lands on the airfield of Burpelson Air Base at night as it is tracked by radar. Inside a brightly-lit computer room, filled with large machines spitting out endless data sheets of information [and a sign reading "PEACE IS OUR PROFESSION"), petty officer Group Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers), the stereotype of a chivalrous, good-old-boy British officer with a stiff upper lip, receives a phone call from his supervisor, Strategic Air Command General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden). The obsessively paranoid, crazed, right-wing commander sits at his desk in a dark room, chomping on a large, jutting cigar under a fluorescent overhead lamp - he is calling about something "pretty damned important." He has phoned Mandrake, an English officer on the Officer Exchange Programme, to inform him of the declaration of a Red Alert.

Deliriously believing that there has been a Russian sneak attack (a "shooting war" [something with sexual connotations]), Ripper orders Plan R (later identified as "an emergency war plan in which a lower echelon commander may order nuclear retaliation after a sneak attack if the normal chain of command has been disrupted"). The plan, transmitted by a special code, was delivered to 34 nuclear-armed B-52's of the 843rd Bomb Wing, ordering them to move past their failsafe points to await further orders to proceed:

Ripper: The base is being put on Condition Red. I want this flashed to all sections immediately.
Mandrake: (deferentially) Condition Red, sir, yes, jolly good idea. That keeps the men on their toes.
Ripper: Group Captain, I'm afraid this is not an exercise.
Mandrake: Not an exercise, sir?
Ripper: ...It looks like we're in a shooting war.
Mandrake: (politely irritated) Oh hell. Are the Russians involved, sir?
Ripper: ...It just came in on the Red Phone. My orders are for this base to be sealed tight, and that's what I mean to do, seal it tight. Now, I want you to transmit plan R, R for Robert, to the wing. Plan R for Robert...It looks like it's pretty hairy...Now last, and possibly most important - I want all privately-owned radios to be immediately impounded...They might be used to issue instructions to saboteurs.

As the alert is signaled by a siren sounding on the base - and the special code is transmitted to a fleet of B-52's, Ripper closes his venetian blinds. The narrator makes a final statement regarding Strategic Air Command readiness - later dubbed "Operation Dropkick":

In order to guard against surprise nuclear attack, America's Strategic Air Command maintains a large force of B-52 bombers airborne 24 hours a day. Each B-52 can deliver a nuclear bombload of 50 megatons, equal to 16 times the total explosive force of all the bombs and shells used by all the armies in World War Two. Based in America, the Airborne alert force is deployed from the Persian Gulf to the Arctic Ocean, but they have one geographical factor in common - they are all two hours from their targets inside Russia.

In the claustrophobic, machine-dominated interior of one of the B-52 bombers at its failsafe point, a dim-witted crew is engaged in routine pursuits. [The "Leper Colony" crew is supposedly one of the more sophisticated crews in the large force of bombers on 24-hour alert against the Russians.] The plane's crew is commanded by Major T. J. "King" Kong (Slim Pickens), a simple-minded, ape-like, thick-accented Texan cowboy who is flipping through a Playboy Magazine (staring at the centerfold - Tracy Reed, who appears in another context further on), and later napping. [The June 1962 centerfold has a copy of the Council on Foreign Relations' house journal, Foreign Affairs, draped strategically across her rear - another of the film's many sexual jokes.] Another crew member amuses himself practicing shuffling tricks with a deck of cards. Radio operator Lieutenant B. "Goldie" Goldberg (Paul Tamarin) is munching on some food when he receives a loud radio transmission that clicks into view on his dial (FGD 135). The letters and numbers are decoded in his Top Secret Aircraft Communications Codes manual as Wing attack Plan R.

Irritated when informed of the orders for Wing attack Plan R (R for Romeo [Ripper's attack is correlated to a famous male lover]), Major Kong questions whether his crew is playing a practical joke and disdains the order: "How many times have I told you guys that I don't want no horsin' around on the airplane?...Well I've been to one world fair, a picnic, and a rodeo and that's the stupidest thing I ever heard come over a set of earphones." Kong insists that the message and code be confirmed, muttering to himself: "There's just gotta be somethin' wrong." The bombadier suspects that the top secret order may be "some kind of loyalty test." After examining the code book, the decoded message, and legitimate confirmation from the base is received by Goldberg, Kong declares that they have indeed received Plan R:

Ain't nobody ever got the Go code yet. And old Ripper wouldn't be giving us plan R unless them Russkies had already clobbered Washington and a lot of other towns with a sneak attack.

Kong dons his ten-gallon hat and solemnly announces to his crew, as the soundtrack plays a snare-drum accentuated theme song: "When Johnny Comes Marching Home":

Well, boys, I reckon this is it. Nuclear (pronounced 'nookular') combat, toe-to-toe with the Rooskies.

Over the intercom, Kong delivers a memorable, patriotic speech to his men - a parody of the totally-loyal American sent on a glory mission:

Now look, boys. I ain't much of a hand at makin' speeches. But I got a pretty fair idea that somethin' doggone important is goin' on back there. And I got a fair idea of the kind of personal emotions that some of you fellas may be thinkin'. Heck, I reckon you wouldn't even be human beins if you didn't have some pretty strong personal feelings about nuclear combat. I want you to remember one thing: the folks back home is a-countin' on ya, and by golly, we ain't about to let 'em down. Tell ya somethin' else. If this thing turns out to be half as important as I figure it just might be, I'd say that you're all in line for some important promotions an' personal citations when this thing's over with. That goes for every last one of ya, regardless of your race, color, or your creed. Now, let's get this thing on the hump. We got some flyin' to do.

In the next scene, the phone rings in the mirrored hotel suite of hawkish, hedonistic, cartoonish General "Buck" Turgidson (George C. Scott). [Turgidson's character was based on General Curtis LeMay, the extreme anti-Communist head of the Strategic Air Command during the 1950s and early '60s.] It is answered by his sunlamp-bathing brunette "secretary"/mistress Miss Scott (Tracy Reed, the Playboy centerfold from earlier) who lounges across a bed. [Tracy Reed was the step-daughter of British director Sir Carol Reed, famed for The Third Man (1949).] Running interference, she tries to tell the caller Col. Freddie Puntridge that Turgidson is "catching up on some of the General's paperwork" but is currently "tied up" in "the powder room." She relays the message by shouting out that the message is urgent. He has just "monitored a transmission about eight minutes ago from Burpelson Air Force was directed to the 843'rd bomb wing on Airborne Alert...It decoded as Wing Attack, Plan R." From off-screen, Turgidson suggests that he call "what's his name" Ripper at the Command Base, but is told that he already tried and "all communications are dead."

Grumbling, complaining that he always has to think of everything, the boyish crew-cutted Turgidson approaches the phone from the bathroom, first viewed in the wall mirror reflection next to his secretary. Right wing war hawk Turgidson wears an open sports shirt and shorts, slapping his bare gut during the phone conversation. He first finds out that there's nothin' "cookin' on the threat board." Worried about a conspiracy, he advises Puntridge: "You better give Elmo and Charlie a blast, and bump everything up to Condition Red and stand by the blower." Turgidson nonchalantly tells Miss Scott: "I just thought I might mosey over to the War Room for a few minutes," although it is three o'clock in the morning: "The Air Force never sleeps." That will interrupt their sexual plans, however. Turgidson intermingles war and sex talk in his departing words:

Miss Scott: Buck, honey...I'm not sleepy either.
Turgidson: I know how it is, baby. Tell you what you do. You just start your countdown, and old Bucky'll be back here before you can say...Blast Off!

Back at an alerted Burpelson Air Force Base, Ripper uses the PA system from his desk with his cigar in one hand and the phallic-looking microphone in the other. He paranoically proclaims the Red Alert to grim-faced guards and soldiers who stand ready (behind many quick shots of the soldiers is again posted the motto of the SAC: "Peace is Our Profession"):

Your commie has no regard for human life, not even his own. And for this reason, men, I want to impress upon you the need for extreme watchfulness. The enemy may come individually, or he may come in strength. He may even come in the uniform of our own troops. But however he comes, we must stop him. We must not allow him to gain entrance to this base....

His foreboding words include three simple rules: (1) trust no one, despite his uniform or rank unless he is known personally, (2) anyone or anything that approaches within 200 yards of the perimeter of the base is to be fired upon, and (3) if in doubt, shoot first and ask questions afterwards. General Ripper has effectively closed off his base so that it will be impossible to reverse the order or contact him. "Any variation on these rules" must come personally from him. He concludes with words of encouragement and enforced loyalty: the two years it has been my privilege to be your commanding officer, I have always expected the best from you, and you have never given me anything less than that.

A jeep backs up, filled with all the tagged, confiscated radios that have been ordered collected, to prevent the Russians from planting false radio transmissions. While listening to Ripper's voice, Mandrake finds one transistor radio in the computer room as he is closing up. He switches it on and listens to soft jazz dance music instead of what he expected to hear - civil defense broadcasts.

The radio's music blends into the background thematic music of the airborne B-52 bomber, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." Kong has the TOP SECRET attack profile, found in a locked safe adorned with pinup pictures, distributed to his crew. To insure that the enemy cannot monitor or send voice transmissions, Kong orders that all of the transmission receivers aboard the aircraft must be adjusted to a locked position so that only messages preceded by the emergency code prefix OPE will get through (they will be routed through a device called the "CRM-114 discriminator"). [Note: CRM-114 is a Kubrick trademark -- In Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), the serial number on one of the pods was "CRM114"; in his A Clockwork Orange (1971), the central character Alex was injected with "serum 114" - CRM=serum; in Eyes Wide Shut (1999), the mortuary was located on Level/Wing C, Room 114]

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