Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films

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

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The Story (continued)

At the Air Force base, Mandrake walks with the portable radio playing jazz tunes through the halls to Ripper's office. Demonstrating that regular "civilian broadcasting" is being played on the radio while twirling the dial, he tells Ripper that if a real Russian attack was under way, regular broadcasts wouldn't be playing: "I think those fellas in the Pentagon have given us some sort of exercise to test our readiness. Personally, I think it's taking things a bit too far. Our fellows will be inside Russian radar, Captain, in about twenty minutes....I thought to myself, 'Our fellows hitting Russian radar cover in 20 minutes, dropping all their stuff, I'd better tell you because if they do, it will cause a bit of a stink, what?'" The general slowly rises from his desk, walks to the far end of the room, and locks the door. Ripper menacingly tells Mandrake, that he will not tolerate "any special prerogatives to question my orders" from an officer in the Exchange Programme. With typical British understatement, Mandrake suddenly realizes that the bomber attack orders originated not from the President but from Ripper himself, and he respectfully suggests: "Let's face it, we, we don't want to start a nuclear war unless we really have to, do we?"

As Mandrake stands in front of Ripper's desk, Ripper is firm: "The planes are not going to be recalled. My attack orders have been issued and the orders stand." Mandrake suggests that there is "something dreadfully wrong somewhere." Ripper commands him to mix a drink of grain alcohol and rainwater. Saluting and coming to attention, Mandrake respectfully announces his duty (with a cracking voice) to issue the recall code under his own authority and bring back the Wing - the code prefix that can radio the bombers to turn back in time. As he walks to the door, he finds that he is being held hostage - his only exit is locked. While Mandrake insistently asks for the door key and recall code, the demented Ripper uncovers his pearl-handled .45 revolver sitting on the desk.

Crazed with his plan, Ripper justifies, with a big cigar in his mouth, what is happening, condescendingly quoting to Mandrake from Clemenceau:

...a decision is being made by the President and the Joint Chiefs in the War Room at the Pentagon. And when they realize there is no possibility of recalling the Wing, there will be only one course of action open. Total commitment. Mandrake, do you recall what Clemenceau once said about war?...He said war was too important to be left to the generals. When he said that, fifty years ago, he might have been right. But today, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought.

A total madman with John Wayne machismo in his locked office, Ripper, who fears the degradation of his bodily fluids (his male potency and sexual functioning), reasons that his actions will forestall the Soviet plot to fluoridate US drinking water:

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.

The Pentagon's huge underground War Room, a murky, cavernous locale with a round conference table is the third central focus of the film. Lights illuminate the room from above in a circle, casting a glow over the assembled wimpy, balding 'Adlai Stevenson-like' President (Commander-in-Chief), Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers in the second of three roles) and his undersecretary advisors at the round war council table. At the far end of the room is the Big Board - a massive graphic display strategic map lit with blinking lights to indicate the progress of the bomber wing planes to their Russian targets (resembling an illuminated pinball game). [Fritz Lang's expressionistic Metropolis (1927) influenced the design of the set of the War Room.]

The shiny-headed President is briefed by his hawkish, blustery Air Force General Buck Turgidson of the orders issued by General Jack Ripper to the 34 B-52's [Turgidson has a 3-ring binder in front of him titled World Targets in Megadeaths]. The aircraft were engaged in an airborne exercise dubbed "Operation Dropkick" - Ripper's "order called for the planes to attack their targets inside Russia." The planes are now fully armed with nuclear weapons (having an average load of 40 megatons each) and will begin "penetrating Russian radar cover within 25 minutes." He points out the flight paths (dots), the primary (triangles) and the secondary targets (squares) marked on the display.

Reprimanded with the fact that Muffley is the only one with authority to order a nuclear strike, Turgidson nervously admits that "General Ripper exceeded his authority," and the President is powerless to recall the attack. The Air Force General sheepishly recalls for Muffley's memory that he had approved the emergency war plan procedures: "Plan R is 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." Buck admits that the Plan R "retaliatory safeguard" lacks "the human element" since its main objective was:

to discourage the Russkies from any hope that they could knock out Washington, and yourself, sir, as part of a general sneak attack and escape retaliation because of lack of proper command and control.

The planes will not return automatically once they reach their "failsafe points," because they were already holding at their failsafe points. The aircraft will continue flying until they reach their targets. The GO code cannot be countermanded in the provisions of Plan R - the aircraft are using the CRM 114 discriminators and cannot be recalled except by radio transmissions preceded by the correct three letter code group prefix - known only to Ripper. "We are plowing through every possible three-letter combination of the code" but it could take about two and a half days - there are 17,000 permutations. In about eighteen minutes, the planes will penetrate Russian radar cover.

The President realizes the impossible has indeed occurred - systems in place to prevent an accidental nuclear war have in fact triggered an attack. At the President's urging, Turgidson reads a partial transcript of General Ripper's last conversation to SAC headquarters shortly after he issued the "go code." Turgidson stumbles over the meaning of Ripper's final phrase about "the purity and essence of our natural fluids":

'They are on their way in and no one can bring them back. For the sake of our country and our way of life, I suggest you get the rest of SAC in after them. Otherwise, we will be totally destroyed by Red retaliation. My boys will give you the best kind of start, 1400 megatons worth, and you sure as hell won't stop them now. So let's get going. There's no other choice. God willing, we will prevail in peace and freedom from fear and in true health through the purity and essence of our natural fluids. God bless you all.' Then he hung up.

The President declares Ripper "obviously a psychotic," and asks about the reliability of the human psychological tests instituted by Turgidson. Pained, the General cautions against making any hasty judgments: "I think I'd like to hold off judgment on a thing like that, sir, until all the facts are in...I don't think it's quite fair to condemn the whole program because of a single slip up, sir."

While in the midst of the heated crisis in the War Room, Turgidson receives an unimportant phone call from his secretary/mistress. He crouches down and whispers, attempting to calm her down, explaining that he is too busy with real bombs to have sex with her:

Well, look baby, I can't, can't talk to you now, but... My president needs me. Of course Bucky would rather be there with you (Pause) Of course it isn't only physical. I deeply respect you as a human being. Someday I'm gonna make you Mrs. Buck Turgidson. (Pause) Listen, you go back to sleep. Bucky'll be back there just as soon as he can. All right? Listen, sug', don't forget to say your prayers.

After composing himself, and advising that Burpelson Base will defend itself from any outside invasion force, General Faceman (Gordon Tanner), who will dispatch the 23rd Airborne Division at Alvarado to enter Burpelson, is confident that troops near Burpelson can successfully attack the sealed-off base, find Ripper, put him in touch with the President and learn the recall code: "My boys can brush 'em aside without too much trouble." Turgidson gleefully rattles off a number of factors: hope of recall is low, the planes will soon make radar contact initiating retaliation against the US and "they are gonna go absolutely ape and they're gonna strike back with everything they've got." He predicts that the US "will suffer virtual annihilation." He points to the only remaining action he feels would be effective - reinforce Ripper's attack with an all-out nuclear offensive war against the Russians before they can retaliate:

If...we were to immediately launch an all-out and coordinated attack on all their airfields and missile bases we'd stand a damn good chance of catchin 'em with their pants down. Hell, we got five to one missile superiority as it is. We could easily assign three missiles to every target and still have a very effective reserve force for any other contingency...An unofficial study [he rifles through the binder entitled World Targets in Megadeaths], which we undertook of this eventuality, indicated that we would destroy ninety percent of their nuclear capabilities. We would therefore prevail and suffer only modest and acceptable civilian casualties from the remaining force which would be badly damaged and uncoordinated.

The blithe, obtuse Turgidson is pleased with his own assessment of the situation and his aggressive solution, until his ideas are countered by the President who wants to stop a potential World War III and find other alternatives: "It is the avowed policy of our country never to strike first with nuclear weapons." Turgidson shrugs and laughs: "Well, Mr. President, I would say that General Ripper has already invalidated that policy!" Muffley barks back: "That was not an act of national policy and there are still alternatives left open to us."

To cover his butt military-style, Turgidson presents the President with an impossible choice between the lesser of two evils, a reinforced Ripper attack, or a non-reinforced Ripper attack:

Mr. President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth...Now, truth is not always a pleasant thing, but it is necessary now to make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless, distinguishable post-war environments. One, where you got 20 million people killed, and the other where you got 150 million people killed.

In the face of universal destruction and "mass murder," General Turgidson, who believes that conquest in war is equated to sexual defeat, rants about the tremendous 'overkill' potential of the nuclear offensive. He also minimizes the Soviet retaliatory counter-attack casualty statistics:

Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed, but I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops, uh, depending on the breaks.

President Muffley refuses to "go down in history as the greatest mass murderer since Adolf Hitler." Turgidson deflects Tuffley: "Perhaps it might be better, Mr. President, if you were more concerned with the American people, than with your image in the history books."

Another possibility is to negotiate with the Russian Ambassador, Alexei de Sadesky, or use him to track down the Russian premier. The Soviet envoy has been summoned to be admitted to the War Room despite Turgidson's opposition to the "serious breach of security...he'll see everything. He'll see the Big Board!"

To extend the insanity further, Kong checks the contents of his survival kit with his crew on board the B-52:

- one .45 caliber automatic
- two boxes of ammunition
- four days concentrated emergency rations
- one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleepin' pills, tranquilizer pills
- one miniature combination Russian (pronounced 'Rooshan') phrase book and Bible
- $100 dollars in rubles
- $100 dollars in gold
- nine packs of chewin' gum
- one issue of prophylactics
- three lipsticks
- three pair of nylon stockin's

Kong comments positively: "Shoot, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff." [If a viewer looks closely, the word 'Vegas' is substituted in a re-dub for the mouthed word 'Dallas' on the soundtrack - due to President Kennedy's assassination in Dallas.]

The puffy Russian Ambassador De Sadesky (Peter Bull), dressed in a frock coat, enters the War Room, walking along a elaborate buffet table covered with an array of meats, breads, and pies. He orders poached eggs and Havana cigars. Turgidson clutches his strategic charts and manuals to his chest, sneering at the Russian while telling Muffley: "You gonna let that lousy Commie punk vomit all over us like this?" Mr. Staines (Jack Creley) tells the President that the Soviet premier is unattainable by phone for the next two hours. De Sadesky, knowing that the premier often engages in drunken revelry, provides an alternative unlisted phone number (B86543 in a Moscow brothel?). He reasons - the premier is unavailable because he is "a man of the people, but he is also a man, if you follow my meaning."

A struggle and fight break out between Turgidson and the Russian ambassador, when the General accuses the Soviet premier of being "a degenerate atheistic Commie." The President intervenes with an ironic punchline, scolding both of them for their outrageous behavior:

Gentlemen. You can't fight in here. This is the War Room!

Turgidson has caught the "lousy Commie rat" ambassador taking pictures of the Big Board with a miniature camera - the ambassador claims the camera was planted by Turgidson.

On the outside of Burpelson Air Force Base where an attack is about to begin, guard soldiers view approaching trucks of soldiers through their binoculars - [filmed by Kubrick in grainy, documentary style, often with a handheld camera.] They believe Ripper's admonition about Communist infiltration, accepting the fact that they are going to fight Russians disguised as Americans: "You sure gotta hand it to those Commies...Gee, those trucks sure look like the real thing, don't they?...I wonder where they got 'em from?...Probably bought them from the Army as war surplus...OK. Open up at 200 yards." The firefight battle - of American troops against Americans - commences between guards with machine guns in the foreground against their own troops in the distance. In Ripper's office, Mandrake and Ripper listen to the gunfire in silence.

In the War Room, the President calls the drunken Soviet premier Kissof on the Hotline. (The Soviet premier, Dmitri Kissof, is never seen on-camera.) In a brilliant, memorable monologue, the self-assured President has difficulty getting to the point while describing the critical state of affairs in a delicate way. He speaks to the Premier as if he were placating a juvenile. During the call, General Turgidson reacts to the President's bowing-and-scraping with disbelief:

Hello? Uh, hello? Hello, Dmitri? Listen, I can't hear too well, do you suppose you could turn the music down just a little? Oh, that's much better. Yes. Fine, I can hear you now, Dmitri. Clear and plain and coming through fine. I'm coming through fine too, eh? Good, then. Well then, as you say we're both coming through fine. Good. Well, it's good that you're fine, and - and I'm fine. I agree with you. It's great to be fine. (Laughs)

Now then, Dmitri, you know how we've always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the bomb. The BOMB, Dmitri. The hydrogen bomb. Well now, what happened is, uh, one of our base commanders, he had a sort of, well, he went a little funny in the head. You know. Just a little...funny. And uh, he went and did a silly thing. Well, I'll tell you what he did, he ordered his attack your country. Well, let me finish, Dmitri. Let me finish, Dmitri.

Well, listen, how do you think I feel about it? Can you imagine how I feel about it, Dmitri? Why do you think I'm calling you? Just to say hello?

Of course I like to speak to you. Of course I like to say hello. Not now, but any time, Dmitri. I'm just calling up to tell you something terrible has happened.

It's a friendly call. Of course it's a friendly call. Listen, if it wasn't friendly, you probably wouldn't have even got it. They will not reach their targets for at least another hour.

Muffley offers to give the Russian air staff at the Omsk People's Central Air Defense Headquarters "a complete rundown on the targets, the flight plans, and the defensive systems of the planes," and "if we're unable to recall the planes...we're just gonna have to help you destroy them." Muffley is instructed to call the Omsk Defense Headquarters. He asks the Soviet premier for the phone number. Because the premier has forgotten the telephone number, he suggests that the American President try Omsk information.

The phone call concludes with endless apologies:

...I'm sorry too, Dmitri. I'm very sorry. (Listens)

All right! You're sorrier than I am! But I am sorry as well. I am as sorry as you are Dmitri. Don't say that you're the more sorry than I am, because I am capable of being just as sorry as you are. So we're both sorry, alright? All right.

The Russian ambassador, who takes the phone and speaks in Russian to the premier for a few moments, gasps in alarm, and rests the phone on the table:

The fools...the mad fools...The Doomsday Machine...A device which will destroy all human and animal life on earth.

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