*author's note: This was a research project for my History 1112 class at Georgia State University in May 2000. Thus it has all that documentation jazz througout.
At the close of World War II, the United States, by then one of the world's two superpowers, assisted the rebuilding of Western Europe and faced the duty of somehow extricating and constructing a new world from the rubble left by the war. Looming in the east, however, was the huge might of Russia, a former ally and US rival. The powers soon placed themselves in a Cold War, a grandiose standoff and game of brinkmanship that was a virtual deadlock, with dire projections. American culture reflected the war, as the Communist became the new scourge for God- fearing patriots. Television, books, and movies all conveyed warnings of Communist infiltration. America's frighteningly large nuclear capability, though, oddly remained largely ignored by the general public until the Kennedy era, when American atomic puissance came to the fore, culminating in the 1962 Cuban missle crisis, and spawning strong movements for and against proliferation (Craig, Albert M, et al, The Heritage of World Civilizations, 1004).
In 1964, Columbia Pictures released a controversial black comedy directed by Stanley Kubrick called Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb that parodied the hawkish Cold War culture and helped proliferate the movement against the bomb. An analysis of Dr. Strangelove will expose the writers' intent to ridicule the paranoia that created and perpetuated the Cold War, question the competence of the military and its reliance on the nuclear threat, and explore the lingering effects of the Second World War on the 1960s.
Dr. Strangelove's primary satirical device is its mocking attitude toward Cold War paranoia and militarism so characteristic of the postwar years. The mad Base Commander Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) utilizes an emergency attack provision to send an SAC squadron to drop nuclear payload on targets in the USSR. Ripper's paranoia is fixated on the fluoridation of water; he believes fluoridation to be a Communist scheme. Fed up with political incompetence, he says, "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!" Ripper relates the fluoridation of water, which he sees as a Communist plot, with his own sexual impotency, claiming that he first developed his theory "during the physical act of love." He continues, "a profound sense of fatigue, a feeling of emptiness followed. Luckily I was able to interpret these feelings correctly: loss of essence . . . women sense my power, and they seek the life essence. I do not avoid women . . . but I do deny them my essence." This correlation of sex and war is an important idea and will be more completely considered later in this discussion.
Ripper's theory seems far-fetched; he envisions a world of corrupted foodstuffs: "There are studies underway to fluoridate salt, flour, fruit juices, soup, sugar, milk, ice cream . . . children's ice cream." But the portrayal of American concepts of Communist conspiracy is not fantastic. The growth of post-war communism in France and Italy convinced some leaders that Stalin was orchestrating a global offense on capitalist democracies. Some US leaders became increasingly fearful of infiltration (Craig, 1000). Furthermore, the American public itself largely believed communist subversion to be a real threat, and many people approved of near-totalitarian blockades of the freedom of speech: A poll taken in the mid-1950s by Harvard's Samuel A. Stouffer reported that 80 percent of Americans polled favored repealing the citizenship of known communists, 52 percent supported their jailing, 77 percent favored a ban of communists on radio, and a stunning 42 percent of the populace felt that no member of the media should be allowed to criticize the American government or its tactics in any way (Whitfield, Stephen J., The Culture of the Cold War, 14-15).
Ripper's paranoia (beyond his downright schizophrenic rambling) is a skewed patriotism often referred to as "cold warriorism" (Henricksen, Margot A., Dr. Strangelove's America, 187). It effectively mixes hawkish nationalism with conservative Christianity, and was appealed to and incited by John F. Kennedy in his inaugural speech in 1961 -- "Here on earth God's work must truly be our own" -- and by his flagrant wielding of the bomb against Khrushchev (Henricksen, 187, 188). The late fifties had produced a culture that, in the wake of the McCarthy debacle, was apathetic to the bomb and Cold War politics in general. The sixties revivified opposing opinion about nuclear weaponry in the United States: hawkish patriotism versus nuclear abolitionism (Henricksen, 187). Ripper reflects the former sentiment, and his battle cry "The Red Coats are coming" is both significant -- transferring notions of patriotic 18th century warfare to the fight against "red" Communism -- and laughably ironic: Ripper's shout in this scene is an appeal to Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers,) the British Group Captain on the officer exchange program, to help him (Ripper) fire upon American soldiers.
However, Ripper is not the only mirror of cold warriorism in the film: General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott,) while more level-headed than Ripper, is still filled with nuclear bravado and anti-Communist passion. He truly accepts Kennedy's view of the Cold War as a holy war, and at one point calls the Russian premier a "degenerate atheist Commie." His conception of the war reflects the one popularized by Kennedy: a war between good and evil, God and nothing, and one that God could not possibly lose. This was not a war against dusty Marxism, after all, but a war against unruly Stalinism.
Satirical attitude toward authority is central to the film; Dr. Strangelove derides the military and the government, the supposedly trustworthy, levelheaded men with their fingers on the Button. This type of portrayal was especially relevant to a time when military men were respected as highly competent, not the bumbling twits Kubrick illustrates (Henricksen, 37). The presentation of Base Commander Ripper is far from reverential and yet is, like the greater scenario of the film itself, frighteningly feasible. Moreover, the men in charge are presented as feeble and childish and deal with petty concerns in the face of nuclear holocaust: President Merkin Muffley's (Sellers) first and surnames both allude to female genitalia and he is shown as indecisive, eggheaded, and personally weak; Buck Turgidson is a ruthless scapegoater and often degenerates into childish antics, fighting with Ambassador DeSadeski (Peter Bull) in a fierce, pubescent rivalry; and Dr. Strangelove (Sellers) is physically enfeebled, forced to sit in a wheelchair, and has a so-called "phantom hand" that is his constant foil.
These absurd characterizations present the military as little but a boys' club, and the film carries this idea forward: it presents war as nothing more than the acting-out of the sexual fantasies of powerful men. Ripper's aforementioned correlation of sex and war is a recurring theme throughout the entire film that forges the idea that combat and weaponry are a fantastical extension of the male ego (and organ). He compares the "impending" nuclear detonation to an orgasm; critic Anthony Macklin has referred to Strangelove as a "sex allegory" and refers to the progress of the film "from foreplay to explosion" (Nelson, Thomas Allen, Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist's Maze, 89). This correlation is ludicrously demonstrated in Strangelove's penultimate speech, in which he postulates the future of the human race in shelters built in mine shafts:
A computer could be set and programmed to accept factors from youth, health, sexual fertility, intelligence, and a cross section of necessary skills . . . naturally, they would breed prodigiously, eh? There would be much time and little to do. But with the proper breeding techniques, and a ratio of, say, ten females to each male, I would guess that they could then work their way back to the present gross national product within, say, twenty years.
Buck Turgidson (whose name means, literally, "arrogant male") smirkingly questions the effects of this ratio: "Wouldn't that necessitate the abandonment of the so-called 'monogamous sexual relationship,' I mean, as far as men were concerned?" Yes, Strangelove answers, it would be a necessary sacrifice. "I hasten to add," he says, "that since each man will be required to do prodigious . . . service along these lines, the women will have to be selected for their sexual characteristics, which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature." The talk here borders on wishful fraternity thinking, and Ambassador DeSadeski confirms it, remarking, "I must confess, you have an astonishingly good idea there, Doctor." This scene truly exposes the ridiculous and juvenile nature of the war, reducing it to a group of bawdy men reveling in the victory over the pesky women's movement guided by the likes of Sylvia Plath and Betty Friedan, who both published landmark books in the American feminist movement in 1963, only a year before the release of Dr. Strangelove (Henricksen, 351).
The film also makes note of the military's (and society's) inflated dependence on technology, and the consequences of doing so (a theme that resounds in much of Kubrick's work.) It recognizes that a major factor of the Cold War is not just having bigger or better bombs, but better technology in general, better planes, better communications, better devices. The way in which technology is woven into characters here, to establish a dependency on the machine, is shrewd: nearly every character talks on the telephone (or into a telephone-like device, such as the headsets on the bomber) at one time or another, sometimes reducing the discourse of "competent" men to inane babbling, like this end of the conversation between Muffley and the Russian premier Kissov:
Hello? Hello, Dimitri? 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, Dimitri. 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 I'm fine. I agree with you: it's great to be fine.
In the face of possible nuclear holocaust, this conversation seems much too real to be acceptable; such human foibles are disturbing in situations that demand the machine-like stoicism that pervades Dr. Strangelove, a man melded to a machine in more ways than one. And machines weave the complex web of occurrences that end the world: Ripper delivers the attack code via the CRM-114 fail-safe device which later malfunctions due to a missile blast (effectively scuttling any chance to rescue the world from the Doomsday Machine.) Humanity's creations bring about its own ruin. This theme mocks the superfluous boosterism of Cold War rhetoric and the space race.
Perhaps the most reflective theme in the film lay in its representation of the sixties as a decade trying to pull itself out from the shadow of World War II. Kubrick portrays Communists as a new "Evil," filling, for hawkish types, the gap left by the defeat of the Nazis. Ripper's talk about the "postwar Communist conspiracy" beginning in "1946," demonstrates his need for a lurking enemy. This transition from fears of secret Nazis to fears of secret Reds can be seen in the popular culture of the forties and fifties, when films like The Stranger and Notorious (both 1946) dealt with post-war Nazi influence in America, were replaced by films such as I Was A Communist for the FBI (1951), which exposed a bizarre theory of clandestine Communist control in the United States.
Dr. Strangelove also satirizes the post-war balance of power. Ripper's executive officer, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, is British, and is portrayed as simpering, weak, a prim caricature, overtly parodying the comportment of British stereotypes like Alec Guinness' character from David Lean's award-winning 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai. The attributes of Mandrake's character and the way he is treated by gruff American officers like Ripper (something like a lunatic version of the William Holden character from the aforementioned film) and Colonel "Bat" Guano (who thinks Mandrake's RAF uniform is some sort of drag outfit and accuses him of being a "deviated prevert" [sic],) signify European dependence on the US after the war (Craig, 999). Ironically, though, Mandrake is vindicated in the end. He seems to be the only person in the film who realizes the utter absurdity of the whole business of war. In doing so he oversteps the lines of capitalist morality (demanding that the dubious, uncooperative Col. Guano shoot a Coke machine to procure change, to which he replies, "that's private property") but never crosses the bounds of military decorum. This scene, in which he, as an executive officer, orders the curt, suspicious Col. Guano to assist his attempts to save the world is truly Mandrake's finest hour; though he may be an unarmed soldier in a land to which he is largely indebted, he is more competent (though, perhaps, more skittish) than any other character in the film, and acts accordingly.
World War II culture is depicted as well in Major "King" Kong (Slim Pickens), who pilots the stray B-52 bomber. Kong is an anachronous good-old-boy soldier, reminiscent of a bit player from an Audie Murphy film with the moniker "Tex" or "Hoss" or so forth who bends his panhandle inflection around military jargon to endearing effects: "Well, boys, I reckon this is it -- nuculur combat, toe-to-toe with th' Rooskies." He pilots his bomber while reading Playboy; sexual parallels run rampant around him, linking him with the rest of the men in the film. But it is not until Kong's memorable final scene that his character truly becomes apparent. Determined to drop the payload he has been ordered to deploy, Kong straddles the warhead (scrawled with the greeting "Hi There!") to check a malfunctioning bay door circuit. Kong fixes the circuit, and the doors open; the bomb is dropped, and Kong, howling "yaah-hooo!" and waving his hat, rides the bomb to earth, a stale cultural paradigm bringing about the end of the world in a blaze of erotic cowboy glory.
Most interestingly, however, is the title character's relation to his ambiguous past, and how this reflected reality. Dr. Strangelove is obviously German, speaking in a shrill, clipped accent; it is revealed that he changed his surname from "Merkweurdigichliebe," meaning something like "cherished fate" (Nelson, 91). He is director of Weapons Research and Development, and appears just as insane as Ripper himself. While Strangelove is not outright exposed as a Nazi, his past begins to become apparent as Doomsday approaches. While ex-Nazis working in the American weapons program seem incongruous, it has been shown that several Nazi scientists, including Dr. Wernher von Braun, were recruited into the US and Russian defense programs and "mined for knowledge" (Henricksen, 27). It is exactly this quick-shifting of alliances that makes the conflict seem all the more absurd; a man who, most likely, contributed greatly to the Nazi attempts at genocide would now possess carte blanche to realize his lost dreams of the Holocaust. Indeed, it becomes apparent that Strangelove not only is intrigued by his own ideas, but his "Nazi side" (made operative by his increasingly powerful hand) is reinvigorated by the impending destruction and manipulation of natural selection. Strangelove is a Freudian textbook: he accidentally calls the President "Mein Führer" and his arm extends in a fierce Nazi salute after glorifying "the required principles of leadership and tradition," and painting a resplendent future in which the survivors would have "no shocking memories, and the prevailing emotion will be one of nostalgia for those left behind, with a spirit of bold curiosity for the adventure ahead!" The weaving of Übermensch-propaganda phrases into Strangelove's speech highlights the horror of the bomb's potential and the hypocrisy of using weapons of incomprehensible destruction for "peace." At the moment of impact, when the Doomsday Machine is set off, Strangelove, overly excited and agitated, stands up from his wheelchair, exclaiming, "Mein Führer, I can walk." Hitler's terrifying wishes have finally been realized.
Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film Dr. Strangelove remains a gruesome, harrowing, hilarious look at a culture too wrapped up in its own prejudices and desires to think, too vulnerable to human nature to function, and too concerned with progress to actually make any. But it is also a superb example of a modern cultural artifact. This very short discussion is lacking in the important areas of critical and social reception to the film that make it so important, but, hopefully, the examination of the film's view of the society that created it have been satisfied. Dr. Strangelove is a complex film that mocks the military, social paranoia, and the influence of history, and, indeed, humanity as a whole, and still has the power to make a viewer wonder if the human race is doomed to naught but self-destruction.
Craig, Albert M., et al. The Heritage of World Civilizations. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 2000.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Columbia Pictures, 1964.*
Henricksen, Margot A. Dr. Strangelove's America. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1997.
Nelson, Thomas Allen. Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist's Maze. Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 1982.
Whitfield, Stephen J. The Culture of the Cold War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
*A continuity transcript of the film is available at http://members.tripod.com/~lovepile/strangelove.html