Stanley Kubrick, at the time of the release of “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” was obsessed with military stratagem. He had amassed a library of over seventy books purely discussing nuclear war. And when he initially set about creating a screenplay based on Peter George’s novel Red Alert, he did not intend on making a comedic film. The novel itself is a serious thriller, possessing none of the absurdist or anarchic elements that constitute the basis of the diegetic world of “Dr. Strangelove.” Kubrick’s choice to radically alter George’s work, as James Naremore wrote in his critical study On Kubrick, came from two realizations: “first, since it was by no means irrational to imagine that nuclear weapons could destroy the planet, he planned to show them doing exactly that; and second, given the absurdity of the arms race, he decided to transform George’s story into a ‘nightmare comedy’…” The only way Kubrick could make a film about the Cold War was to make it a comedy, as the concept of “winning” was a humanitarian impossibility and when viewed objectively, the concept of mutually assured destruction is ludicrous, irrational, and emotionally vacant. So instead, he aimed his sights on the causes of war most apparent to him: insanity, sexuality, and dysfunction.
In “Dr. Strangelove,” the rogue General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who is clearly losing his mental faculties, initiates an American attack on the Soviet Union. However, this attack would ultimately create an end to civilization due to the Soviet possession of a “Doomsday machine” that, if triggered, would eliminate all plant and animal life on Earth. Ripper is undeniably an exaggerated example of a Cold War military head – as well as being undeniably insane – making it difficult to draw out a connection between his character and any military strategist that truly existed. But the remaining collective of characters still do little to insist one another that the United States and the Soviet Union are entering into a “no-win” scenario, one in which naming a victor would simply be a act of futility. The statements of General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) exemplify these attitudes of callous indifference toward human life. Buck, a man well respected by the President, remarks, “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, depending on the breaks.” But despite the obvious disassociation from the gravity of the situation, or even humanity in general, conveyed in this dialogue, Turgidson was not alone in his thinking.
Real-world strategist for the RAND Corporation Herman Kahn possessed disturbingly similar thinking to that of General Turgidson. At the onset of the Cold War there came into fruition a group of men who made it their duty to create plans and stratagem in the event of the unthinkable, despite little to no combat or diplomatic experience. This wave of thinkers have become morbidly known as the “Megadeath Intellectuals” of which Kahn was perhaps the most notorious. He theorized, in regard to nuclear warfare, “that it was not only conceivable but also winnable.” Kahn wrote a text titled On Thermonuclear War that Kubrick became infatuated with, even to the point to where the director and author developed a friendship; though it now seems apparent that this relationship was a way in which Kubrick could draw out the absurdity of Kahn’s thinking.
And of course the film also suggests that war itself is the machination of male sexuality and bravado. Even from the very first scene where a B-52 is seen refueling in mid-air while the song “Try a Little Tenderness” plays, the sexual connotations of Kubrick’s war are palpable. Most of the characters of the film are given sexually charged names that connect the Cold War to chauvinism. There is of course the title character of Dr. Strangelove. The portmanteau in his name is a clear suggestion that the character possesses some form of sexual dysfunction. He is the scientific advisor to the president in the War Room, utilizing his prior experience working for the Nazi Party. It can therefore be derived that the mentality that allows one to engage in such horrible acts as those committed by the National Socialist Party can be viewed as symptomatic of sexual dysfunction.
General Jack Ripper’s name implies an aggression formed from the misinterpretation of sexual urges, as the serial killer is likely to have possessed. General Ripper is the man responsible for triggering the nuclear annihilation of the film after confusing his own sexual dysfunction with an entirely sinister but wholly imagined Soviet plot. The “Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids” became apparent to him during “the physical act of love.” His mania distorted his perception of reality to the point of enabling full-blown paranoia.
Within “Dr. Strangelove” there exist perhaps only two characters that constantly and consistently object to nuclear war. Two of Peter Sellers’ roles, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake and President Merkin Muffley, appear dedicated to preventing massive death and vehemently oppose any type of military strike. And once again, the names of these characters provide insight into their nature. Unlike Ripper, Turgidson, or Strangelove, Mandrake and Muffley conjure images of femininity. The mandrake root was once used for its supposed fertility powers in women, of which reference is made as far back as the Book of Genesis. And I don’t believe either the President’s given or surname require explanation. The fact that these two are the only characters defiant towards starting war and the only two who possess names that do not reflect masculinity, makes yet another definitive statement towards the director’s belief in the inextricable link between armed conflict and the male ego.
As it is clear from this list, Kubrick makes painstaking effort to mock the phallocentrism indicative of a near-sighted and pugnacious culture. Moreover, he undermines the very concept of war in a manner that Freud would certainly approve of. He claims it to be an artificial construction of the male subconscious. And, by extension, Kubrick is asking his audience to realize that this contest of masculinity that is the Cold War is unnecessary and ridiculous. Rather, it is little more than a competition to prove which side is more masculine, virile, and potent.
At the time of the film’s release, despite its box-office success, “Dr. Strangelove” was criticized heavily and for numerous reasons. Some took exception to the fact that it was made largely without the aid or advice of any military branch. At the time the film’s release, Hollywood was heavily invested in the involvement of military servicemen. This relationship was one developed out of mutual interest. Filmmakers wished to give their works the appearance of authenticity, which could be ascertained through the intervention of military officials. At the same time, the United State Armed Forces were seeking to boost public support and reverence, which could be achieved through appealing to the American interest in cinema. Because Kubrick chose to circumvent this tradition, he garnered disapproval from several writers. Critics claimed “Dr. Strangelove” was so removed from the realm of realism that no discernible message regarding the state of foreign relations could be gleaned from his work. However, despite the lack of military oversight, Kubrick may actually have presented a more realistic view of the Cold War than some thought he achieved.
Among the previous enumeration of Kahn’s thoughts on nuclear war was his advocacy for the creation of subsurface shelters to be used for the protection of Americans in the event of thermonuclear warfare. In reality, this plan existed. It even went as far as to specify that these shelters be designated for more prominent citizens who could thusly flourish. The American Air Force truly did keep over a dozen bombers on airborne alert. They even used a special password that, if sent, would order an attack on Soviet soil. The absurd notion Ripper holds that the Communists were engaging in a conspiracy involving “fluoridating water” as well as “salt, juices, soup, milk [and] ice cream” was not an invention of Kubrick’s. In reality, a paranoid fear ran through some Americans that this was a truism, and that the goal of the Soviets was to have Americans ingest these common substances tainted for fluoride, rendering them helpless mindless zombies.
More scathing than those that disparaged the film based on its authenticity, however, were those that asserted it was wholly un-American and critical at a time when the acceptance of governmental leadership and decisions was necessary in order for foreign affairs to arrive at a peaceful conclusion. Upon its release, “Dr. Strangelove” was labeled “dangerous” by the Los Angeles Times and “contemptuous of our defense establishment” by the New York Times. But its most disparaging attack came weeks after its release in a follow-up review from the New York Times. The film was described as not only “contemptuous” but also “malefic and sick,” “defeatist,” and “a rather flagrant indulgence of free speech.” However, this type of inflammatory response to a film has historically proven to increase public interest and film attendance. This can be seen with numerous benchmark films such as Howard Hawks’ “Scarface,” Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” and even Melvin Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” These films all benefited from outcry of critics, and “Dr. Strangelove” did too.
Of course, Kubrick’s work had more proponents than defamers. American historian and philosopher Lewis Mumford rose to the defense of the film and thoroughly recognized its satiric power. In a letter to the New York Times he responded to the allegations that Kubrick’s work was a detrimental blow to American morale. He stated, “The nightmare eventuality that we have concocted for our children is nothing but a crazy fantasy, by nature as horribly crippled and dehumanized as Dr. Strangelove himself.” Here, Mumford accents the important corollary between the title character and the Cold War in general. It is clear from the film that Strangelove is unusual; he possesses Nazi ties, an uncontrollable arm, and a calculating, scientific mind. Yet he is also one of the most important figures in American government, respected enough to gain audience with the president and intelligent enough for his thoughts and ideas to be considered by him. But it is the combination of the scientific and the bellicose that allows for nuclear proliferation. His purely logical thinking turns mass murder into a practical solution. The horror of this thought is only amplified by the knowledge that these men do exist and they do indeed have a large and elite audience.
Kubrick was undeniably successful at creating a film that allowed viewers to reflect on the absurdity exhibited by their own governmental and military leaders. His film is clearly subversive; “Dr. Strangelove” insists that broad concepts like war are emblematic of a culture that reveres machismo. But this does not constitute the totality of his message. He augments these comparisons by highlighting what he has recognized as preposterous doctrines, thought processes, and events that have truly occurred. He does not need to invent new, outlandish actions or characteristics, but merely adapt them. The film, in many ways, holds a mirror up to a culture defined by the panic and hysteria that the advent of the Cold War produced and then demands that its viewers take stock of reality and raise their collective consciousness. And by doing so, perhaps the audience will rediscover its sanity and its ability to voice indignation with the current state of American affairs. And it is through this call for sanity, this demand for the rearrangement of military priorities, that Kubrick’s film has become one of the widely revered satires in cinematic history. “Dr. Strangelove” insists that viewers simply contemplate the reasons why the world around them seems so muddled, contradictory, and callous, and suggests that there is not much reason to it at all.
All quotations found in this article are found in:
Naremore, James. “Wargasm.” On Kubrick. London: British Film Institute, 2007. 119-36. Print.
Smith, Peter D. Doomsday Men: The Real Dr. Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon. New York: St. Martin’s, 2007. Print.
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