Credit: Sony/Columbia Industries
by Dhruv Goyal Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb — Stanley Kubrick

February 1, 2024

There comes a time when you just can’t swallow the bitter pill of reality; you have to crush it up, mix it in with some amphetamines, and take a swig of ice-cold, lemon-twisted Coca-Cola (other poisonous beverages are available) to chug it all down. Is now that time, though? Several apocalyptic films from the past few years seem to at least half suggest so. Most notable among them — because of their global popularity — are Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer (2023) and Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up (2021). If that seems like a strange pairing, it is, but one it’s also one that speaks to the varied responses that contemporary Hollywood cinema has had to our despair about, well, the end of the world. Oppenheimer is declarative about it, bombastically asserting that nuclear collapse was inevitable the minute America dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945; Don’t Look Up mocks our inability to see, or worse still, even care about any of this. The point made is the same, though: the end, entirely man-ufactured, is nigh. So why even be gravely serious or mawkishly sentimental about it? If the world is, indeed, run by a group of incompetent idiots whose heads are so far up their fascist asses that they can neither see what these filmmakers are showing nor listen to their painfully obvious screeds, then, what’s even the point of making art involving them moral, let alone, sincere?

Exactly 60 years back, Stanley Kubrick — the legendary American filmmaker now recognized as the self-serious, control-freak genius who helped NASA fake the Apollo Moon landings — realized this and made Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Loosely adapted from Peter George’s novel on the nuclear war, Red AlertStrangelove is not just, as has been widely noted, one of the sharpest political satires of all time. It’s also Kubrick’s most distinct war film. Yes, it’s still got a pulse for the psychotic, beast-like savagery of men on display in Kubrick’s disowned debut feature film about World War II soldiers lost behind enemy lines, Fear and Desire (1952). And it has a War Room filled with the theater of the cruel absurd — Kubrick’s predominant mode to critique the inherent inhumanity of authority in his deeply moving World War I film Paths of Glory (1957). But there’s little of the morality that was a feature of both these films and, by extension, these two wars; Strangelove is altogether sillier and cruder, and all the better for it. It’s a crass farce set during the early 1960s, when Cold War paranoia was at an all-time high: it depicts a political game of death between the American and Russian officials played on telephones and giant computer screens to decide who really comes out on top of the other before one of them explodes.

The desire to explode (onto) the other is paramount to three distinctly caricatured Americans in the film. The first of them is the cigar-munching, wisdom-spitting Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden). He’s the narrative seed layer in Strangelove, the person who, fearing the contamination of precious American “fluids,” launches an all-out attack on the Russians. He believes that those “strictly vodka-drinking commies” have “fluoridated” American water; they are the ones responsible for him not being able to perform adequately in bed because they have spiked the pure American water (and “full grain alcohol”), making him feel so tired that he cannot give his “life essence” to a woman. The second fool — gum-chewing, free opinion-spewing Gen. “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott) — is anything but that. In terms of his bed-breaking capabilities, that is. Otherwise, he’s happy to follow through on Ripper’s command, believing that his reasons for carrying out the attack may be nonsensical, but that there’s really no harm in unloading some of that American power on(to) the “Ruskies” to show them who’s really in control. Which brings us to the third fool — the duty-bound American commander pilot, Maj. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) — tasked with doing the unloading. Sitting amidst a crew of four men and scattering of erotica inside a B-52 bomber airplane — whose exterior body, credit to Kubrick and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor’s wide- and low-angle shots, looks like a giant, erect penis with “life essence” giving libidinal capabilities — Mr. Kong is most readily enthusiastic when he, unexpectedly, gets the orders to attack Russia: he immediately takes off his army helmet and wears his Cowboy hat. That’s American patriotism for him: not just finishing off Russia, but doing so rodeo-style. In other (saner) words, “yee-haw” his way to the finish line.

Two characters, however, oppose Dr. Strangelove‘s otherwise hilariously overt and covert sexualization of paranoid political power games. They’re what you would call the film’s moral centers: people who have the right, and more importantly, will to want to course correct. Well, somewhat. The outsider — British Royal Air Force exchange officer, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), is, by far, the most successful. He’s the only officer under D. Ripper’s command who denies his order to retaliate against the U.S. Army (the President sends them to extract the code prefix that the Brigadier General issued to stop anyone other than him from calling off the air strike on Russia). As rattling gunfire disrupts the awkward tension between him and Ripper inside the army headquarters, Mandrake, thanks in no small part to Sellers’ relatively subdued performance, comes off as partly bemused, partly agitated, but, most importantly, fully curious and alert: bit by bit, he pieces together the three-letter prefix code as a variation on the “peace on earth” or “purity of essence” nonsense that Ripper kept blathering on about before he shot himself. As soon as he does this, he communicates this information to the high-ranking officials sitting in the war room — one of whom happens to be the film’s other, much weaker, moral center: the President of the United States, Merkin Muffley (also Peter Sellers).

Initially, Sellers’ performance of this character is remarkably sturdy, most in line with Mandrake’s concerned reserve. This is because Kubrick positions him as the polar opposite of the trigger-happy Turgidson: they’re even seated at perpendicular angles to each other when talking across the black-hole-shaped War Room table. Muffley counters every suggestion made by the loony General; he’s affirmatively exasperated at Turgidson’s plan to follow through on launching an all-out attack on the Russians. But the moment he has to get his hands dirty, his otherwise composed, gentlemanly demeanor shakes. Or rather, it firms up a bit too much. His conversation with Dmitri, the Russian President, about the impending threat of attack on Russia because of an administrative mishap is everything but concise and clear. He stumbles and stammers throughout, choosing to engage in a comedy of manners that never allows him to address the matter at hand directly. From then on, you see him as charicature as opposed to a character or a caricature: he’s still trying to hold himself together, but both positionally and performatively, he’s now more in line with Turgidson than Mandrake. For he, too, has started barking orders (including the film’s most famous line: “Gentleman, stop fighting! This is the War Room”) that make no sense and have, expectedly, no impact on the film’s climax.

The President’s devolvement into a charicature is the critical character arc in Strangelove. But neither Sellers’ performance nor Kubrick’s expert blocking forces you to look at or learn from it; they prefer to distract. So, Strangelove’s ending does not center on any of the aforementioned characters, charicatures, or caricatures. Instead, it focuses on a new, mysterious caricature responsible for the film’s curiously long title: Dr. Strangelove (yes, again, the great Peter Sellers). Before this, he’s mostly been lurking in the pitch-black shadows of the War Room, appearing in the (spot)light only to educate all the seemingly unremarkable, black-suited President’s men about the plausible existence of Russia’s much-rumored doomsday machine — a computerized device set to detonate itself whenever the Soviet Nation is under attack. His description of its intricate but “simple” machinations and its disastrous impact on the human race is totally devoid of concern for any living being or thing. Instead, it turns him (and the electronic wheelchair he’s stuck to) on. At first, it’s seemingly out of curiosity; he is, after all, an ex-Nazi “Kraut” hired by the United States government as the “director of weapons research and development.” But in the film’s concluding sequence that takes place after Mr. Kong has popped the Ruskies’ cherry, Strangelove details the horrifyingly primitive reasons for writhing in his wheelchair earlier when he was explaining the fear-generating value of the doomsday machine. He’s been waiting for this very moment, when this world ends and his envisioned New Ancient World — including all the high-ranking officials present in the War Room (minus, maybe, Alexi, the Russian diplomat) — begins. It’s his — and every traditionalist man’s — imagined utopia, populated by a ratio of one (cave)man — picked and chosen via a computer set by military and government officials present in the War Room — for every ten sexually attractive (cave)women — picked and chosen via a computer set by military and government officials present in the War Room. That would, as the salivating Turgidson rightly points out, lead to the “abolishment of sexual monogamy for men,” right? “Regrettably so,” says Strangelove, at this point a discombobulating mess of orgasmic excitement. But it’s a small price the men must pay because you have to look at the bigger picture: you have to look forward to all the ecstatic adventures brought upon by blowing up this boringly monogamous world.

Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon