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1995 Chris Sheridan


1964. The Cuban Missile Crisis was over, the Viet Nam War was just beginning and Stanley Kubrick released his latest film, Dr. Strangelove: Or how I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. While based on the serious book, Red Alert, by Peter George, it soon transformed into a black comedy that parodies the ridiculousness of global nuclear destruction and the Cold War mentality. In the historical context of U.S./Soviet tensions, it seems strange to make a comedy about something so horrifying. But if, as Marshall McLuhan suggests, "The medium is the message," Kubrick's choice of this medium must say something about his message. Dr. Strangelove, is essentially an anti-war film, showing the absurdity of nuclear war and linking the two basic male instincts together, sex drive and the desire to kill. The film continually portrays extreme examples of international politics, sexual politics, gender politics and the role of communication (or lack of) inherent in each.

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First, a brief synopsis of the film is necessary to set the stage. General Ripper, a paranoid Air Force base commander, orders a squadron of B-52 bombers into the Soviet Union to drop hydrogen bombs on military targets. He is the only one who knows the recall code that could be transmitted to abort the mission. At the pentagon, the U.S. President speaks with the Joint Chiefs in the war room to address the problem. General Turgidson sees this as an opportunity to completely destroy the "Commie bastards" and prevent their inevitable retaliation. But the president is a pacifist, and he invites the Russian Ambassador into the war room. Together, they call the Russian Premiere to warn of the attack and explain that it was unintentional. Over the telephone, the Premiere discloses the existence of their "doomsday device," a large cache of atomic bombs that would automatically be detonated in the event of a nuclear strike, destroying all plant and animal life on the earth. This ultimate form of deterrence, while already on line and impossible to shut off, had not yet been announced to the world. At the Air Force base, an Army unit infiltrates with heavy fighting to get the recall code from Gen. Ripper, but he kills himself to avoid torture. Fortunately, his senior officer is able to extrapolate the code "OPE" from Ripper's scribbling on a pad of paper. The bombers respond to the code and return to base, except one who's radio receiver has been damaged. Back at the war room, Dr. Strangelove, a disfigured ex-Nazi scientist, suggests a plan to save a few thousand Americans by hiding them in a deep mine shaft for 100 years until the radiation returns to a safe level. Finally, the lone bomber succeeds in dropping its payload and the doomsday device is triggered, destroying the world.

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As this is a war film, the politics of nationalism and perceived hatred of the enemy are thoroughly addressed. The American ideal of being the "victorious underdog" is historically rooted in the Revolutionary War and exemplified among the crew of the runaway B-52. The racial mix on the plane is as diverse as America: a cowboy pilot, a Jewish radio operator and a black bombardier. Their unity becomes apparent when the pilot, Major Kong, gives a pep talk to them after receiving their orders. He tells them that they would be in line to receive medals upon returning, "...and that goes for each and every last one of you, regardless or your race, color or your creed." As long as they are all on the same team, there are no prejudices. And, true to the American ideal, their determination is never ending. They overcome missile attacks, fuel leaks and faulty bomb bay doors to achieve their objective while the tune "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" patriotically trumpets on the soundtrack.

But the prejudices are abundant when it comes to the enemy, especially the Russians. Ripper states "Your Commie has no regard for human life, not even his own," and Turgidson admonishes "I'm beginning to smell a big fat Commie rat," and later refers to them as "a bunch of ignorant peons." Other enemies are referenced as well. Turgidson, upon learning Dr. Strangelove's original German name, passes it off as "...a Kraut by any other name."

Captain Lionel Mandrake, General Ripper's (British) Executive Officer, when speaking of his imprisonment and torture by the Japanese during World War II, explains:

"I don't think they wanted me to talk, actually; it was just their way of having a bit of fun, the swines. The strange thing is they make such bloody good cameras." On another level, Ripper enlists Mandrake's help in firing back at the Army's advances by saying, "In the name of Her Majesty and the Continental Congress, help me with this (ammo) belt, Mandrake...the Redcoats are coming." While Ripper was referencing Red Communists and not British soldiers, the anachronism illustrates the absurdity of name calling and the temporal nature of who is an ally or enemy.

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The act of war is primarily a male activity that is inextricably linked with the male sex action. Like a sword, the penis penetrates the body, then "fires" semen during ejaculation like bullets from a gun. In the event of procreation, the sperm forces its way into the egg like an army forcing its way into a fortification. And, as in war, may the best sperm win. Thus, killing and reproduction are virtually the same in metaphor. The weapons of modern war, missiles, cannons, and torpedoes, are incredibly similar to the phallus. The bigger the gun the bigger the penis; the bigger the explosion, the bigger the ejaculation. And what could be bigger than a hydrogen bomb? "Yee Haw-ing" like a rodeo bull rider, Major Kong straddles the long, cylindrical nuclear bomb between his legs and rides it all the way down from the plane to its target below - the largest penis and ejaculation imaginable. And when it comes to the real penis, sex is secondary to war on the characters' list of priorities.


The gender politics played out in the film are painfully obvious. Females are treated as recreational sex objects for powerful military men and politicians. So, it is fitting that there is only one female in the film - the beautiful secretary/girl Friday of high-ranking Air Force General Turgidson, Miss Scott. In her only scene, she is wearing a bikini and heels while tanning under a sun lamp at Turgidson's residence. Since he is in the bathroom, she answers the red phone when the news of the attack comes in. She blushes discreetly when she recognizes the caller - apparently she is someone else's girl Friday and sex object, too. When the General returns, he speaks to her like she is a child. Later, she phones him at the Pentagon and he patronizes her by saying, "I deeply respect you as a human being. Someday I'm going to make you Mrs. General Buck Turgidson." Her identity is further stripped away - the best she can hope for is to be married to someone like him.

References to women in general are decidedly that of objectification and recreation, as well. On the B-52, the pilot takes time out to look at a Playboy magazine. At the war room, the Russian Ambassador gives the President the Russian Premier's private phone number and explains "...not only is the Premiere a man of the people, he is also a man, if you know what I mean." Of course, the President knows exactly what he means as he nods and smirks with a devilish laugh. Later, when Dr. Strangelove proposes his mine shaft plan to preserve the species, he speaks through clenched teeth under his breath. "Women selected for breeding must be of a highly stimulating a ratio of 10 women for every man." The President, General Turgidson and even the Ambassador delight in their approval of this idea. Pacifist and war monger, Nazi and Communist alike are on the same side and in total agreement - as heterosexual males.

It is important to reiterate the tone of voice used by the characters when speaking about females. It is decidedly different from the loud and clear authoritative approach taken on the subject of war. Personal threats with a gun, acceptable casualty figures of 20 million people, or even the prospect of global destruction are confidently and boldly spoken. However, remarks about women, even in the company of other men, are spoken under the breath with subtle grunting and locker room innuendoes. This communicative style suggests that it is easier (for men) to speak about war than sex.

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In General Ripper's case, the distinction between women and the enemy become virtually eliminated. His paranoiac ranting about water fluoridation being a "Communist plot to sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids" is challenged while the base is under siege. When Mandrake asks him when he developed this theory, Ripper replies:

"I-er-first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love. Yes, a-er-a profound sense of fatigue, a feeling of emptiness followed. Luckily I was able to interpret these feelings correctly. Loss of essence. I can assure you that it has not recurred, Mandrake. Women, er, women sense my power and they seek the life essence. I do not avoid women, Mandrake...but I do deny them my essence."

Ripper is obviously referring to ejaculation. His paranoia brings the war/sex connection full circle. Females are still good for sex, but cannot be trusted. While essential for the survival of humankind, women's motives are suspect. Ripper's choice to send his planes to bomb the Soviet Union (enemy) even when unprovoked is symbolic of his fear of being attacked. He has become paranoid that the same intrusion he boldly performs on others might befall him.

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This overbearing masculinity is balanced by two characters, Mandrake and the President, who are decidedly feminine in the way they handle conflict and their attitudes toward war. Mandrake takes a passive role with Ripper while the Air Force base is under siege. He listens to Ripper's insane ideas, being careful not to upset him. Mandrake is also reluctant to help fire Ripper's machine gun and tries to convince him to recall the bombers. After the base falls to the Army troops, he refers to the siege as "...this ridiculous fighting."

Similarly, the President tries every possible diplomatic solution to the military problem. He speaks to the Premiere on the phone in a feminine manner, trying to smooth things out and avoid confrontation. Even his response to the in-fighting that occurs at the Pentagon is feminine as he attempts to appease both parties, scorning them with remarks like, "Gentlemen, I've never seen such behavior in the war room before."

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Kubrick must also be making a comment on electronic and human communication, as the inherent difficulties of the communication process are highlighted in almost every scene. In fact it is one of the strongest recurring themes in the film. Much of the dialog takes place over the telephone or radio and the major conflicts center around the shortcomings of both.

In chronological order, Ripper's initial request to have Mandrake issue the "go code" to the bomb wing takes place over the phone. Then, Ripper orders the entire base to impound all personal radios, as they might be used to issue propaganda from the enemy. The attack plan is then radioed to the planes, which are already holding at their fail safe points. These orders are transmitted over a special radio, the CRM-114, which requires a discreet three letter prefix for the planes to receive the message. This is the first major conflict surrounding electronic communication. General Ripper is the only one who knows the code, thus he is the only one who can recall the bombers from attacking Russia, not even the President.

Even after the recall code is transmitted, things get worse. All but one of the bombers responds to the recall code and return to base. However, the CRM-114 radio in Major Kong's B-52 had been damaged by a missile detonation and did not receive the recall code. Unaware of the doomsday device or the recall transmission, Kong continues steadfast toward the target and subsequent destruction of the world.

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Except for the opening scene, all telephone conversation is shown from one side only - we do not hear the voice on the other end of the line. When Miss Scott answers the red phone, she relays the message back and forth between the caller and General Turgidson, who is off screen in the bathroom. Many times, she alters the message before passing it along. When Turgidson barks at her, "Tell him to call Ripper himself!" she chides in the phone, "The General was wondering if it wouldn't be too much trouble for you to call him yourself." The message is essentially the same, yet the tone is completely different. This is another potential problem with communication - that the message might get altered in the translation process.

In the war room, the Premiere is contacted by the President over the phone and again, we as an audience only get to hear one side of the conversation. The President has to repeatedly ask the Premiere to turn the music down. Then he asks for the phone number to the People's Air Defense Headquarters, but the Premiere suggests he call Omsk information.

After Ripper commits suicide in his office, Mandrake eventually figures out the recall code, but is unable to contact the Pentagon because the phone lines are down. Finally, he finds a working pay phone, but doesn't have enough change to make the call. After the Pentagon wouldn't accept the charges collect, Mandrake convinces a soldier to shoot a Coke machine open to get the change and eventually gets through. These are common problems we all face when using the telephone, but they take on new meaning when the message is so vital.

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But the biggest communication blunder was due to human error. Had the Premiere announced the existence of the doomsday machine, destruction could have been avoided. This is a necessary part of deterrence - to instill the fear of ultimate retaliation in the minds of the enemy (in this case the U.S.) to prevent an attack in the first place. Dr. Strangelove summed it up when he asked the Ambassador "...but the whole point of the doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret. Why didn't you tell the world, eh?"


A final absurdity highlighted in this film is the self-destructive nature of war. There is fighting in the Pentagon, suicide in Ripper's bathroom and the Army ground troops who infiltrate the Air Force base with heavy casualties for both - Americans killing Americans. In real wars, the term given to this kind of combat loss is "friendly fire," which is about as absurd as it gets.

That Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is an important part of popular culture is confirmed by its selection and admission into the National Film Registry. The Registry was established as part of the National Film Preservation Act of 1988 to recognize film that are considered culturally, historically or aesthetically significant. Dr. Strangelove was among those first chosen, along with Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz and others.

After a close analysis of the text, it becomes understandable how the process of setting out to do a serious Cold War film could turn it into a black comedy. And if Kubrick had any intention of portraying an anti-war message, this was perhaps the best form to get it across. Such messages are much easier to swallow with laughter than having them crammed down one's throat in a serious movie. There are subtle reminders of Kubrick's humor, as well. At one point when the B-52 is flying low, the shadow it casts on the ground below is that of an old World War II B-17 bomber. Also, Sterling Hayden, the actor who played the anti-Communist Ripper, was strongly accused of being a Communist during the McCarthy hearings. Finally, the world is destroyed by hydrogen bombs as the song, "We'll Meet Again (Don't know where, don't know when)" plays at the end of the film

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Work Cited

Dr. Strangelove: Or how I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George. United Artists, 1964. Based on George's Red Alert.

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1996 Chris Sheridan
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