Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963/1964) *****
The Cuban Missile Crisis was one of the major turning points of the Cold War, its significance greater even than what comes naturally to the nearest the superpowers ever got to opening fire on each other directly. When Nikita Khrushchev attempted to deploy nuclear-capable intermediate-range ballistic missiles in newly Communist Cuba, it was a direct challenge to the Monroe Doctrine, the oldest and most arrogant principle of United States foreign policy— that no one engages in triumphalist international dick-swinging in this hemisphere but us. That is, it was exactly the sort of maneuver that people on this side of the Iron Curtain had been dreading and anticipating since 1946, a clear provocation to war, if perhaps not quite a full-on initiation of hostilities. By all previous reckoning, that should have been it. Everyone knew the Communists’ appetite for expansion was insatiable, that they had no regard for human life whatsoever, and that the only things they respected were strength at arms and the resolve to use it. Those Red sons of bitches were going to start World War III someday, and the only question was when. That wasn’t what happened, though, in October of 1962. When faced with the prospect of inciting their own annihilation along with the enemy’s, the Kremlin backed down and pulled the SS-4s and SS-5s out of Cuba. What the Cuban Missile Crisis therefore proved was that the Soviet leaders were capable of counting the cost of their actions, and that they were no more eager to die for the cause of worldwide Communist revolution than we were to die stopping it. It exposed the myth of the all-devouring Soviet juggernaut for the confection of paranoia and propaganda that it was, and signaled a shift in the relationship between the two antagonists. Instead of the long prelude to a shooting war that the Russians wanted but lacked the confidence to start, the Cold War began to look like a state of equilibrium that could persist indefinitely. The brinkmanship that both sides had engaged in for the past sixteen years stood revealed as a trap in which they were now ensnared, from which neither could escape without freeing the other first. And since neither one trusted the other enough to do that, the whole grotesque business chugged along like a machine without an off switch, squandering resources, poisoning politics, and discrediting the entire notions of leadership, governance, and institutional competence.
Or to put it another way, the Cold War ceased to be a deliberate clash of seriously held ideologies, and became the blackest practical joke that humanity had yet played on itself. It became something you had to laugh at from time to time, because otherwise you’d never stop screaming. And for my money, nothing else in all of pop culture captures that mood quite like Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Released just a bit more than a year after Khrushchev scuttled out of Cuba with his tail between his legs (it was supposed to come out practically on the anniversary of that event, but Columbia Pictures rightly judged the day of the Kennedy assassination an inauspicious one for introducing a film of this kind even to preview audiences), it already displays a queasily full awareness of how totally unmoored from reality or any rational human purpose the Cold War had come. It’s as biting as any satire of the decade, and it’s one of those rare films that manage to be at once unmistakable products of their eras and yet also uncomfortably timeless.
How’s this for setting the stage? First, a serious-looking text crawl informs us that “It is the stated position of the U.S. Air Force that their safeguards would prevent the occurrence of such events as are depicted in this film. Furthermore, it should be noted that none of the characters portrayed in this film are meant to represent any real persons living or dead.” There’s no voice coughing, “*bullshit!*” as those words finish scrolling up the screen, but somehow you can already tell that one is implied. Then, after the Columbia production slate, a narrator breaks in to announce: “For more than a year, ominous rumors had been privately circulating among high-level Western leaders that the Soviet Union had been at work on what was darkly hinted to be the ultimate weapon— a doomsday device. Intelligence sources traced the site of the top-secret Russian project to the perpetually fog-shrouded wasteland below the Arctic peaks of the Zokoff Islands. What they were building, and why it should be located in such a remote and desolate place, no one could say.” And finally, beneath the main titles and opening credits, we are treated to a romantic scene of airplanes fucking. Okay, so it’s really just stock footage of a B-52 refueling in flight from a KC-135 tanker, but if you’ve ever seen what that looks like, you know exactly what I mean, even without the flowery string music to which it’s set here.
Anyway, Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden, from Prince Valiant and Venom), commander of the 843rd Bomb Wing at Burpleson Air Force Base, calls his executive officer, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers, who would cross paths with Hayden again the next year in A Carol for Another Christmas), on loan from the Royal Air Force under the Officer Exchange Program, to give him some bad news. Ripper just got off the Red Phone, and his orders are to issue Attack Plan R to the elements of the 843rd already aloft on 24-hour standby. That’s the plan the generals are to use in the event of a decapitating first strike against the US government, allowing commanders in the field extraordinary discretion to conduct war operations on their own authority, since all the authorities to whom they would normally answer have already gone up in smoke. It’s a heavy burden, especially for the bomber crews themselves— for men like Major T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens, of This House Possessed and The Black Hole), pilot of the B-52 charged with taking out the ICBM base at Laputa in Siberia. Indeed, Kong assumes at first that his radioman is pulling his leg with this Plan R business, and bombardier Lieutenant Lothar Zogg (James Earl Jones, from Exorcist II: The Heretic and Grim Prairie Tales) wonders aloud whether the whole thing might be some hugely misguided loyalty test.
Group Captain Mandrake wonders much the same thing when he goes to hand in his personal radio in compliance with General Ripper’s order that all such devices be impounded for fear that they might be used to transmit instructions to Soviet spies in deep cover at the air base. You see, he happens to turn the thing on, and gets a perfectly ordinary music program over it. In fact, all the stations that Mandrake is able to tune in are broadcasting normally, which hardly seems consistent with the premise that there’s a huge, smoldering crater on the Potomac where Washington DC used to be. But as the group captain learns when he goes to see Ripper with his discovery, the true situation is far more sinister than any badly designed secret drill. Ripper has decided that he can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify America’s precious bodily fluids. Whatever the hell that means. His bogus Plan R orders were designed to force action from the president and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When they see that Ripper has left them no way to recall the bombers (Plan R provides for an electronic communications lockout aboard all the attacking planes, and only Ripper knows the code prefix to circumvent that lockout), they’ll realize that they have no choice but to commit to a full-scale nuclear offensive before the Russians launch one of their own in response to being sucker-punched.
That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway— and if it were up to Air Force Chief of Staff General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott, from The Changeling and The Exorcist III), General Ripper would be getting his way, legality be damned. But Ripper has completely misjudged President Merkin Muffley (also Peter Sellers). Muffley has no intention of being pushed into a preemptive nuclear war by some psychotic. After thoroughly rejecting Turgidson’s recommendations, he has Army Chief of Staff General Faceman (Gordon Turner) send Colonel Bat Guano (Keenan Wynn, of Orca and The Manipulator) and his 23rd Airborne Division to seize control of Burpleson Air Force Base and bring General Ripper to account for his actions. Muffley also takes the even more radical step of summoning Soviet ambassador Aleksei Desadesky (Peter Bull, from The Old Dark House and the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol) to the Pentagon so that he can explain the situation and offer his full cooperation to Premier Dmitri Kissoff. That’s all well and good, but there’s a further complication that threatens to remove the situation from Muffley and Kissoff’s control altogether. The Russians have just put the finishing touches on that doomsday device the narrator was talking about. Let’s go now to Dr. Strangelove (yet a third role for Sellers), an ex-Nazi mad scientist whom we might think of as Werner von Braun by way of Dr. Mabuse, for the details…
The Soviet doomsday device consists of a complex of multi-megaton hydrogen bombs buried in the earth in containers filled with something called Cobalt-Thorium G. The latter is unbelievably nasty stuff, with a half-life of 93 years. The fallout from a doomsday detonation will produce enough radioactive fallout to scour the Earth clean of living things within ten months, and make recolonization impossible for at least a century. Worse yet, the machine is actuated by computer, and programmed to set itself off automatically in response to a nuclear attack on Soviet territory. One bomb falls on the USSR, and it’s game over— and there are 68 bombs in the bellies of Ripper’s planes. For that matter, the doomsday device is also set to explode in the event of any tampering, so once it’s activated, it can’t be shut off. It’s all about deterrence, you see. Now that nuclear war is too destructive to be won except by a first strike so overwhelming as to permit no reply, the trick is to make the other fellow too scared to take that first shot. Strangelove himself commissioned a BLAND Corporation study on the potential of doomsday devices a few years ago, but ultimately abandoned the idea as impractical. There’s just one thing that Strangelove doesn’t understand. Deterrence depends upon the enemy’s knowledge of the repercussions that await them should they attack. A doomsday device therefore can’t do its job if you keep it a secret— so why the hell haven’t the Russians been shouting it from the rooftops that theirs was online?! Desadesky sheepishly responds that they were going to reveal it on Monday, at the next Party Congress. The premier loves surprises…
It should go without saying, in a movie like this, that he’s going to get one, and that good old-fashioned American ingenuity (as personified by Major Kong and his crew) will overcome all Muffley’s best efforts to avert the apocalypse. It’s just too perfect. The scenes aboard Kong’s bomber all play out exactly according to the conventions that Hollywood air-war movies had been refining since Wings in 1927, with the gravely inspirational speech from the pilot, the almost getting shot down at the midpoint, and the frantically improvised heroics at the end to hit the target against all odds. Only here, the grit, pluck, moxie, and determination of the beleaguered bomber crew are exactly what one doesn’t want under the circumstances. In fact, one of my favorite moments in Dr. Strangelove comes when General Turgidson finally gets that through his thick head. When it becomes obvious that one bomber remains on track to deliver its payload in spite of everything, the president asks Turgidson whether there’s really any chance of a single pilot outfoxing the entire Soviet air defense network, and the general’s heart just swells with pride and admiration for the prowess of his men. Hell yes, he says— if that pilot is really good, really sharp, and really in tune with the capabilities of his machine, then no force on… oh, wait… Turgidson’s enthusiasm just implodes in a split second, and suddenly he’s all, why can’t my guys be a bunch of hapless fuck-ups like those peasants the Ruskies have to try turning into jet jockeys? The performances in this movie are all exceedingly broad, and George C. Scott’s is, at Kubrick’s insistence, the broadest of the bunch. But in that moment, a ray of genuine humanity shines through the caricature, and it becomes briefly possible to sympathize even with this asshole.
Dr. Strangelove was based on a novel by Peter George called Red Alert. Red Alert was not a comedy, and neither, originally, was Dr. Strangelove. But as Kubrick and his frequent collaborator, James B. Harris, developed the first draft of the screenplay, they repeatedly found themselves laughing at the absurdity of it all. The “keeping up with the Joneses” quality of the arms race was funny. The Russians subjecting themselves to an artificial shortage of women’s stockings because they needed all that nylon to make drag chutes for their “Tsar Bomba” super-nukes was funny. The clinical forthrightness of specialized nuclear war jargon like “megadeaths”— a counting unit for quantifying the destruction, signifying millions of people killed— was funny. It didn’t affect the tone of that initial script, but after Harris left the project, Kubrick brought in Candy author Terry Southern to convert their Red Alert adaptation into a dark satire. Then Peter Sellers came aboard, with his sketch-comedy-trained gifts for improvisation and character-building, and the result was a true triumph of gallows humor.
A large part of Dr. Strangelove’s genius is that so little of it was simply invented. General Ripper’s loony conspiracy theories were propounded seriously by the John Birch Society, among others. The horrifyingly Orwellian slogan that appears all over Burpleson Air Force Base— “Peace Is Our Profession”— was the real-world motto of Strategic Air Command. Group Captain Mandrake was an impression of an officer under whom Sellers had served in the Royal Air Force, and Turgidson is an exaggerated version of SAC honcho Curtis LeMay. And although Aleksei Desadesky has no specific analogue in our reality, the bit with him sneaking spy photos of the war room after the doomsday device has gone off, eliminating any sensible purpose for doing so, perfectly encapsulates the neurotic finkery that had infected the whole of Soviet society since the 1930’s. Other jokes of the “it’s funny ‘cause it’s true” persuasion include Colonel Guano’s rigidly unimaginative response to the scene that confronts him after his men have seized Burpleson, General Turgidson getting the news about Ripper’s rogue air strike while he’s on the can, and President Muffley’s ludicrous small talk with the Soviet premier as he works his way around to the true purpose of his phone call.
Then there’s the thick layer of crass Freudianism draped over everything in the film, literalizing all the suspicions one can’t help but form whenever men gather to plan or to commit organized violence. I’ve already mentioned the brilliantly filthy opening credits and Ripper’s obsession with the purity of his bodily fluids, but those are only the beginning. From there, it’s no stretch to interpret Strangelove’s paraplegia and alien hand syndrome as forms of impotence. Turgidson’s obsession with “gaps” of various kinds (not just Kennedy’s famous missile gap, but also the obvious doomsday gap, and even a notional future mineshaft gap once the conversation turns from stopping the catastrophe to living with its aftermath) becomes a clear proxy for masculine insecurities— of which the thoroughly adolescent relationship between the general and his mistress (the only woman in the film, played by Tracy Scott, from Percy and 1000 Convicts and a Woman) presents further manifestations. Other sexual hang-ups are suggested by Guano’s off-the-cuff determination that Mandrake is gay (“a deviated prevert”), and that the resistance his airborne division encountered at Burpleson was due to the base falling prey to a homosexual uprising. Let us also not forget Strangelove’s plan for surviving the apocalypse, nor the unconcealed glee with which everyone in the war room greets the prospect of a hundred years at the bottom of a mine with ten “extremely stimulating” women apiece. The climactic example, though (You know what? Fuck it— I’m just going to pretend that I did intend that pun), comes when Kong nukes the missile base. If there’s a better metaphor for modern militarism than a cowboy in a flight suit straddling a 30-megaton H-bomb, hollering like a bronco-buster as it plunges toward its target, then I can’t imagine what it might be.
This review is part of a team-up between 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting and Checkpoint Telstar, the proprietor of which shares my queasy fascination with all things Cold War. Click the banner below for a complete list of the films we’re covering to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down.