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STANLEY KUBRICK, DR. STRANGELOVE, OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964) 1HR 42
Updated: June 13, 2011
These Study Guides on War Films were originally prepared for a course entitled "Responses to War: An Intellectuall and Cultural History" given in the Department of History at The University of Adelaide between 1989 and 1999.
See handouts on Spartacus and Paths of Glory for details of SK's life and work.
See other Guides.
The main title "Dr Strangelove" is the anglicised version of the name of a German scientist "Dr Merkwürdigliebe" - a reminder of the contribution played in US atomic research, defence, strategic thinking and the space race by ex-Nazi scientists and refugees from Nazism (Werner von Braun, Edward Teller) as well as a suggestion that there is a "strange" link between sex/love and killing/death - a "pornography of power".
The subtitle is a reference to the immediate period after the Cuban Missile Crisis when military planners, politicians and ordinary people accepted the fact that they could and would have to learn to live with the threat of nuclear wa for the rest of the Cold War.
The film was originally conceived as a serious adaptation of the novel Red Alert (or Two Hours to Doom) (1958) by Peter George (nom de plume was Peter Bryant) who, with Kubrick and Terry Southern, wrote the screenplay. Peter George had been an RAF Flight Lieutenant and his book had been well received by two leading US nuclear strategists Thomas C. Schelling and Herman Kahn. Kubrick was made aware of the book after a visit to the London-based Institute for Strategic Studies in 1961.
Republished as Dr Strangelove or, How I learned to stop Worrying and Love Bomb (Oxford University Press, 1988). The structure of the novel takes the form of a framing device, with a "Publisher's Note" which states that:
The pages which make up this bizarre and ancient comedy were discovered at the bottom of a deep crevice in the Great Northern Desert of planet Earth. The reader will see that there is a short introduction written by the men who discovered the manuscript. Aside from this, the pages are presented in exactly the form in which they were found.
After the end of the story there is also a brief epilogue which states why we have published this book....
Though the little-known planet Earth, remotely situated in another galaxy, is admittedly of mere academic interest to us today, we have presented this quaint comedy of galactic pre-history as another in our series, The Dead Worlds of Antiquity.
As SK worked on the film he realised a serious treatment of the possibility of nuclear anihilation from an accidently started war was impossible. The result is one of the great examples of black humour in the cinema. At the last minute SK changed the ending by editing out a custard pie fight in the War Room of the Pentagon between the Americans and the Russian Ambassador. SK explained the change in plans from a serious exploration of the idea of nuclear deterence to black comedy as follows:
My idea of doing it as a nightmare comedy came in the early weeks of working on the screenplay. I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question. (Quoted in Macmillan International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, vol. 1, p. 126).
The action of the film is largely confined to three sets: Burpelson Air Base, the elaborately reconstructed cockpit of a B52 bomber, and the War Room of the Pentagon. A renegade American Air Force General Jack D. Ripper (played by Sterling Hayden) is in charge of Burpelson Air Force Base (with its prominent and reassuring signs which declare "Peace is Our Profession") and on his own initiative decides to send his fleet of B52 bombers to attack the USSR. He does this because he believes the West does not realise that it is being undermined by a communist plot to weaken it by flouridating the water supply (opposed by the far right wing such as the John Birch Society in the USA and Australia). JDR blames his sexual impotence on the damaging effect of flouridated water on his "precious bodily fluids." At all times US bombers with nuclear weapons are in the air close to the "fail safe" point, the point beyond which they cannot be recalled once they receive an order to attack. JDR sends the electronic code to all the bombers in his command ordering them to launch a nuclear attack. The recall code is known only to him and is a combination of the letters POE ("Peace on Earth" or "Purity of Essence"). On board one of the bombers from Burpelson Air Force base is the Texan, Major T.J. "King" Kong (played by Slim Pickens), and his crew, who follow their orders "by the book" and do everything in their power to evade the Russian air defences.
When the Air Force realises what JDR has done General Buck Turgidson (played by George C. Scott) is informed. Caught in the toilet when the alert comes, T is a hawk who believes that the US should take advantage of JDR's actions and launch the surprise attack on the USSR they have been planning for years (JDR intends them to do this). T, the President Merkin Muffley (played by Peter Sellers), and his advisors gather in the War Room of the Pentagon to decide what to do. Muffley seems to be the only sane person in the War Room and realises the consequences of what JDR has done. His reasonableness seems out of place in the insanity of the War Room and the hawkish military and their advisors. After hearing a range of advice Muffley orders an army attack on the Air Force Base to arrest JDR. As the army attacks the base a visiting British Air Force officer, Captain Lionel Mandrake (also played by Peter Sellers), tries to persuade JDR to give himself up but cannot prevent his suicide. When the army overruns the base Colonel Bat Guano (played by Keenan Wynn) mistakenly arrests the "deviated prevert" Mandrake as the offender. M persuades G to let him phone the president to tell him about JDR but cannot get through because the White House refuses to accept a collect call. In order to get the correct money for the pay phone G reluctantly breaks into a Coke vending machine, warning M that he will have to answer to the Coca Cola company.
Back in the War Room we learn, when the Russian ambassador de Sadesky (Peter Bull) is summoned, that the Russians have built a "doomsday machine" to counter the superiority the US has in nuclear weapons. When it detects an American attack it automatically explodes, sending a deadly cloud of radioactive dust around the entire world, thus killing everything on it. The strategist Dr Strangelove suggests a plan to Pres. Muffley. Dr S (the third role played by the brilliant Peter Sellers) is a mad Nazi German scientist (whose real name is "Merkwürdigliebe" and is possibly based on the real life figure Edward Teller - the "father" of the American hydrogen bomb) who is now serving a new "Führer" (as he mistakenly refers to Muffley) on the arcane science of nuclear strategy. Dr S is confined to a wheel chair and has trouble controlling a nervous tick in his arm, which repeatedly makes the Nazi salute on its own volition it seems. Dr S comes up with a plan to survive the coming nuclear holocaust with a program of selective breeding (a plan dear to a true Nazi eugenicist) in underground bunkers. He recommends that the political and military elite be saved by seeking shelter in disused mine shafts. They would each be provided with everything they needed to survive for a hundred years, including 10 beautiful women each and a supply of nuclear weapons, thus ensuring that America would be able to rebuild after the war and start the arms race all over again (as suggested by Vera Lynn's closing song "We'll Meet Again"). As the end of the world arrives, the crippled Dr S miraculously rises from his wheel chair (rising from the dead like Lazarus) and salutes "Mein Führer." To the sight of mushroom clouds enveloping the world, the film ends with Vera Lynn's famous song from WW2 "We'll Meet Again".
SK summed up his bleak view of the world as expressed in "Dr S":
The destruction of this planet would have no significance on a cosmic scale. Our extinction would be little more than a match flaring for a second in the heavens. And if that match does blaze in the darkness, there will be none to mourn a race that used a power that could have lit a beacon in the stars to light its funeral pyre. (ibid).
Kubrick inserted the following "disclaimer" presumably on the insistance of the US Air Force or to avoid being sued:
It is the stated position of the U.S. Air Force that their safeguards would prevent the occurence 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.
In spite of Kubrick's claim to have thoroughly researched the question of an accidental start of a nuclear war Suid rejects the possibility for the following reasons:
When Dr. Strangelove was released in 1964, however, the Cuban missile crisis was still fresh in people's minds. B-52s still constituted the nation's primary strike force. Audiences could thus readily accept Kubrick's vision of the accidental launching of a nuclear attack even though Kubrick created his dramatic impact with what was in fact, a story based on inaccurate premises and factual errors. A SAC (Strategic Air Command) base commander had no means of ordering a flight of planes to attack Russia, the script's explanation of events notwithstanding. The attack code came down the chain of command from the President through SAC Headquarters in Omaha to base commanders to planes on the ground and in the air. Moreover the code was transmitted to air crews orally, not by means of a black box as shown in the movie. And the air force's fail safe mechanisms operated on the principle of positive control - the planes on their missions had to receive a direct order to launch its attack. The absence of such a command would automatically abort the mission. Unfortunately, at least for the air force and its image, few people either knew or had the time and concern to ascertain how SAC procedures worked. Therefore most viewers could readily suspend their disbelief and accept Kubrick's version of the system and its implied weaknesses. They might well emerge from the theatre not only entertained, but also concerned over the future of the world, at least to the extent that any movie audience thinks serously about such things. (pp. 230-31).
Peter George, Dr Strangelove (Oxford University Press, 1988). Extracts.
Herman Kahn, Thinking about the Unthinkable (1962) New York: Avon, 1966).
Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (2nd edition. Princeton University Press, 1961).
Lawrence Suid, "The Pentagon and Hollywood: Dr Strangleove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)," American History/American Film: Interpreting the Hollywood Image, ed. John E. O'Connor and Martin A. Jackson (New York: Ungar, 1987), pp. 219-35
Things to Note