Dr. Strangelove: An Art Review of a Classic Film
by Tim Ruane
With “Dr. Strangelove,” director and co-writer Stanley Kubrick proves himself to be a master of dark humor. Kubrick takes what is probably the most horrifying possible scenario for humankind—nuclear annihilation—turns it on its head and makes it something that can be laughed at. Kubrick does not say with “Strangelove” that nuclear war is, in fact, funny. He does say, however, that we can take a step back from the prospect of annihilation by the bomb and see that the idea of nuclear war itself is insane and that its creators and soldiers who would execute it are a bunch of psychos and buffoons.
With the creation of his characters’ names, which are ingenious, Kubrick brings us into his world of loony men who will destroy the world. We have:
*Gen. Jack D. Ripper (a killer like the mad Jack the Ripper), the insane general who orders nuclear war against the Soviet Union.
*Gen. Buck Turgidson (a grandiloquent—i.e. turgid—soldier), the pragmatic warrior who argues that it is best to kill the Soviets first and cut America’s losses.
*Merkin Muffley (whom Kubrick mocks with a first name which means “an artificial covering of hair for the pubic area”), the president of the United States.
*Major T. J. Kong (an idiot, somehow lovable, who, like King Kong, has sub-human intelligence), the B-52 commander who stupidly obeys orders without considering the fact that the orders are insane and immoral.
All of Kubrick’s characters are, if not obvious nut cases, extreme caricatures. Two of the most outstanding are the generals. Are these commanders, who have the fate of the world in their hands, fit to do their jobs? Nope.
Gen. Jack D. Ripper—the cigar general, way insane—is preoccupied, hilariously, with water. He says you never see communists drink water and claims that the fluoridation of water is a “monstrously conceived Communist plot.” He drinks only rain water, distilled water and pure grain alcohol.
With his creation of Ripper, Kubrick brings one of the most remembered lines in cinema—the mad general’s talk about “precious bodily fluids.” The Communist conspiracy is sapping and draining all of our “precious bodily fluids,” says Ripper. He adds, too, that we need pure water to replenish “our precious bodily fluids.” “Precious bodily fluids”—shear Kubrick genius.
Super powerful Gen. “Bucky” Turgidson is a grand buffoon. How does he behave while addressing the president of the United States and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in one of the most serious and important places in the world—the Pentagon’s War Room—during one of the greatest crises of all times? Crazy.
He tussles with the Soviet ambassador, complains of “mine gap,” assures his girlfriend that, no, he is not just interested in her body, and he chews bubble gum. One of America’s most important generals, in Kubrick’s world, is way out there. He always chews bubble gum.
In a way, my favorite characters are the men who drop the bomb and begin the end of the world—the fly boys on Major Kong’s B-52. Are these men serious, disciplined highly motivated, intelligent graduates of the U.S. Air Force Academy? Nope. They are a bunch of dopes and stooges.
While on the verge of nuclear holocaust, these guys are nonchalant. They are disinterested and super-relaxed. Some are plain out goofy. While on what is one of the most important missions ever, these guys are chillin’, reading Playboy and doing card tricks. One, apparently without a care in the world, stretches out on a couch chewin’ on what might be a candy bar, and when Plan R—the orders to annihilate humankind—arrives, three of these men are sitting together unalarmed, wondering if the orders are for real. While they wonder, do they fret? Do they consider the gravity—and insanity—of what they are being ordered to do? No, these three musketeers snack on junk food.
Kubrick’s portrayal of women in “Strangelove” might, in 2013, seem antiquated, but with this portrait, Kubrick is way ahead of the common thinking in the early 1906s, when he made the movie. Actually, there is only one woman in the script, and she is not the kind of woman who would be popular today. She is “only” a secretary (not an administrative assistant), a woman who is concerned with her comfort and appearance. She is Gen. Turgidson’s sex object, and she is stupid, too. This is obvious when she calls him, seeking reassurance that the general doesn’t think of her as only a sex object, while the general is in an immensely important meeting in the War Room.
While many will argue that Kubrick is a stupid sexist, typical of the times 50 years ago, the opposite is true. Kubrick is saying that with their Neanderthal attitudes toward women in the early ’60s, Americans had things backward. They were unaware of women’s power and potential and, in fact, they were abusing women. Kubrick’s presentation of a woman in “Strangelove” is like his presentation of America’s military men. It says that things are the opposite of what they should be.
There is more Kubrick genius here. While his sole female character is the bimbo type, Kubrick makes something clear: She has no part in men’s plans, which would destroy the world. Kubrick shows that the world of ultimate machismo is inhabited not by women, but by men, the true crazy and destructive people.
Dr. Strangelove himself, while having an initial brief appearance, commands the final part of the film, and this is a crucial part of Kubrick’s plot. Dr. Strangelove is a super absurd character. He is confined to a wheelchair, wears black gloves and sunglasses in the dimly lit War Room and has an arm and hand that snap uncontrollably. He discusses life in mine shafts after nuclear war and seems to be oddly fond of his assertion that the population in the mine shafts women will outnumber men by 10 to one.
Kubrick has good reason to make Dr. Strangelove such an oddball. A former German weapons scientist, Dr. Strangelove is one of Adolf Hitler’s most prized boys. He, like Hitler, slaughtered millions of innocent people.
Combine this with the fact that Dr. Strangelove is the American director of weapons research and development—the brains behind the bomb—and it are easy to see why Kubrick portrays him as nuts. By creating Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick is saying that Americans are nuts too; for not only did they hire this perverse thinker; they gave him one of the most important positions in their society. Worse still, they valued him and depended on him.
At one point, Dr. Strangelove calls the U.S. president my “fuhrer,” and after he gets out of his wheel chair, he calls out to his former madman boss a second time: “My furher, I can walk!” Kubrick makes clear here that the invention of the bomb and its unspeakable ability to end all life is the descendant of Adolf Hitler. Kubrick masterfully states in “Strangelove” that the bomb and the arms race are, like Hitler, horrifying pathologies.
There is much more in Kubrick’s “Strangelove”—B-52 nuclear bomber planes that do not appear like horrible war machines. Rather, these planes float amiably in a wonderful sky, as Kubrick eases us into his film. There are the survival kits for the airmen which contain not only things you would expect—.45s and morphine—but absurd things too: vitamins pills, pep pills and packs of chewing gum.
Chewing gum by itself is important in “Strangelove.” Besides Gen. Turgidson’s chewing on the stuff and its appearance in the survival kit, it appears another time, too. British commander Lionel Mandrake holds up a piece of chewing gum when he comes to understand that Gen. Ripper is mad, a crucial moment in the film. There is, too, phenomenal acting by Sterling Hayden, George C. Scott, Slim Pickens and, of course, by Peter Sellers, who plays not one role, but three.
When it came out in 1964, “Strangelove” was hot, as the newspapers put it, for the film showed not long after one the most serious conflicts in history—the Cuban missile crisis. American families prayed for an immediate resolution to that crisis. They also prayed for an afterlife, because they faced the possibility of nuclear death. Kubrick took this massive problem, poked fun at it and said with great irony that U.S. politics, as it related to nuclear power in the early 1960s, was like his world in “Strangelove.” It was ridiculous and cuckoo, too.