Dr. strangelove[N.B. the content of this post is rated PG13]

Purity of Essence

We must do everything possible to protect our bodily fluids. After all, the human body is mostly water. If one’s water becomes corrupt, his “essences” will follow, and man will lose what power he possesses. He must, no matter the cost, protect his “purity of essence.” So raves General Jack D. Ripper throughout the first two-thirds of Stanley Kubrick’s dark comedy and historical mocumentary of the future, Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

General Jack D. Ripper [Sterling Hayden]: But today, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought. I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.

The film originally appeared in theaters only a month and a week after the Kennedy assassination (at one point, an Air Force major explaining that the emergency survival kit would allow any survivor to have a “good time in Dallas” is dubbed to state “a good time in Vegas”; otherwise, the film was left as is) and almost certainly affected significant aspects of the 1964 presidential campaign, especially through the infamous ad of the little girl picking pedals with a nuclear bomb detonating. 

Major King Kong [Slim Pickens]: Survival kit contents check. In them you’ll find: one forty-five caliber automatic; two boxes of ammunition; four days’ concentrated emergency rations; one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills; one miniature combination Russian phrase book and Bible; one hundred dollars in rubles; one hundred dollars in gold; nine packs of chewing gum; one issue of prophylactics; three lipsticks; three pair of nylon stockings. Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in [Vegas] with all that stuff.

While the president of the United States in the film looks more than a little bit like Adlai Stevenson, intelligent and kind but ultimately effete, several of the military officers could be Goldwater or Johnson in both appearance and speaking style. While the film is deeply political in a broad sense, it’s really not political in the immediate sense. That is, Kubrick lambasts every side of things—left, right, capitalist, communist, above, below, near, and through.

Only one character in the entire film comes across well, a polite and increasingly determined British officer, serving as an ExO on an American military base. He was, it turns out, a sound warrior in the Asian theater of World War II, captured and tortured by the Japanese but now somewhat taken with their ability to innovate and produce consumer products. Appropriately, Kubrick names him “Colonel Lionel Mandrake.”

[Lionel Mandrake [Peter Sellers]: Do I look all rancid and clotted? You look at me, Jack. Eh? Look, eh? And I drink a lot of water, you know. I’m what you might call a water man, Jack—that’s what I am. And I can swear to you, my boy, swear to you, that there’s nothing wrong with my bodily fluids. Not a thing, Jackie.

Others in the film carry much more unflattering names: President Merkin Muffley, General Jack D. Ripper, Colonel Bat Guano, Soviet Premier Kissoff, and Russian Ambassador de Sadesky.

It’s not just the names, though. American soldiers work in sterile, modern environments, surrounded by computers and masses of paper. The lighting in every room is neon, artificial, and harsh. American pilots, though the most professional in the movie, look at Playboys, mess with cards, chew bubble gum, and eat endless amounts of candy bars and donuts. The military officers crave power openly, and the politicians drink, whore, and bluster.

The Half-Century Mark

The film celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of its release this year. At the half-century mark, Dr. Strangelove deserves some scrutiny and some praise. Only four years younger than the film, I first saw it in the fall of 1987 in a movie theater in Innsbruck, Austria. The version I saw, dubbed in German, left me astonished. What struck me most, however, was that whoever dubbed the movie into German chose to use an Austrian with a dense Tyroler accent to voice Slim Picken’s deeply thick Texas accent. When I returned to the United States the following year, I watched it again, this time in English.

Major King Kong [Slim Pickens]: Well, boys, I reckon this is it—nuclear combat toe to toe with the Roosskies. Now look, boys, I ain’t much of a hand at makin’ speeches, but I got a pretty fair idea that something doggone important is goin’ on back there. And I got a fair idea the kinda personal emotions that some of you fellas may be thinkin’. Heck, I reckon you wouldn’t even be human bein’s if you didn’t have some pretty strong personal feelin’s about nuclear combat. I want you to remember one thing, the folks back home is a-countin’ on you and by golly, we ain’t about to let ‘em down. I tell you something else, if this thing turns out to be half as important as I figure it just might be, I’d say that you’re all in line for some important promotions and personal citations when this thing’s over with. That goes for ever’ last one of you regardless of your race, color or your creed. Now let’s get this thing on the hump—we got some flyin’ to do.

Mostly inspired by the number of references the famous Bob Higgs makes to the movie on social media, I decided to watch it attentively last night and with an eye toward deconstruction and explanation. What power does this work of art hold?

I watched it from the opening moment to the end with my full attention. Indeed, it’s the kind of movie that mesmerizes and hypnotizes.  It lures the watcher in seductively with its driving, unrelenting plot, demanding acceptance rather than leavening imagination. If for no other reason, Kubrick deserves praise for creating a film that serves the role of occult leader, taking in and his deluded worshippers. For 95 minutes last night, I allowed myself to be that follower and I allowed myself to be submerged in the film. Like any religion or ideology, it cannot be understood except as from within.

Phallic Power

While Dr. Strangelove contains a number of extremely hilarious moments and some of the best “over the top” acting imaginable (Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, and Slim Pickens), it is the driving and unrelenting plot of the story that captivates the viewer. The story ends in the destruction of the world. Dr. Strangelove, however, is an allegory about man’s desire (and pubescent fantasy) to control the world through phallic sexuality.

dr_strangelove_1ed05Tellingly, only one woman appears in the entire film. She’s the secretary and lover of George C. Scott’s character, General Buck Turgidson. The viewer first encounters her as a real person as she lounges in her bikini under a sun-bathing lamp in the general’s swank bedroom. He’s answering the call of nature in the rest room, and she takes an emergency call at 3 in the morning. We also see her one other time, as the playmate in the Playboy a bomber pilot is reading. In the magazine, she is laying across some kind of bear rug and a copy of the journal Foreign Affairs—one containing an article by Henry Kissinger—covers her rear end. At no other time in the 95 minutes of the movie does a woman appear. Even signs in the background, posted at military bases appeal only to the vigilance of fathers to protect their children.

The movie itself begins with some gorgeous filming of a B52 being refueled in flight. The movement and sway of the planes as they connect to one another clearly reflects the act of sexual intercourse. Yet, it is “Strangelove,” as both planes, of course, look phallic and certainly not vaginal. Once decoupled, or released, the B52 crew, led by Slim Pickens, flies without hesitation toward its target. It is, for all intents and purposes, a single sperm in search of an egg to fertilize.

Led by patriot Pickens, the crew—including a very young James Earl Jones—follows their instructions professionally even as they unceasingly chew gum. Kubrick presents them as young, uninspired technocrats. Yet, in the end, Pickens rides the nuclear bomb all the way down to Soviet soil in rodeo style, seemingly loving the glory of it all.

The movie ends with explosive orgasm, an orgasm so fierce that it destroys the surface of the entire world even as it fertilizes.

An escaped Nazi-turned-American, Dr. Strangelove, has, however, planned for all eventualities. For the leaders of the Free World—all men, of course—decide to accept Strangelove’s advice and move into underground bunkers. There, they will possess 10 wives each (thus, undoing Christian norms in the name of survival) and produce a Eugenic super race to reemerge a century later to reconquer the world.

Throughout the movie, the U.S. president moves from horror at the possibility of the destruction of the world to relaxed acceptance of the ten women awaiting him in his own private Apocalypse.

A Profound Cultural Moment

After fifty years, it would be difficult to underplay the importance or staying power of Dr. Strangelove.

Dr-Strangelove-George-C.Scott_Though most remember it for just a very few lines and hand motions offered by the Nazi turned America, Dr. Strangelove, played by Sellers, it is really George C. Scott who steals the show. His Shatner-esque, over the top, acting works perfectly. Most importantly, the viewer can see the subtle and not so subtle changes in his Machiavellian soul and thought through his body language, his voice intonations, and his facial expressions. Probably the best and most hilarious moment of the entire film is the call Scott’s character receives from his secretary and lover during his meeting with the president. Though Scott attempts to assure his lover quietly, it is clear the entire room can hear the conversation but awkwardly chooses not to respond.

Over the phone, he assures the bathing beauty that he will make her his wife soon and that he believes his relationship to her more important than his duty to the president. Best of all, he ends the conversation by reminding his lover to say her prayers before calling it a night.

Even if more than a bit diabolic in some of his artistry, Stanley Kubrick offered a post-Vietnam and post-Watergate cynicism a decade early. By 1974, even the most loyal Americans would question the integrity of the military and the government. But, in 1964, only five weeks after the murder of a president in a Texas city, Dr. Strangelove shocked an American public emerging from a naive innocence and standing at the very cusp of a cultural revolution.

[All quotes taken from imdb.com]

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6 replies to this post
  1. Thanks, Peter. It’s a brilliant work of art. I find Kubrick generally a little too creepy for my tastes, but Dr. Strangelove is hilarious and historically important.

  2. Very well done, amigo. Of course, much, much more might be said about this great film. Indeed, many books might be written about it, so rich is it in every dimension — not a wasted word, every detail of the sets in place, characterizations at once completely boffo yet essentially carbon copies of the real referents. I’ve watched it at least thirty times over the past fifty years, and I expect to watch it again many times before I die — I hope not in a holocaust engineered by evil and hubristic governments.

  3. The nitpicking brigade just cannot stay silent: 😊

    “the infamous ad of the little girl picking pedals with a nuclear bomb detonating.” Perhaps she was riding a bicycle?

  4. The film looks very different through the eyes of a poli sci major, retired B-52 pilot. Soviet marshal to American (‘Murican?) 4 star: “You don’t want war. We don’t want war. But you don’t want war less than we don’t want war.” Years ago I read an article by a retired USAF 4 star, T.R. Milton, about his Lt Col days as a planner in NATO. He was asked to see what kind of force structure would be required to keep the Soviets out of Germany solely by conventional weapons. He concluded there weren’t enough 18 year olds in the US to pull that off.

    What better choices were available between the Truman Doctrine of 1947 and Christmas of 1991? OK, maybe we’ve had a holiday from History since 1991. Is that holiday over? Obviously M/M USA have decided that adventures in Syria and Ukraine are not our interest.

    But we should either withdraw from NATO or ramp up enough force to make a “red line” across, say, Latvia credible. If we decide to do that without any nukes we need a boatload of well dispersed 18 year olds with WAY more rifles than we have now. I’m fine with M/M USA deciding that, say, Latvia is a “far away small country about which we know very little.” Chamberlin’s letter to his sister, if memory serves.

    As long as we know and understand the consequences of our choices, and the choices are made in public after a full and open competition between what to do/how to do it, fine. But, “Oh, nukes are bad,” is – – at most – – a starting point. It’s neither a solution nor a policy.

    BTW, I got to see Dr. Strangelove for free in 1964. It was such an adult movie that there were no children’s tickets. But my dad, a USAF pilot, wanted me to see it since I had expressed a desire to be a USAF pilot when I grew up – – I was 13. So, they let me in. Note: We used to watch it at the alert pad on “bomber night.” The Dam Busters, Bombers B-52, Fail Safe. I often hummed “Try a Little Tenderness” while I was refueling. And, no, you are NOT allowed to write on the bombs, although I was known to grease pencil in “photo torpedoes” in the “load” block by the entrance hatch.

  5. Yes, isn’t it hilarious the only apparently sane person in the whole movie is a battle-scarred Brit?
    Wonderful analysis of the film!

    Since the movie, (I saw it back then, 1964) I have regarded all governments as composed of essentially Kubrickian gargoyles, with the characters from Strangelove at their best, and from Clockwork Orange at their worst.

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