Dr. Strangelove (1964) by Stanley Kubrick; another example of how Kubrick shines as both an anti-war and a sci-fi director. Most importantly is the fact that it is a movie that could not have happened outside America. Understanding Kubrick’s rare foray into comedy without the hysteria of Cold War in mind is impossible. A deep mistrust of each other led to a continual nuclear stalemate between the United States and Russia. With the raising of the iron curtain and the fast-growing nuclear arms race, the threat to America was on peak.
The movie attempts to show us how childish this entire conflict is. Also, simultaneously it criticizes the US nuclear and wartime politics. Here, the strange love in Dr. Strangelove also exists as a sex comedy. With mushroom clouds on the horizon, the Russian premier on the phone, and our libido firmly in our pants, let’s explore “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”.
The Cold War
During the Second World War, the USA and Russia fought together against the Axis threat. However, the US was long aware of the growing power of Russia and the iron fist of Joseph Stalin and Soviet communism. The Russians also despised the refusal of the US to treat them as legitimate members of the international community. Also, the late arrival of the US into the war, which cost the lives of many Russians. Tensions only ballooned after WWII and thus began the state of mistrust called the Cold War. US and Russia were at loggerheads.
The entire practice of managing the red threat would influence US foreign policy for the following two decades. This containment strategy led to an unprecedented arms buildup in the United States. In 1950, a National Security Council Report known as NSC–68 had echoed Truman’s recommendation; the country uses military force to contain communist expansionism anywhere it seemed to be occurring. To that end, the report called for a four-fold increase in defense spending.
In particular, American officials encouraged the development of atomic weapons like the ones that had ended World War II. Thus began a deadly “arms race.” In 1949, the Soviets tested a bomb of their own. In response, President Truman announced that the United States would build an even more destructive atomic weapon: the hydrogen bomb, or “superbomb.” Stalin followed suit. This development towards building a war “deterrent” and the implications of uneasy peace in the time of thermonuclear warfare was what eventually provided the inspiration for films like Dr. Strangelove.
Films of the Cold War
It must be remembered that films are embedded with the cultural values of contemporary society; it will be unfair to write off all Cold War-era movies as mere propaganda. Mikhail Romm, who directed two vehemently anti-American films, The Russian Question (1948) and The Secret Mission (1950), also directed one of the most complex and subversive films in Soviet cinema: Nine Days In One Year (1962). From 1945 to the mid-1950s, both Soviet and American films began to demonize their political rivals.
Soviet movies such as The Russian Question (1948), Meeting on the Elbe (1949), and The Secret Mission (1950) all condemn American imperialist tendencies and the supposed war-mongering attitude of the American Elite. While American movies such as The Iron Curtain (1948) and The Hoaxsters (1952) dramatize the danger of a communist ‘fifth’ column inside the USA. In the 1960s, the growing threat of the atomic bomb and approaching nuclear Armageddon is shown in films like Nine Days in One Year (1962) and more directly in films like Failsafe (1964) and Dr. Strangelove (1964). So now, the context becomes clear.
Dr. Strangelove’s accuracy
When Dr. Strangelove came out, it caused a good deal of controversy. Its insane plot suggested that a mentally deranged American General can launch a nuclear attack bypassing higher authority. At the time, the movie faced criticism heavily for implausibility. An expert at the Institute for Strategic Studies called the events in the film “impossible on a dozen counts.” A former Deputy Secretary of Defense dismissed the idea that someone could authorize the use of a nuclear weapon without the President’s approval. The first casualty of every war is truth and the Cold War was no exception.
Decades after Kubrick’s mad general, Jack D. Ripper, launched a nuclear strike on the Soviets to defend the purity of “our precious bodily fluids” from Communists, we now know that American officers did indeed have the ability to start a Third World War on their own. Despite the introduction of rigorous safeguards in the years since then, the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear detonation hasn’t been eliminated. While the Doomsday Machine in the movie is, of course, fictional, the nuclear arsenals of the USA and Russia are in fact de facto doomsday machines, since a first strike would mean mutually assured destruction (MAD). The idea for the Doomsday Machine in Dr. Strangelove was inspired by the real-life thinking of Herman Kahn, a researcher at RAND. In this movie, Kahn’s words are actually quoted.
The chain of events in Dr. Strangelove takes place in two locations- the oval office war room and the air force base under General Ripper. Ripper is a madman whose strange dialogue about preserving bodily fluids is a cause of distress for much of the main cast of characters especially his British exchange officer.
Now, this is where the movie must be understood in a uniquely American sensibility. The scene of Major Kong riding the nuclear bomb to Russia, or the antics of General Bucky are all criticisms of American stereotypes of the time and criticisms of the sexual conservatism of the time. The gradual proliferation of communism in the USA, the fluoridation of water were uniquely American conspiracy theories. Of course, some theories were ridiculous. Here, political critique of the highest level of American politics is ever-present.
The Comedy in Dr. Strangelove
From the Russian ambassador to the premier and the US president, the movie tries to say the country is run by a bunch of man-children. Making fun of the lax policy of the US on nuclear bombs, the movie gives us Ripper who is clearly sexually frustrated, believes all the aforementioned conspiracy theories, and launches a third world war by himself.
The criticism of the chain of command was so effective that American officials had to dispel such rumors on the chain of command. Through Peter Seller’s iconic role of Dr. Strangelove, it tries to show how newly defected Nazi regime scientists may harbor the same imperialistic beliefs but now it’s in the context of America. It is very clear that Dr. Strangelove only replaced one Fuhrer with another. Lots of puns and wit make it into the movie. There’s even a short piece on Coca-Cola because at the time Coca-Cola was accused of hiring assassins to eliminate their rivals.
The Strange Love in Dr. Strangelove
Women don’t find a huge spot in Dr. Strangelove as far as screen time is concerned. However, through the soundtrack and conversation, we can understand that this is not only a political satire but a sex comedy where even the deranged General Ripper has some sexual motivations for his action. In fact, General Ripper and Bucky are almost the same war-mongering individual but working for different goals. Whereas Ripper denies “his essence” or bodily fluids to women, Bucky is not really afraid of losing his power. Ripper’s beliefs, his sex life all point that this new war was in fact an act of sexual frustration and not purely political. Of course, this was made in the midst of the turning point of American sexual liberation.
The conservatives as well as the newly sexually liberated youngsters all faced problems in this America. This was the America that gave meaning to Kubrick’s portrayal of sex in the movie. Sex and war are tied up as one in the movie till the end where Dr, Strangelove suggests breeding programs in underground tunnels after the nuclear armageddon. it is ridiculous of course but not as ridiculous as preserving “bodily fluids”. Sexual allegory, military action are all portrayed in a beautifully ridiculous way which makes the movie unforgettable and controversial. Released at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, the movie presents a strong feminist viewpoint and a criticism of the male ego which was influenced by again very American movements like the Women’s Liberation movement.
The Awards/Nominations for Dr. Strangelove
Of course, both Dr. Strangelove and 2001 Space Odyssey were denied best picture Oscars but the movie established Kubrick as a premier director of the time, a reputation which would only grow. These are two of the most influential movies of all time yet they were denied Oscars by the academy. Speaks volumes on the real face of the Oscars. However, despite nominations for best director, picture, actor, and adapted screenplay, it will be shocking that the awards completely eluded this movie in the Oscars. It went on to win multiple awards at BAFTA including best film from any source and best British film.
Today this marvelous movie by Kubrick still remains one of his best and most iconic. It is one of the few times Kubrick stepping into the genre of comedy to produce fantastic results. In fact, I would say Kubrick is much better at comedy than at horror. His war movies will always be of the highest quality and Dr. Strangelove is still among them. However, it explores more than just the hand that pulls the trigger, it explores the whole institution of the American military and the social structure of America.
Without a grasp of America, this picture would not be enjoyable, and also it would not exist. Kubrick proceeds with that understanding to create a ridiculous America that starts a war because of one disconcerted individual and the fragility of the male ego in the light of the sexual revolution. Thus it is a truly strange movie which is highly recommended just like you should keep your bodily fluids within yourself!