Double Take: Dr. Strangelove (1964)
With its obvious satire of male aggression and its parallel with today's news headlines, why aren't students 'getting' this classic ultimate black comedy?
Steve Pick: I suppose I should flat-out state that this is my favorite film of all time and the one I’ve seen more often than any other. Since I discovered it on heavy rotation in the early '70s on a local TV movie package, I’ve been quoting lines about precious bodily fluids, nuclear combat toe-to-toe with the Russkies, and the incorrect behavior of fighting in the War Room. Not to mention, “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!”
It will be interesting to try to discuss this Stanley Kubrick classic without simply falling into a state of supreme awe for such a perfect combination of script, actors, and director. Steve, what’s your relationship to Dr. Strangelove, the movie?
Steve Leftridge: I’ve been asked many times to name my favorite movie, and I’ve never been able to come up with a definitive declaration, so my jaw drops to read it here from you. Not that Dr. Strangelove isn’t a worthy candidate. It’s certainly one of my faves, and yes, it’s such a quotable film that mutual Strangelovers tend to just get together and throw lines back and forth and giggle. We can do some of that if you’d like (“the string in my leg’s gone”!), but we’ll have to discuss why the film works so well.
For instance, do you think the era in which you grew up, with its preoccupation with the possibility (or probability) of nuclear annihilation, plays into your admiration of Kubrick’s handling of the subject?
Pick: Interestingly enough, I don’t remember being particularly concerned about the possibility of nuclear annihilation during my childhood in the '60s. Yeah, we talked about it in school from time to time. I remember a teacher telling us St. Louis would be a prime target because it was the home of McDonnell-Douglas. And there were TV shows telling us about nuclear winter and the like. But I never sensed a feeling of overwhelming dread. Maybe I was too young or maybe just inherently too optimistic.
At any rate, when I discovered Strangelove, I didn’t react immediately to its themes so much as to its comedy. George C. Scott was never more hilarious than the way he chewed the scenery in the War Room. Slim Pickens' dogged determination to achieve his mission was delivered with such a perfect aw-shucks manner that I laughed every time he opened his mouth. The scenes between Peter Sellers and Sterling Hayden, while obviously fraught with tension, are also masterfully dry and funny. Maybe best of all is the small scene between Sellers and Keenan Wynn (as Bat Guano, a joke that went over my head for many years) when Mandrake asks Guano to shoot the Coke machine to get change for a phone call. It cracks me up every time.
Growing up with this film, I learned to appreciate the take on the Cold War and the possibility of nuclear war. Kubrick shows us the pettiness of the competing players and the role that individual people can play in the midst of giant forces. It’s a cynical take on humanity, one that shows we can’t handle weapons of such destructive power.
In the real world, we were lucky enough to avoid the worst possibilities of having these weapons -- or at least, we have been so far. I wonder what scriptwriter Terry Southern would think of the current world, filled with nuclear weapons in multiple hands, and small groups interested in making big terrors.
Leftridge: Apparently, Kubrick and Southern originally intended for the film to be a serious drama (based on Peter George’s not-funny-at-all novel, Red Alert), but somewhere in the planning stages, Kubrick decided the subject was so terrible and absurd that he should turn it into a black comedy, instead. You bring up nuclear terrorism, and, yeah, if Kubrick took the challenge, in the middle of the Cold War, to make us laugh about the world’s most frightening scenario, the threat of a loose nuke in the hands of a deranged few seems like a subject that would be a whole lot harder to satirize.
Still, moviegoers in 1964 probably thought the same thing about a nuclear exchange with the Russkies. I remember watching The Day After, the 1983 TV movie about a nuclear missile hitting Kansas City, and I wouldn’t come out of my bedroom for three days. But Kubrick manages to make a nightmare comedy out of the sheer lunacy of the terrible reality of nuclear weapons, the arms race with the Soviet Union, and the hypermasculine pissing contest of those who might have access to the button.
In fact, Dr. Strangelove is really about sex, don’t you think?
Pick: Well, sure, there is a lot of sex in it. Sex and other bodily functions. The opening credits show one plane fueling another in the sky, clearly echoing the act of coitus, to use the language of Sheldon Cooper.
When we first encounter George C. Scott as Gen. Buck Turgidson (another of the many brilliant character names in the film), he is taking a dump offscreen while his girlfriend relaxes in a bikini. This woman, played by Tracy Reed, is the only female in the entire picture, but her very small role sets the stage for the sexual innuendos that will follow.
Later, Slim Pickens, as Major King Kong, reads off the list of emergency supplies for his men in case they crash their plane, which includes condoms, and says, “Shoot, a fellow could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all this stuff.” There's also the difficulty of getting the phallic symbol of the bomb itself up and ready for action before Kong frees it and rides it into the mushroom-shaped sunset.
Most important of all, the action of the movie is set in place due to the impotence of General Jack D. Ripper who, because of the fluoridation of water, has been “sapped of his precious bodily fluids”.
Dr. Strangelove’s plan for the survival of Americans after the war requires a ratio of several women, chosen for their high levels of attractiveness, to each man, in order to make their underground bunker a constant home to orgies and pregnancies. It’s interesting that a recent television show, You, Me, and the Apocalypse, plays this same scenario differently. At first, I assumed they were paying homage to Strangelove, when the plan seemed to be to take the President and other men underground with younger women, but they switched it up. In the modern world, they kidnapped beautiful women and left them in a bunker filled with semen deposits for reproduction purposes.
I’m interested in the other bodily function, the uncontrollable actions of Strangelove himself in the scene at the end. What do you make of that tour de force by Peter Sellers?
Leftridge: Sellers is masterful, of course, and if I were coming to this film for the first time, and I wasn’t told up front that the same actor plays President Muffley, Captain Mandrake, and Dr. Strangelove, I probably wouldn’t catch on. Speaking of sex, how about those names -- Merkin Muffley (two vaginal puns in one name), Mandrake (the plant that grows from spilled ejaculate), King Kong (named for a beast that hung on to a giant phallic symbol with one hand and held a nubile woman with the other), and Strangelove (which speaks for itself and probably refers to the mineshaft-orgy proposal you mentioned).
Plus, if that plane-refueling opening sequence in the beginning is indeed a symbol for copulation, then the sexual allegory goes all the way to the explosions at the end when Kong rides a bomb between his legs as he screams toward the, um, climax of the film.
The question I have for you is, what does sex have to do with war? In other words, why does Kubrick use so much sexual imagery when the film is supposed to be about a nuclear war? Can you make sense of this curious connection?
Pick: Most likely, Kubrick is pretty much saying that nuclear war would fuck us. It’s that basic, I think. A punning joke which couldn’t be put into words in any medium in 1964 was quite possibly the impetus for such a brilliant motion picture.
Sure, there’s long been a thematic connection between orgasm and death -- the French language says it best with the term “le petit mort”. I think Kubrick and Southern had that in the back of their minds, but I think they were more interested in the ways a single word has come to represent coitus and disaster. By playing with so much sexual imagery intertwined with so much realistic horror, Dr. Strangelove points us to the only option we have left. With no real power to cause or prevent unthinkable tragedy, we can do nothing but laugh.
Kubrick’s films don’t usually reach such a conclusion. He’s interested more often in deeper thoughts or more complex subjects. However, for this project, Kubrick wanted to make us bust a gut, and he did so while giving screen shape to one of our worst nightmares.
That’s my take on the connection between sex and war in Dr. Strangelove. What’s yours? And, since you’re a school teacher, I want to ask you whether you think this film makes sense to today’s youth. Would teens and college kids be as amused by this as I was, or would they just complain that it’s in black and white?
Leftridge: They would probably need some help understanding that the black and white cinematography helps capture the newsy, documentary style of chronicling these Cold War events, like the shaky handheld cinéma vérité footage of the battle scenes outside the base. But they also need help with understanding the satire and why the film is funny, surprising as that might sound.
In fact, I’ve shown this film to a class full teenagers, and some of them laugh in the right spots, but most of them don’t. Granted, the film takes a while to develop its comical frequency, and it gets more absurdly funny as it goes along, but I’ve found that most kids today are either confused over or indifferent to what Strangelove has to offer.
My take on all the sex stuff? I think Kubrick might be depicting war as a byproduct of the inflated masculinity of male world leaders, akin to grunting male competition for sexual conquests. It’s telling that the characters who are the most gung-ho about military conflict are the most masculine. The reason the attack takes place in the first place is because General Ripper couldn’t get it up in bed: When Mandrake asks him when he first realized that the Soviets were trying to sap us of our vital fluids, he tells him that it occurred to him during the physical act of love when he felt a “lack of potency”. And, of course, Ripper’s sexual inadequacy couldn’t possibly be his own fault, gruff stud that he is, so he has to blame it on the Commies like a real American. So he launches a phallic retaliation against the Soviets -- cigars, machine guns, B-52s, and nuclear bombs.
We also see Turgidson with his apelike stances, growling masculinity, and pinup girlfriend, whom he tells to be ready to blastoff as soon as he returns to their bed. Turgidson shares Ripper’s anti-Commie paranoia and advocates for a preemptive nuclear strike. Even Premier Kissoff (another sexual name) is with his mistress when Muffley calls him.
The characters most appalled by the attack are the prim Mandrake and the effeminate President Muffley, with his bald head and prissy speech. Even after we’ve decimated each other, Dr. Strangelove (with his overtones to Hitler, speaking of sexual peccadillos and world conquest) stresses the importance of prodigious breeding to avoid a mineshaft gap. So war, as Kubrick depicts it, ends up being a giant male bravado contest born out of sexual anxiety.
Pick: In that respect, I always lump this film in with Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five, though I know the novels better than the celluloid versions in those cases. And M*A*S*H gets thrown in there somewhere. Kubrick’s satire is more blatantly sexual, but making fun of war was a big part of the zeitgeist for a while there. Put these all together with a heaping helping of Marvel comics, and there was no way I was gonna get out of my teens thinking war had any value whatsoever.
At any rate, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb continues to tickle my funny bone every time I see it, and often enough when I just think about it. After that, all the actual thought put into it is nothing but a bonus.