The Cold War was a serious, intense time, but it was also ripe for parody and satire. By far, the most famous example of this is the 1964 Stanley Kubrick film, Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Starring Peter Sellers and George C. Scott, it’s an infamous and uncomfortably compelling portrayal of those who have their fingers on the red button and those who are the red button.
Dr. Strangelove starts with one B-52 towing another, and the music is ironically idyllic. Then we see footage of an Burpelson Air Force base, with everything seeming to be normal, which of course doesn’t remain so for long. General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) calls Group Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers) to tell him with the utmost gravity that Plan R is now in effect, and the situation is pretty hairy. He wants all radios on the base to be impounded to stifle saboteurs.
The we see the B-52s again, and hear how they patrol space around and in Russia to guard against surprise nuclear attack. The crew are busy eating sandwiches and reading magazines, when their radioman buzzes up the news that Wing Attack Plan R is now in effect. Major “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) thinks it’s a joke, but one glance at the flight plan proves him wrong. “Well, boys,” he drawls. “I reckon this is it. Nuclear combat toe to toe with the Ruskies.” Then he puts on his cowboy hat and settles back in his pilot’s chair while the resolute tones “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” swell over the scene.
General ‘Buck’ Turgidson (George C. Scott) also has trouble taking it seriously, even when hearing from his bikini-clad, sun-worshipping secretary, Miss Scott (Tracey Reed) that all communications are down. There’s nothing to do for Buck but leave Miss Scott under her sun lamp and go see what all the fuss is about.
Back at Burpelson, Ripper issues a warning to his men about the situation, and the byword is watchfulness. Even soldiers in American uniforms might be communists in disguise. Above all, he gives them three warnings:
- Trust no one, unless they are personally known to you.
- Fire on anyone or anything within 200 yards of the perimeter.
- When in doubt, shoot first and ask questions later.
While Captain Mandrake shuts down the communications room, he happens to switch on his pocket radio, where some nifty pop music is playing. He goes to see Ripper because he suspects something’s up: Why would regular broadcasting be taking place if nuclear war is imminent?
Ripper locks the door and tells Mandrake his orders stand. Mandrake asserts his authority and says he’ll issue a recall code to head off the attack, but then Ripper informs him only he can talk to the B-52 and the Pentagon is currently discussing the matter. It’s Ripper’s personal belief that the Russians are going to flouridate America’s water supply to pollute Americans’ precious bodily fluids. Hrm. Long story short, Ripper is going above the Pentagon and ordering nuclear attack because he thinks politicians are too dumb to keep people safe. Mandrake thinks Ripper is off his rocker.
Speaking of the Pentagon, they’re all aghast when Buck tells President Murkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) Ripper has ordered his squadron to attack Russia. Even more disturbing is that Ripper used Plan R as a blind for mutiny, because it has an emergency clause allowing people like Ripper to order bombs dropped if the President can’t. Unfortunately, it would take too long to break the code Ripper is using to communicate with the bombers. Buck thinks the Army should send in troops to take over Burpelson and a secondary squadron to finish Ripper’s first wave. Murkley is squarely against that plan, and brings in a Russian ambassador to diffuse the situation.
Meanwhile, the 843rd Squadron is closing on their targets, and no one but Ripper can communicate with them. Not even American troops closing in on Burpelson can pursuade him to back off. Poor Mandrake is still locked in the room with Ripper, which means he’s stuck listening to the guy drone on about bodily fluids and floridation. The only thing that breaks Ripper’s diatribe is a hail of bullets from the approaching Army battalion, and he responds by pulling out a machine gun he hid in his golf bag. Spoiler alert: Ripper shoots himself in the bathroom when Mandrake presses him about the communication code.
Just to add to the fun, Murkley puts in a call to Dmitri, the president of Russia, and after a few minutes of chitchat, gets down to business. He tells Dmitri exactly where the planes are in case Russia wants to launch a counter attack, and while this is all well and good, there’s a wrench in the works. America has nuclear bombs, but Russia has the Doomsday Machine. If Russia is attacked, the machine will wipe out the human race, and once started, there’s no way to reverse it. Not only that, but the title character, a neurotic German scientist in a wheelchair, Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers) says the human race will be reduced to a ratio of ten women for every man.
Dr. Strangelove’s wall-to-wall satire is played with wall-to-wall gravity. It has to be, because it wouldn’t work otherwise. With character names like Jack D. Ripper and “King” Kong, though, it’s more slyness than camp. Even President Murkley’s first name is slang for a very adult type of wig. Amazingly enough, Kubrick could have turned up the camp way more than he did–the original ending included an epic pie fight. In the wake of the Kennedy asassination, though, the fight was scrubbed because it didn’t strike the right tone.
The film is so notorious that it’s been parodied itself. Remember this?
Seriously, though, the film was very timely. America had just endured the Cuban Missile Crisis and, again, the assassination of John F. Kennedy. We had seen Sputnik launched and felt nervous because we didn’t know where it would lead. So yeah, lots of tense things happening.
One of the things that struck me was how casually the powers that were handled the prospect of nuclear annihilation. When the president of Russia and the president of the United States can have a jovial phone conversation on the lines of, “So sorry, old boy, but we have a rogue general who ordered a bomb dropped on you,” it feels like being trolled. What was even more jarring was Murkley freely disclosing the movement of American planes to Dmitri. It made me think of Eisenhower’s Open Skies plan. Only difference was, it was meant to be psychologically undermining of Russian confidence more than an actual plan. Khrushchev didn’t go for it, of course. In the film, however, the Russians had clearly accepted the idea.
The film’s underlying message is clear, especially viewed in the context of nineteen-sixties politics: We’re all in deep doo-doo, and politicians are two-faced dopes. Also, foreign policy is much more than what we’re told in pressers and by the media. It’s so lighthearted, though, that like Kong’s iconic ride, we don’t care because we’re too busy smiling and cheering.
When it comes to Stanley Kubrick, I’m a little divided. He was an effective storyteller, but not my cup of tea. Dr. Strangelove is a gem, though. It’s funny and sly and ironic. It’s hard not to like it when we have luminaries like George C. Scott giving out in rare-for-him comedy and Peter Sellers in a completely-natural-for-him triple role. Watching Scott as Turgidson pout and Seller hop hilariously between personalities makes any uncomfortable irony worth it.
That wraps up my Atomic Age Fridays. Hope you all have enjoyed these posts, and if you have any ideas for future theme months, let me know!
Coming up in September (yep, tomorrow)…
If anyone’s interested, please see these fine people:
- Laura at Phyllis Loves Classic Movies
- Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood
- Maddy at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films
Thanks for reading, all, and see you tomorrow…
This film is available on Amazon.