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“”As you know, the Premier loves surprises.
|—Soviet Ambassador DeSadesky|
“”Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a 1964 satirical (specifically, a black comedy) film directed by Stanley Kubrick, and co-written with Terry Southern and Peter George. The film was based on the 1958 novel Red Alert (a.k.a. Two Hours to Doom) by Peter George under the pseudonym Peter Bryant. The plot of Red Alert very closely resembled that of the 1963 novel Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, and resulted in a copyright-infringement lawsuit and an out-of-court settlement. Fail-Safe also went on to a become a less-successful and less-memorable, non-satirical film in 1964, which also resulted in an out-of-court settlement over copyright infringement. Dr. Strangelove is the best black comedy film of all time, at least by some accounts.
The film stars Peter Sellers playing three major roles (the meek President Merkin Muffley;[note 1][note 2] the half-broken man, half-broken machine Dr. Strangelove;[note 3] and the overly polite British Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake)[note 4] and features a much-parodied scene of Slim Pickens bull-riding an atomic bomb. It was less well known for being
Darth Vader's James Earl Jones' first movie.
The movie depicts a series of fictional events leading to a World War III scenario involving mutually assured destruction (MAD) between the United States and the Soviet Union. Plot elements involve various Cold War themes, including McCarthyism and the influences of Nazi scientists. There is also a plethora of sexual undertones to the film, such as General Jack D. Ripper's ostensibly fluoride-fueled impotence,[note 5] Dr. Strangelove's recommendation of a 10:1 female to male ratio for the post-apocalyptic world, the hyper-masculine overcompensation of military men, and the inability of the bomber crew to "perform" (drop the bomb) after much elaborate foreplay (in-flight build-up).
The film's main thrust (so to speak), however, is to mock the nuclear arms race and tensions between the US and the USSR by showing the insanity of predicating one's entire national defense on the idea of the fittingly-acronymed MAD. The characters go from talking about "missile gaps" and "bomber gaps" to claiming vast communist conspiracies at every level of government (they're poisoning our precious bodily fluids!) to, after the guarantee of apocalypse, worrying about a "mineshaft gap" with the Reds. It's either the scariest comedy ever made, or the funniest disaster movie ever made.[note 6]
Besides the Cold War and MAD, Dr. Strangelove touches on a number of themes, including the Red Scare, water fluoridation, conspiracy theories as one group, and game theory and a doomsday scenario as a second.
Fluoride is a commie plot
Ripper: Have you ever seen a commie drink a glass of water?
Mandrake: Well, no I… I can't say I have, Jack.
Ripper: Vodka. That's what they drink, isn't it? Never water?
Mandrake: Well I… I believe that's what they drink, Jack. Yes.
Ripper: On no account will a commie ever drink water, and not without good reason.
Mandrake: Oh, ah, yes. I don't quite… see what you're getting at, Jack.
Ripper: Water. That's what I'm getting at. Water. Mandrake, water is the source of all life. Seven tenths of this Earth's surface is water. Why, you realize that… seventy percent of you is water.
Mandrake: Uhhh God…
Ripper: And as human beings, you and I need fresh, pure water to replenish our precious bodily fluids.
Mandrake: Yes. (chuckles nervously)
Ripper: You beginning to understand?
Mandrake: Yes. (chuckles. begins laughing/crying quietly)
Ripper: Mandrake. Mandrake, have you never wondered why I drink only distilled water, or rain water, and only pure grain alcohol?
Mandrake: Well it did occur to me, Jack, yes.
Ripper: Have you ever heard of a thing called fluoridation? Fluoridation of water?
Mandrake: Ah, yes, I have heard of that, Jack. Yes.
Ripper: Well do you know what it is?
Mandrake: No. No, I don't know what it is. No.
Ripper: Do you realize that fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face?
Mandrake: Jack… Jack, listen, tell me, ah… when did you first become, well, develop this theory?
Ripper: Well, I ah, I, I first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love.
Mandrake: (sighs fearfully)
Ripper: Yes, a profound sense of fatigue, a feeling of emptiness followed. Luckily I was able to interpret these feelings correctly: loss of essence.
Ripper: I can assure you it has not recurred, Mandrake. Women… women sense my power, and they seek the life essence. I do not avoid women, Mandrake, but I do deny them my essence.
Preceding this exchange, Ripper has directed — without authorization — bomber aircraft to fly to the the Soviet Union and initiate nuclear war. This passage introduces Ripper's conspiracist mindset and his obsession with fluoride, indicating that he only drinks water or grain alcohol (40%-95% alcohol), the latter of which is demonstrably worse than fluoridated water — though nuclear war would of course be worse still by many orders of magnitude. The passage further shows Ripper blaming fluoridation on communism (Red Scare) and blaming it for his presumptive impotence (the correlation does not imply causation fallacy and the phallic-weapon trope). From this exchange, it also becomes clear that the Ripper character, in his obsession with commies and fluoridation, is a satire on the John Birch Society.
Ripper: Stay with me Mandrake. (Ripper and Mandrake crawl to one side of desk.) Alright, Mandrake, now feed me. Feed me.
(Ripper stands and exchanges fire with attacking troops. Enemy fire subsides.)
Mandrake: (laughs) Jack, don't you think we'd be better off in some other part of the room, away from all this flying glass?
Ripper: Ah, naah. We're OK here. Mandrake, do you realize that in addition to fluoridated water, why, there are studies underway to fluoridate salt, flour, fruit juices, soup, sugar, milk, ice cream? Ice cream, Mandrake. Children's ice cream?
Mandrake: Good Lord.
Ripper: You know when fluoridation first began?
Mandrake No. No, I don't, Jack. No.
Ripper: Nineteen hundred and forty six. Nineteen forty-six, Mandrake. How does that coincide with your postwar commie conspiracy, huh? It's incredibly obvious, isn't it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual, and certainly without any choice. That's the way your hard core commie works.
In this scene, Ripper and Mandrake are attacking US troops under the delusion/misunderstanding that they are foreign invaders. Ripper then calmly continues on about the dangers of fluoride. Despite the imminent threat of nuclear war killing millions, Ripper uses the "think of the children" fallacy against fluoridation.
Since Kubrick was known to have been a perfectionist, it is likely that the date of fluoridation inception was intentionally erroneous; the first city to fluoridate water was actually Grand Rapids Michigan in 1945. Ripper's complaint that "A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual." foreshadows the "personal choice" argument of the anti-vaccination movement.
The game of doom
(discussion in The War Room)
DeSadeski: (after getting off the phone with the Soviet Premier) The fools… the mad fools.
Muffley: What's happened?
DeSadeski: The doomsday machine.
Muffley: The doomsday machine? What is that?
DeSadeski: A device which will destroy all human and animal life on Earth.
Muffley: All human and animal life?
DeSadeski: When it is detonated, it will produce enough lethal radioactive fallout so that within ten months, the surface of the Earth will be as dead as the Moon!
Turgidson: Ah, come on DeSadeski, that's ridiculous. Our studies show that even the worst fallout is down to a safe level after two weeks.
DeSadeski: You've obviously never heard of cobalt thorium G.
Turgidson: No, what about it?
DeSadeski: Cobalt thorium G has a radioactive half-life of ninety three years. If you take, say, fifty H-bombs in the hundred megaton range and jacket them with cobalt thorium G, when they are exploded they will produce a doomsday shroud. A lethal cloud of radioactivity which will encircle the earth for ninety three years!
Turgidson: Ah, what a load of commie bull. I mean, afterall…
Muffley: I'm afraid I don't understand something, Alexiy. Is the Premier threatening to explode this if our planes carry out their attack?
DeSadeski: No sir. It is not a thing a sane man would do. The doomsday machine is designed to to trigger itself automatically.
Muffley: But surely you can disarm it somehow.
DeSadeski: No. It is designed to explode if any attempt is ever made to untrigger it.
Turgidson: Ahh… it's an obvious commie trick, Mr. President. (walks backwards towards the big board.) We're wasting valuable time. (falls over backwards and does a somersault, and brings himself back onto his feet) Look at the big board! They're getting ready to clobber us!
Muffley: But this is absolute madness, ambassador. Why should you build such a thing?
DeSadeski: There are those of us who fought against it, but in the end we could not keep up with the expense involved in the arms race, the space race, and the peace race. And at the same time our people grumbled for more nylons and washing machines. Our doomsday scheme cost us just a small fraction of what we'd been spending on defense in a single year. But the deciding factor was when we learned that your country was working along similar lines, and we were afraid of a doomsday gap.
Muffley: This is preposterous. I've never approved of anything like that.
DeSadeski: Our source was the New York Times.
Muffley: Dr. Strangelove, do we have anything like that in the works?
Strangelove: (in wheelchair) A moment please, Mr. President. (stomps one foot on the tile floor, pushes back from the table and begins wheeling towards the discussion between Muffley and DeSadeski.) Under the authority granted me as director of weapons research and development, I commissioned last year a study of this project by the Bland Corporation. Based on the findings of the report, my conclusion was that this idea was not a practical deterrent, for reasons which, at this moment, must be all too obvious.
Muffley: Then you mean it is possible for them to have built such a thing?
Strangelove: (carefully plucks cigarette from his shaking right hand, which is in a black glove) Mr. President, the technology required is easily within the means of even the smallest nuclear power. It requires only the will to do so.
Muffley: But, how is it possible for this thing to be triggered automatically, and at the same time impossible to untrigger?
Strangelove: Mr. President, it is not only possible, it is essential. That is the whole idea of this machine, you know. Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy… the fear to attack. And so, because of the automated and irrevocable decision making process which rules out human meddling, the doomsday machine is terrifying. It's simple to understand. And completely credible, and convincing.
Turgidson: Gee, I wish we had one of them doomsday machines, Stainsy.
Muffley: But this is fantastic, Strangelove. How can it be triggered automatically?
Strangelove: Well, it's remarkably simple to do that. When you merely wish to bury bombs, there is no limit to the size. After that they are connected to a gigantic complex of computers. Now then, a specific and clearly defined set of circumstances, under which the bombs are to be exploded, is programmed into a tape memory bank.
Turgidson: Strangelove. What kind of a name is that? That ain't no kraut name, is it, Stainsy?
Stains: He changed it when he became a citizen. It used to be Merkwurkdigliebe.[note 7]
Turgidson: Hmm. A kraut, by any other name, huh, Stainsy?
Strangelove: Yes, but the… whole point of the doomsday machine… is lost… if you keep it a secret! Why didn't you tell the world, eh?
DeSadeski: It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.
"Cobalt thorium G" is not an actual thing, but is apparently a reference a cobalt-spiked nuclear weapon conceived by physicist Leó Szilárd, that would increase the amount of radioactive fallout and potentially could end human and other life on Earth. The "Bland Corporation" is an allusion to the RAND Corporation, which performed much research on nuclear war strategy and game theory.
Turgidson brings us to the phallic-weapon trope again with "I wish we had one of them doomsday machines," even though it is becoming apparent that bigger/badder is not necessarily better.
In this scene, which in the film is intercut with the previous Ripper-Mandrake scene, one sees the laying out of the game theoretic aspects of nuclear war strategy: the strategic power of nuclear deterrence and the importance of fore-knowledge. If one does not know the deterrent power of the adversary, one may act rashly and cause very bad consequences for both the adversary and oneself.
The “our precious bodily fluids” line was a satire on eugenicist Madison Grant's concept of "germ-plasm", which was what made Nordic people (the people whom Grant placed in highest regard in his work) supposedly superior.
“Mein Führer! I can walk!”
The film ends by cutting-back to our reality—with a montage of nuclear explosions, captured from historical footage—while the cheerful, hopeful song, "We'll Meet Again" plays. During the Cold War, Vera Lynn’s WWII yarn— "We'll Meet Again"—was included inside bunkers in Britain, as a morale-boosting song, should there have been a nuclear attack …
A fake book prop, "Holy Bible and Russian Phrases"
- A Clockwork Orange — another film by Kubrick
- Coup d'état
- Jack the Ripper
- Nuclear war
- Water fluoridation
- Inside the Making of Dr. Strangelove
- If one wishes to call Stephen Colbert this generation's Sellers, [Gawker.com: archive.is, web.archive.org they can present this as evidence.]
- Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb — A Continuity Transcript, Visual Memory: Stanley Kubrick
- "Merkin" is a pubic wig. Yes, really.
- Muffley was based on Adlai Stevenson, which is a tad bit ironic (perhaps intentionally) because of his role in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis.
- The titular character, Dr. Strangelove, was based on a combination of four people: Herman Kahn of the RAND Corporation, mathematician John von Neumann of the Manhattan Project, Nazi Germany rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, and Edward Teller of H-Bomb fame. An alternate view, that of Kahn himself, was that the character was based on three people: Kahn, Henry Kissinger, and von Braun, though Kissinger was not that well known until 1969.
- Originally he was supposed to play four, but he felt he wasn't able to do a good enough Texan accent for the final role.
- The Ripper character was based roughly on the real-life World War II General Curtis LeMay,:195 who had been in command of the multi-city firebombing of Japanese cities in 1945, a war crime, which LeMay later acknowledged.
- And remember to answer to the Coca-Cola company, prevert!
- Merkwurkdigliebe translates from German as "strange love".
- Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb IMDb.
- Two Hours to Doom by Peter Boardman (1958) T. V. Boardman.
- Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick & Harvey Wheeler (1963).
- See the Wikipedia article on Fail Safe.
- 10 best black comedies of all time, from Dr Strangelove to Withnail and I: These are the Movies that Some Sections of the Audience Just Didn't Get by Graeme Ross (22 February 2019 13:48) The Independent.
- Paul Boyer, "Dr. Strangelove" in Mark C. Carnes (ed.), Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, New York, 1996.
- Who Was Dr. Strangelove? (March 09, 199911:49 AM) Slate.
- Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right by Matthew Dallek (2023) Basic Books. ISBN 1541673565.
- Race for the Superbomb: U.S. Politicians, Officials and Administrators PBS: American Experience.
- Detailed analysis of sexual themes
- Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb — A Continuity Transcript, Visual Memory: Stanley Kubrick
- Phallic Weapon TV Tropes.
- The Kubrick FAQ Visual Memory: Stanley Kubrick.
- The Story of Fluoridation
- See the Wikipedia article on Cobalt bomb.
- When W. E. B. Du Bois Made a Laughingstock of a White Supremacist, Ian Frazier, New Yorker, Ian Frazier. «Ripper talks of a supposed Communist plot to put fluoride in drinking water, soup, and ice cream—in order, he says, to pollute and degrade “our precious bodily fluids.” Mandrake asks how he developed this theory. Ripper replies, “I first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love.” The look Sellers gives him at this juncture reaches the peak of movie comedy. “Our precious bodily fluids” is certainly the direct descendant of the vaunted Nordic “germ-plasm.” The supposedly life-generating secret of the Nordics never generated any real offspring except the deranged General Ripper’s “precious bodily fluids.”»
- See the Wikipedia article on We'll Meet Again.